HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

November 17, 2008
Boogieman: The Story of Lee Atwater

John R. Guthrie


Who knows what evil lurks
Within the hearts of men?

The Shadow


In the documentary Boogieman: The Story of Lee Atwater, Republican strategist Ed Rollins describes his fellow operative Atwater (born 1951) as possessing the, "eyes of a killer." In this even-handed and informative movie, Atwater as strategist for the two Bushes and others appears to have the moral center of a crocodile.

Interestingly enough, Atwater was a blues guitarist, skilled enough that he played gigs and made recordings with such giants as B.B. King

Atwater had, as well as great musical ability, a natural talent for smearing a political opponent. He concocted and carried out the “Willie Horton” caper in support of his employer, George H. W. Bush. 

Dukakis was running for the presidency against Bush. William Horton initially went to prison for murdering a 17-year-old gas station attendant after the young man gave him the money he demanded. He left the boy’s body in a trash can like so much garbage. Convicted and imprisoned for murder, he received a pass under the Massachusetts prison system’s weekend furlough program. During that fateful weekend, he raped a white woman.

George H.W. Bush was trailing Dukakis. Atwater said, “I’m going to make him (Horton) George Dukakis’s running partner.” He flooded the media with photos of William Horton, dubbed in the ads, “Willie” Horton. With his ebony skin, scruffy Afro and emphatically Negroid features, Horton’s image became the catalyst for the emergence of the most deeply seated racial fears of much of the white electorate. Bush defeated Dukakis by means of this and similar Dirty Tricks.

By such tactics, Atwater induced a tectonic shift in the political dynamic, ruthlessness on a grand scale that it often induces a fearful and misinformed electorate to vote against their own self-interest.

Horton and Atwater had more in common than one might think. Both were South Carolinians, Horton from Chesterfield, Atwater from Aiken. Though they functioned at different levels, both were psychopaths of the first order. Horton murdered an innocent teenager and later raped a woman while on leave from prison. Horton was captured, convicted, and remains in prison without the possibility of parole to this day. Atwater murdered Decency itself, raped Truth, and was rewarded with high office. Willie Horton’s mindless and brutal misdeeds, dreadful as they were for all involved, were the isolated and self-limiting misdeeds of one man. As old sorrows do, they lose their fearful power as they fade into the mists of time. Those of Atwater persist, haunting the national psyche and distorting its political system even after all these decades. It is no accident that Sarah Palin attempted to portray our president elect as a terrorist. That is a page right out of the Atwater playbook.

Another act of infamy for Atwater involves his work as a campaign of South Carolina Republican incumbent Congressman Floyd Spence. Spence was challenged by Democratic candidate Tom Turnipseed.

I first met Turnipseed some three decades ago. He was an attorney in Spartanburg, S.C. I’ve consistently perceived him as a man of character and rectitude, one with a sense of humor, a strong intellect and high ideals.

Atwater brought push polling to that campaign. Fake pollsters plant misgivings by phoning and asking how a voter would feel if they thought Turnipseed was a member of (shiver) the NAACP. That venerable American institution is widely known by certain ignoranti in my home state as, forgive me in advance for quoting this obscenity, the “Nigger Association for the Advancement of the Communist Party!”  Atwater was also informed the electorate that Turnipseed had been “hooked up to jumper cables,” a folksy if vicious reference to Turnipseed as a depressed teen receiving electroshock therapy.

Karl Rove was Atwater's friend and protégé. During the Bush 41 Administration, George W. and Atwater became friends: Birds of a feather. The archival film included in “Boogieman” provides insight and authentic to Stefan Forbes’s riveting production.

In “Boogieman,” Atwater exhibited many traits listed by The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV of the American Psychiatric Association  for a high-functioning psychopath, a person devoid of a conscience: Glibness and superficial charm (“He was the most fun person I ever met,” said one acquaintance). Other related characteristics included; a grandiose sense of self-worth; being a pathological liar, cunning and manipulative. He evidenced no remorse or guilt, exhibited shallow affect and all the callousness and lack of empathy of crocodile.

In reading the PBS online discussion of “Boogieman” I noted that each of the several participants who were physicians characterized Atwater as,”a psychopath.” Nearly all responses praised this documentary, and were highly condemnatory toward Atwater. For this writer, Atwater evoked a visceral reaction much the same as would battalions of skittering roaches, writhing maggots, or a sky darkened by legions of winged monkeys.

In 1990 Atwater lost consciousness while addressing a fund-raising breakfast on behalf of congressman, later senator, Phil Gramm (R. TX). His physicians discovered a tumor, an advanced astrocytoma, in his right parietal lobe. This tumor is similar in type and lethality to that of Senator Edward Kennedy. His was a fate I would wish on no man.  The cancer was treated aggressively using radioactive implants. The radiation left him paralyzed on his left side, tone deaf, and confined to a wheelchair. His once lean face became pumpkin-like and beyond recognition due to steroids.

As he lay dying, Atwater claimed to have converted to Catholicism. Seeing, perhaps, the flames of Hell flickering ahead, he began issuing written apologies. He told Attorney Tom Turnipseed in a letter that, “It is very important to me that I let you know that out of everything that has happened in my career, one of the low points remains the so-called 'jumper cable' episode."

He also wrote that, "my illness has taught me something about the nature of humanity, love, brotherhood and relationships that I never understood, and probably never would have. So, from that standpoint, there is some truth and good in everything. His list of apologies included a telegram to prisoner William, “Willie” Horton. He told him he was wrong to have used him.

Atwater wrote in Life magazine in 1991:

My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in
me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The '80s were about acquiring — acquiring wealth,
power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you
can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn't I trade for a little more
time with my family? What price wouldn't I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly
illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in
its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime.

Atwater died on March 29, 1991. He was forty.


Boogieman: The Story of Lee Atwater.
Rating by this critic: 5 stars.
Starring: Tom Delay, Michael Dukakis, Sam Donaldson, Ishmael Reed
Director: Stefan Forbes
Producer: Noland Walker, Stefan Forbes
Studio: Interpositive Media
DVD available, PBS Shop Online: ~$24 + shipping.


John R. Guthrie is a former Marine infantry rifleman. He then garnered a formal education to include medical school and became the commanding officer of a U.S. Navy Reserve Shock Surgical Group before going into private practice in the Smoky Mountain foothills of Appalachia. He is the editor and publisher of the monthly webzine The Chickasaw Plum: Politics and the Arts Online. (Link)


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