Four years ago it was “Dean Screams,” horse faces and expensive haircuts; a ceaseless white noise that centered on everything but real issues. In 2008 the race to the presidency has been marked by absent lapel pins, arguments over pledging allegiance to the flag and quips over age and experience, popularity and celebrity. Oh, how times have changed.
With the nation rapidly approaching election day, the debates underway and mudslinging campaign ads from both sides, one thing is certain: The presidential race is about to get ugly.
But when did politics become more about cutthroat mudslinging than great ideas and rhetoric? How did we get ourselves into this politics-as-war ideology? The answer lies in the documentary Boogie Man, directed by Stefan Forbes, which covers the life (and death) of Harvey Leroy “Lee” Atwater, a political consultant and strategist for the Republican Party during the elections of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Atwater’s abrasive negative campaigning not only made him a star in the eyes of his party and George W. Bush’s “number one soul mate” but also set the playing ground for the dirty politics we know today.
Forbes gave MM the scoop on Boogie Man after its screenings at both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. Here, he discusses everything from making a documentary on such a controversial figure to the importance of the Atwater story on the current political climate and upcoming election.
Douglas Polisin (MM): What drew you to making a documentary of Lee Atwater’s life?
Stefan Forbes (SF): I was intrigued when I first saw Atwater on TV at the [George H.W.] Bush Inaugural concert. He was hamming it up with R&B artists like Carla Thomas and Chuck Jackson after just having run the most racist presidential election in 150 years. Talk about inner conflict! I approach documentaries like feature films, looking for character growth and a compelling story. You’ve always got to cast your main character carefully and I knew Atwater would hold the screen. There’s something fascinating about someone who presents him or herself as a cold-blooded assassin; you have to wonder what vulnerabilities they’re hiding. As a musician and composer, I was also drawn by the central role of music in his life and the possibility of using it as a Greek chorus to comment on deeper themes. But what made me ‘green-light’ the project for myself was Atwater’s illness. A charming, handsome cynic turns into the Elephant Man, desperately searching for spiritual redemption—how many stories have third acts like that? I’m still amazed no one else had done it.
MM: Did you go into making the documentary with preconceived notions of Atwater? If so, what were they?
SF: Of course, filmmakers always do. You really have to stay conscious of your blind spots or you’ll miss the surprises. From the press, I thought he’d repented on his deathbed for everything he ever did, but the truth is much more interesting.
MM: Do you think Boogie Man takes a single position or gives equal weight to both sides of its argument? Did you go into the making of the movie with this intention or was it molded this way through the process?
SF: Atwater’s friends and enemies voice different positions all through the film. If a film doesn’t set up conflict between opposing ideas, it can get stale and lifeless. Lee’s career is bitterly contested cultural ground in America, so even reporting truthfully on his tactics might be considered partisan. But I didn’t want to pull punches. How can you make a wimpy film about a guy who reveled in politics as war? I just let guys like Ed Rollins, Mike Dukakis and Sam Donaldson argue things out and trust the viewers to come to their own conclusions. I didn’t want a “Voice of God” narrator, but without narration or extensive title cards, it was incredibly difficult to take viewers on a journey from dirty tricks in rural South Carolina campaigns to the Bush compound in Kennebunkport and the White House. I had to step up my game as an interviewer and get interviewees to tell every plot point clearly, yet with emotion.
MM: Watching the documentary, I found myself falling for Atwater’s charm. From his free-spirited guitar playing and love of hot sauce to his Southern drawl when saying farewell to a crowd of reporters with a “Thanks for coming out, gang,” I could see what made Atwater such a great political competitor. As a documentarian, did you ever have problems of objectivity when making this movie?
SF: The question of objectivity is huge and complicated. You can’t be completely ‘objective’ because films are about emotional truth as well as facts. If you and your audience don’t empathize with the character, there’s no emotional journey. You’ve got to be on the side of your character. Yet if, as Tucker Eskew says in the film, Lee’s story is about “pride, sin and redemption,” then you can’t let Atwater off the hook for his “sins.” There are different truths, and you’ve got to tell all of them.
MM: The amount of archival footage in Boogie Man is amazing. You had so many clips of Atwater that seemed cinematically appropriate, as if a director couldn’t have staged it better; shots of Atwater conspicuously lingering in the background of Bush’s press conferences, a great photo still of Atwater and Ed Rollins standing on either side of a half-closed doorway occupied by Ronald Reagan as Rollins describes the way in which Atwater stabbed him in the back. What was the process like of going through so much archival footage? How much did you go through and how long did it take?
SF: I had to go through mountains of unaired network master tapes and endless stacks of photographs to find that stuff. It took forever and often felt like a treasure hunt, peeking through the Bush family’s secret home movies. I kept finding fascinating moments in American political history that had never been told. I had two years to produce the film and I was mostly working alone.
MM: How did you decide which footage to use?
SF: Some things just leap off the screen, like Atwater introducing George W. Bush as “my number one soul mate” or Atwater denying to Leslie Stahl [“60 Minutes”] that he’s even seen the Willie Horton ad. You have to fit them in, even if it requires a detour. But you can’t add too many detours or you blunt the emotional experience of the film. Especially when I’m cutting by myself, I hold a rigorous series of focus groups where my producers and trusted friends rip scenes to shreds. It’s brutal, and you can’t take everyone’s advice, but the process always helps.
MM: It’s clear from your movie how much of an impact Atwater has had on the last 20 years of politics. From negative campaigning to slanderous remarks during election season, it’s easy to see that America’s current dirty politics could be seen as originating from Atwater’s cutthroat ideals of politics as war. With the distribution of Boogie Man beginning at the recent political party conventions, how do you think this movie relates to the current election? What is the importance of Boogie Man in today’s political climate?
SF: The film exposes McCain’s strategy in amazing detail, as he’s hired Atwater disciples to run his campaign. Most Democratic strategists fell for Atwater’s ‘bad boy’ image and missed the enduring power of his culture war arguments. They let their party get painted as elitists and people who don’t put country first. Filmmakers will understand how Atwater did it because we know what Republican strategists have learned: Too much talking undercuts emotional impact. It’s like football—where the opposition will keep running a play until you figure out how to stop it. If we don’t learn from Atwater’s legacy, it will continue to rule American politics. I believe this film is urgent viewing for voters in both parties.
MM: Tucker Eskew, a senior McCain advisor, draws comparisons in the documentary between Atwater’s life and Greek tragedy. Do you think it’s safe to say that Atwater’s deus ex machina was his brain tumor? Then again, your film ends skeptically as to whether Atwater had changed at all. In your opinion, did he?
SF: People undergoing profound changes fascinate me; illness and catastrophe can spark that. I think he changed a lot. His friends say he was racked by guilt, terrified of going to hell and desperately searching for truth and meaning. But he never apologized for the things he’d done, as was reported. He still believed in politics as war.
MM: Then what does that mean for us? Do you believe we can move past the current dirty politics Atwater introduced and change or are we like him, trapped in them forever?
SF: Like Atwater in his final days, I think America’s deeply conflicted about truth and morality. We’ve always loved the gangster and the bad boy, especially when they’re scraping their way to the top. So much of our national mythology is about winning and being number one. Yet Atwater’s life shows the costs of that philosophy; his friends describe him as never satisfied, never at peace. In the end, the winner-take-all philosophy wasn’t enough.