Casually dressed black musicians are warming up the stage. The drum beat rolls, first guitar licks hit, and one lone white man in coat and tie--Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater--starts cranking up his electric guitar. With Atwater's rhythm and blues pumping in the background, we see and hear Ronald Reagan in his chirpy B-actor voice being sworn in as President of these United States. Nancy, in her smart red suit and hat, is gazing adoringly at him as she always did, the super-wife who wasn't much of a mother but sat on her husband's lap at a rally in Philadelphia, Mississippi, to appeal to the base instincts of the rednecks in attendance. (I'm Southern, by the way--proudly from Arkansas. I can tell you that you don't have to be Southern to be a redneck.)
Within a few more seconds, and in between more shots of Atwater rocking a mean splits and hitting his licks lying knees bent and back down on the floor--virtually owning the stage--George H. W. Bush and then his son, W., are also sworn in as President while Atwater is wailing, "Well, I'm a bad boy. I'm a long long way from home. "
"Can you understand American politics if you don't understand Lee Atwater?," the voiceover says, "I believe not."
"He couldn't teach me rhythm," says whiter-than-white George H.W. Bush, "but he taught the Democrats to sing the blues, and I believe they're just starting."
Let me just say, it is brilliant irony that Atwater took the blues away from the Democrats and made it his and the GOP's own, and that is but one example--a microcosm of the macrocosm--of how he turned the American blue collar masses into Republican voters even though every time they voted for a GOP candidate they were voting against their own best interests.
These first few minutes of Stefan Forbes' award-winning documentary Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, which has just been released on DVD, capture Lee Atwater's personae at the top of his game as the Republican Party Chairman and the maker of American kings. This is a DVD that should be shown in every Civics class in America, not to mention Politics 101, sociology, and psychology classes. Anyone who wonders how America became so divided should see it.
From Boogie Man:
Eric Alterman, journalist and professor: Isn't it a shame that he (Atwater) didn't decide to become a Democrat. It would have been just as easy for him. He didn't really believe any of those things."
Atwater elected three presidents--Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush (no matter that Atwater was already dead when W.'s votes were counted). In the rest of this riveting film, the audience is shown an intimate portrait of Lee Atwater, who loved playing the blues and generating lowdown, dirty, and unprincipled politics that he imprinted in the Republican Bible. Both George W. and Karl Rove were his protégées. Lying, cheating, and stealing were the top three of Atwater's Ten Commandments, and in case you haven't noticed, the GOP still worships at his altar.
From Boogie Man:
Roger Stone, Atwater friend and Republican operative: "There's nothing more vicious than a young Republican fight...nothing, nothing."
Mr. Stone had the kind of grin on his face that you might see at a cock-fight.
Let me put this into a 2010 perspective for you: Lee Atwater's M.O. was to divide and conquer, and that's exactly what we still see in G.O.P. politics as well as the cultural life and national dialogue of 2010 U.S.A. The vicious and angry tone we saw in the health care debate (and every other issue) is the result of the Atwater game plan that Republican operatives have employed ever since the master trained his troops.
From Boogie Man:
Christopher Stark, Chairman, NJ College Republicans: "We are the grassroots force. The liberals may have the unions but we also have the College Republicans, and we're hit with liberal bias from every single professor so we know what we believe in. You can't learn these types of things in the classroom. It's tough, and it's dirty--or appears to be dirty. And Karl Rove is a shining example of the work College Republicans can do."
In one scene after another producer/director Stefan Forbes shows solid interviews of Atwater's friends and foes that give us a remarkable view of the man. And all of the interviewees seemed sincere in their discussions of Atwater except for Mary Matalin, who is spinning Atwater-brand spin, this time about the man himself. In one scene, Matalin speaks of what well-read intellectuals Atwater and George W. Bush were. In the next scene, Roger Stone tells us that Atwater claimed to have read four books a month, but that wasn't true. Atwater had someone else read them who then gave him personalized Cliff Notes. Later on, Matalin is talking about George H.W. Bush's campaign, and she says, "It's been called wrongly negative. It wasn't negative. This is play big or go home."
Is Matalin a modern Wicked Witch of the West? Does she believe in anything herself? What this is is someone worshiping the Machiavellian Atwater god. In this mindset, there is no wrong. There is no integrity, and certainly no high road values, American or not.
Besides the culture around us, the good and bad things that happen to us form us. How did Lee Atwater become who he was? Atwater lost his three-year-old brother, Joe, who was scalded to death when he pulled a deep fryer full of hot oil on himself. Anyone (as a child) who loses someone they love is forever marked by this loss. It informs every step we take forward, and we never get over it, as Atwater didn't. It was said he heard his brother's screams every single day.
The fact that Atwater was Southern--from South Carolina--also defined him.
From Boogie Man:
Henry Eichel, writer, Charlotte Observer. "The South is the only part of the United States ever thoroughly defeated and humiliated in war. It does create a very visceral backlash and Atwater was adept at tapping into that. It was a backlash against people who think they're better than you are."
Eric Alterman, journalist and professor: "It's this cultural resentment that people in the South feel because these liberals, these smart-asses run everything, and we have nothing but contempt for them. Lee's friends said, you guys all think we're dumb. You have the same kind of prejudice against us that you accuse us of having against Black people."
What Lee Atwater got and so many others haven't is a deep and clear understanding of the American psyche--especially the Southern psyche--from which the Democrats became totally disconnected (with the exception of Bill Clinton and now Barack Obama who connected to a different cultural chord). Will the Democrats ever learn that they need to reconnect to the men and women who in many ways are the backbone of this country?
Atwater was also continually at war, and his personal references were Machiavelli's The Prince, Clausewitz' On War, and Sun Tzu's The Art of War. According to a 1989 article by Jan Collins Stucker in Southern Magazine (where I used to work): "If Stonewall Jackson had written a book, Atwater would have that, too. The Civil War general is one of his favorite tacticians. 'He never lost,' says Atwater."
Have you ever noticed that movie generals are always Southern? There is a reason for this.
Also from the Southern Magazine article:
"Winning also brings other, more personal rewards, among them the fact that it forces the Harvard and Yale types, the upper crust types, to come to him--a good old boy who loves wrestling and soul music and who went to little old Newberry College in South Carolina. 'Ten years ago, a lot of my motivation was to show the Harvard crowd that a redneck from South Carolina could come out on top,' Atwater admits."
The tragedy of Lee Atwater is also that he was dead by 40, which has been for almost 20 years now. I wrote a piece called "The Selling of the American Soul" that reflects Atwater's impact on our consciousness. It includes part of one of his heartfelt apologies for the evil he had done. Lee Atwater died a horrible death (from an aggressive brain cancer) that you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. Or would we? This is the man who brought down the American discourse to a level of meanness, venom, and fear with a smile on his face and a dance in his guitar-playing self, a measure of his human duality. This is the man who unleashed war in these United States.
The other night my husband, the Lone Wolf, and I watched a movie called The Edge of Darkness, starring a worn-looking Mel Gibson. Spoiler Alert: When the snotty Upper Crust senator was shot down, in cold blood, L.W. and I were veritably pleased. That was a scene Lee Atwater could've written himself. We all need to understand what he understood.
Beth Arnold lives and writes in Paris. To see more of her work, go to www.betharnold.com.