A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Anyone who thinks Obama will have easy sailing in Washington is profoundly naive. A lot of College Republicans have bought the ["Boogie Man"] DVD to study the Atwater playbook.
-- Stefan Forbes, Writer and Director, "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story"
As BuzzFlash readers have been debating whether President Obama's "bi-partisan" approach will work with an obstructionist GOP minority (particularly in the Senate), we decided to interview Stefan Forbes, the director of the remarkable Lee Atwater documentary biography, "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story."
Our previous interview with Stefan in November 2008, gave you a feeling for the despicable, revolting and fascinating personality and reprehensible campaign tactics of Lee Atwater. In this follow-up interview, particularly in light of the RNC dust-up over the "Barack the Magic Negro" Limbaugh song, we wanted to explore the implications of the Atwater legacy in an Obama era.
And what we found out from Stefan is simple: Don't be fooled, don't let your guard down. Lee Atwater's vein is still running through the rotten heart of the GOP.
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BuzzFlash: It seemed that Atwater and Rove were most skillful at using fear that burrows into our primitive emotions to win elections. Have we outgrown this as a nation, or is it just taking a breather in the swamp land?
Stefan Forbes: I've been asked that a lot, especially since late October, when it became clear Obama was redrawing our electoral map and redefining the role of race in American politics. But ending fear in politics is kind of a tall order, isn't it? Human beings are hardwired for fear. The fight-or-flight syndrome is an essential part of how we learned to survive. Atwater understood this on a gut level. When "Boogie Man" screened at the Republican convention, Roger Stone said Atwater was utterly amoral, and that he would have been quoting Trotsky if Bolshevism was the way to Americans' hearts in 1988. This realization implicates all of us. Atwater is not to solely to blame for his own success. He was rewarded by America every step of the way.
I actually believe Obama won through fear. Peoples' fear of losing their life savings, jobs, and houses in the global financial meltdown made us elect a college professor over a 'war hero' and completely trumped the fears that GOP strategists had been spreading about Obama. Our legitimate fears did what decades of Democratic rhetoric had failed to do; make the culture wars irrelevant. In two years or four years the Democrats might not get that kind of help. They desperately need to study the Atwater playbook as carefully as Atwater's acolytes -- who are legion, by the way -- have done.
BuzzFlash: Is the dust-up over an RNC Chair aspirant sending out a CD with "Barack, the Magic Negro" on it part of the legacy of Lee Atwater?
Stefan Forbes: Atwater knew that race-baiting can backfire. He tried desperately to counter the long-term PR damage done by the Willie Horton ad. But Democratic strategists found far greater success fighting Atwater in the media than they had on the political battlefield. They wouldn't let it rest. Atwater talked a lot about courting black voters for the GOP and he disavowed Republican candidates like David Duke. But it was a largely rhetorical effort, as his party resolutely refused to implement policies that would help African-Americans, unless you believe in voodoo economics. Spin had worked so well for them, for so long, that Atwater seems to have thought he could spin black voters into going Republican by throwing a few blues concerts. Or perhaps he was just aiming for a patina of inclusiveness that would keep the GOP acceptable to moderate whites.
BuzzFlash: Wasn't Lee Atwater, to a certain degree, a person who brought racist attitudes and jokes above ground and made them acceptable in a coded way in modern Republican political campaigns?
Stefan Forbes: The coding is crucial. In "Boogie Man" we show the deadly effectiveness of the Bush campaign's official "Revolving Door" ad, which purported to be completely non-racist. Although it showed mostly white convicts, most people remember 'the ad with all the black convicts'. Why? Because the only guy who looks at the camera is black.
Most of us don't consciously realize that we have racist programming from growing up in America, so it can be activated on a subconscious level. Interestingly, the way to fight it is on a conscious level, to draw attention to these tactics. The problem is that when done effectively, these tactics are plausibly deniable, and the person who tries to point them out can be made to look paranoid or crazy. The GOP had success in attacking Obama's 'dollar bill' comment as racist. They are so good at messaging and political jujitsu that they got overconfident and overdid the Atwater playbook. They took it far beyond where Atwater would have, with ads comparing Obama to a wolf in the woods out to "destroy" Sarah Palin.
When people started shouting "Kill him!" at Palin rallies, it was profoundly repugnant to most Americans.
BuzzFlash: The RNC has "favorite" blacks, like Clarence Thomas, Ken Blackwell, and Michael Steele. How does that square with the underlying base racial appeal of the GOP?
Stefan Forbes: Black Republicans are a fascinating oxymoron; they're like compassionate conservatism or Jews for Jesus. The GOP's desperate attempt to elevate Ken Blackwell or Michael Steele to run the party is so laughably Orwellian when they haven't had a single African-American member of Congress since 2002, and don't have an African-American governor. They're trying to change appearances without changing their policies or their rhetoric.
When Ken Mehlman was RNC Chair in 2005, he made a notable apology to the NAACP for the Southern Strategy. But that came just after they'd illegally thrown tens of thousands of black people off the voter lists in the 2004 Presidential election in Florida. He didn't apologize for that.
Atwater (along with Mike Deaver) ushered the GOP into a Golden Age of spin and handed the baton to Rove. He made it possible for 'uniter, not divider,' the Clean Air Act, the Healthy Forests Initiative. The McCain campaign took the playbook to a new level. I mean, Joe the Plumber -- how brilliant was that? The fact that Joe wasn't a plumber, but a tax cheat -- whose name wasn't even Joe! This isn't accidental. It's a direct attack on truth and meaning. It's designed to discombobulate people; make them sputter helplessly and throw up their hands in defeat.
BuzzFlash: While there is still a large Neo-Confederate, bigoted constituency, particularly in the South, didn't Atwater come at a time when demographically his sort of appeal was peaking?
Stefan Forbes: As an avid student of demographics, Atwater probably foresaw that race was a long-term loser for the GOP. But in politics, what wins prevails, and the GOP keeps going further down a blind alley of racial fear appeals and offensive language. Any reasonably astute observer would have seen the handwriting on the wall when Sen. George Allen, a frontrunner for the 2008 Presidential race, was torpedoed over a racist slur no one had even heard before! Macaca was a wake-up call that didn't wake them up.
BuzzFlash: Can we expect more of "Barack, the Magic Negro" from the GOP media shills, like the first promoter of the song, Rush Limbaugh?
Stefan Forbes: Yes. That's who they are; a bunch of old white guys, educated in an outmoded world, who are incredibly tone deaf to the ways America's changing. They should stick to their phony claims that FDR worsened the Depression and that working-class black people, victimized by mortgage scams, caused the global economic meltdown. I will say, though, that Democrats need to learn how to talk to the Dittoheads. I give Obama high marks for reaching out to rural, marginalized white voters. He needs to keep doing that.
BuzzFlash: Obama won Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina. Is this the beginning of the end for the Southern strategy that Lee Atwater built upon?
Stefan Forbes: Looking at the 2008 electoral map, many in the GOP are terrified they've become the party of Texas and the Appalachians while losing the rest of the country. When Atwater won in 1988 by courting the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons, he made the GOP a Southern party. The problem is, those hard-right elements refuse to let go.
The guy who could have brought his party back to reality was the Maverick, John McCain. He'd stood up to those Southern preachers in the 2000 primary, calling them agents of intolerance and denouncing the Confederate flag. But when he wanted to choose Tom Ridge or Joe Lieberman as his VP in 2008, they threatened to disrupt the convention. He caved in, choosing their candidate instead.
When he yoked his fortunes to Palin's backwoodsy brand of book burning and vilification of those who live in cities, he lost the whole moderate wing of the GOP. Guys like David Brooks, George Will, Christopher Buckley, Lincoln Chafee and Bill Weld went AWOL. It's a Civil War right now, and they're battling the modern-day know-nothings for the soul of their party.
BuzzFlash: Could Atwater have come to prominence as a political hit man in the age of a black president? Would he just have changed his tactics?
Stefan Forbes: I think Atwater would have come to prominence at any time in world history. Isn't it fascinating to watch people who seem born to engineer things behind the scenes? He would have been pulling strings as a caveman.
Remember, race was just one part of the Atwater playbook -- his relentless waging of the culture war was probably more damaging to the Democrats. His belief in politics as war still animates his party. In "Boogie Man" we examine the heavily funded campaign to destroy Bill Clinton that Atwater started in 1989. It dogged Bill Clinton throughout his Presidency and helped forestall significant change. Anyone who thinks Obama will have easy sailing in Washington is profoundly naive. A lot of College Republicans have bought the DVD to study the Atwater playbook. It might be wise for Democrats to learn how to counter it.
BuzzFlash interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
October, 2008 BuzzFlash Interview with Stefan Forbes on "BoogieMan."
Stefan Forbes' IMDB profile
More Praise for "Boogie Man":
"There is a tendency in this country to not want to look back. Once something positive happens, no matter how bad things have been, we want to turn the page. Last week's election was certainly one of those hopeful moments of passage, and the danger is we will just move forward without learning any lessons from the past three decades about how it is that the nation came to be in the sorry shape it is today. So, even if you think you have had all the TV politics you can stand, please watch "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story." I promise this is the the kind of first-rate history that can keep us from repeating tragic mistakes -- if only we take the time to learn it. Forbes and Frontline have done this nation a great public service by making this film. Don't think the political war is over and be so foolish to believe that you can afford to miss it." -- David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun
“A compelling portrait…Stefan Forbes’ film is a fascinating study with telling interviews.” - UK Telegraph
“In the can’t-look-away documentary “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story,” there is more than one moment that will likely pop your jaw open…Wow.” - Neely Tucker, Washington Post #1 Can’t Miss Pick
“It will evoke blood-spitting rage or resounding awe. Either way, it’s a hugely entertaining, efficiently crafted documentary about a ruthless, if undeniably clever, American political force.” - Gary Goldstein, LA Times
“A fascinating portrait of an almost likable rogue…It makes a companion piece to Oliver Stone’s W…a remarkable portrait…heartbreaking.” - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW