Stefan Forbes is a courageous documentarian that says what he believes and believes what he says. In his latest effort, Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story he sheds a microscopic light over the life of the Republican Party’s last rock star, Lee Atwater. While working on both the Reagan and Bush (the first one) campaigns, Atwater found ways to persuade an impressionable American public by using tactically fabricated realities to sway their vote. Though his methods were hardly admirable, they were powerful in the sense that the fables he concocted were not only believed by Americans, but completely accepted on a national level.
Boogie Man reveals the web of lies surrounding Atwater’s systematic stranglehold on Washington for more than a decade, right up to his shocking demise. Forbes provides us with a fresh perspective on the amoralities of politics, and what the present-day media can do to ensure the American people get what they deserve—the truth.
You told The L.A. Times that Lee Atwater was a, “guitar-picking rascal, and the rock star of the Republican Party.” It’s been said he could have single-handedly kept Bill Clinton from reaching the White House. Do you believe he would have actually been able to stop him from winning in 1992? What do you think that says about the “power” people like Atwater have in the political world?
That’s one of the great political mysteries. His friends actually argue about that. They argue that if Atwater had lived, could [George H.W.] Bush have won a second term, despite having lied to the American people about taxes? He went back on that “no new taxes” plan, which is a brazen act of deceit… Some of Lee’s friends think he could have won that. Some don’t. But they would have loved to have seen the match up between he and Carville. Lee is obviously the role model for James Carville. He was the first political operative to be called a party’s “rock star.” It’s easy to forget that these guys were in the shadows before Atwater. It’s undeniable that the massive, heavily funded war on Bill Clinton—that Lee started—went on to cripple the Clinton presidency. He never passed much meaningful legislation. He spent his time in the White House battling smear campaigns, and he was under constant investigation—every time he picked his nose…
Yeah. [as an aside] Obama, take note. As was said in the film, “Whether you’re Karl Rove of Lee Atwater, these guys may lose but they won’t go away.” It’s Atwater’s vision of politics as war with no rules. A world where you can torture people, and lock them up and throw away the key. That is what politics today has become, and if Obama should win—He will have that to look forward to throughout his presidency.
Is there any one moment that drove you to conceptualize this film? What made you make this film?
I am fascinated by these spin-meisters. Atwater was the patron saint of modern spin-meisters. He was the P. T. Barnum of our time. He believes there’s a sucker born every minute. It was fascinating to me how this ultimate, amoral hustler infected the media. He instilled within the Republican Party that the truth doesn’t matter. And then all the way to his deathbed, he was searching for truth that perhaps his cynicism masked in himself a deep desire to believe. He’s such a fascinating guy, because he has such a dramatic story. But I really wanted to find out what made him tick. It was a mission not only to uncover America, but to get to the heart of this guy who is… so American. He embodies so much of what is great, and horrible about our country. I mean, he loved black music, but used racially divisive tactics to stigmatize black people. It’s just like America—we believe winning is everything. He had a quest for redemption. Like America—we like to sin on Saturday night, and get down on our knees on Sunday morning and pray it off. Learning about Atwater, we learn about the American soul.
Earlier you alluded to a warning to Obama: Make sure you’re ready for this. You’ve gone on record saying, “It’s not the candidate, it’s the playbook.”
Well, I’m not completely [saying that] obviously.
Right, not in a cut-and-dry kind of way
It’s the culture war. It’s not the dirty tricks—they don’t see the culture war. I believe this is what the Democrats keep missing about Atwater. They don’t understand the power of the flag, the Bible, and working people’s resentment against elites. Those things keep beating them. When 70% of the country keeps agreeing with them on the issues—people aren’t voting on the issues.
My favorite part of the film was when they went through his things, and they found the Bible he said he was reading up until his death—was still in the plastic.
The timing of this film couldn’t be better, with the election just around the corner. How would you relate this film to the present campaign? This is the most important election in generations. What are some roadblocks for Obama that you may have learned about in making this film?
The Democrats are paying the cost of elitism at the highest level. For years they marginalized guys who could have helped them fight this culture war. The people running the party don’t understand that when they continually back down on everything, they look like wimps who can’t defend America. They don’t understand Americans want to see a tough guy. They’re looking for a President who can protect them—so he’s got to show strength. When he’s attacked, he needs to respond forcefully. He’s got to get off the defensive, and go on the offensive. Usually, character attacks are character issues on the guys making them. We’ve seen Obama start to do a lot of these things…
Right. Ultimately, Obama’s still running like a college professor. The Democratic Party needs to understand the Atwater playbook if they’re ever going to want to be competitive in the long-term, on the national level.
You know Michael Moore, right?
I’ve heard of him.
Right. He’s said One more Dead Fish was a “positive, provocative portrayal of a community fighting back against government-promoted corporate destruction of their lively hood.” Moore is a polarizing figure on so many levels. How do you respond to his comment, and what is it like to have the backing of the world’s most feared/powerful documentarian?
Well, he liked my first film. But Ed Rollins and Roger Stone loved Boogie Man. I think this division in American culture is completely phony.
So many of these tactics have torn us apart as a country. Making my first film, I realized that tree-huggers in Oregon should have been hanging out with preachers in Texas—decades before it actually happened. People that have so much in common have been driven apart by this culture war. Now you see right-wing Evangelicals using the Green Bible. You see really exciting things happen when you open up a dialogue in our country. One of the things people like about Boogie Man is that they get to hear people from all places on the political spectrum, talking about Atwater’s impact. Guys that write for The Nation are duking it out with legendary Republican operative like Roger Stone, and Ed Rollins. That’s the kind of exciting conversation that we need to be having, as a country. It’s one of the things people respond to about the movie. It’s like on websites—people go to the sites where they agree with the people who are talking. It’s much more fun, it’s more authentic to see a conversation from both sides.
Yeah, in a sense that an argument’s being made without being put forth blindly.
Yeah. Not in a bullshit, Cross Fire way where they’re just screaming at each other, but in a meaningful, engaging way.
Like a verbal ven-diagram?
It is a polarized country.
It’s polarized on bullshit. It’s polarized on rich issues, not on real issues. Atwater knew the power of the emotions to divide us, and to win elections. He wrote a playbook for class-warfare. Republicans used it to win. This resentment divides the Heartland from the big cities. The people in power are most terrified about working Americans joining together, and get some real change in this country.
You think so?
Yeah, totally. If we could learn to become more media-savvy and see past these phony divisions, a lot of exciting possibilities are ahead for this country.
Today’s media is as “polarized on bullshit,” as our politicians. What advice would you give to the media, to find that middle ground? Is there one thing you could say to them that would help steer them in a positive direction?
Everyone always talks about how shallow the American public is. It’s about how the lowest common denominator sells. Everywhere Boogie Man has gone, I’ve seen this incredible hunger for the truth. The media can actually make lots of money doing vigorous reporting. Doing well done investigative reporting—doing stories that haven’t been heard. They can survive and prosper with that, instead of Dancing With the Stars, if they know how to do it well, there will always be a market for that. On a personal level, I’ve been really inspired by the response to this film. And, I would just say people may buy a lot of junk food—Doritos are never going to go away. Steak dinners are never going to go away either. It’s just a question of what you’re going to spend your time creating. As a journalistic, it’s about what you want your legacy to be. Atwater appealed to the cynicism of the political media—convincing them to report on the “horse race.” It was about whose spin was working better. That’s Doritos.
That’s just lots of calories.
Yeah. People eat too much of it, and they get sick to their stomach, and ultimately…
Yeah. And, there’s always a hunger for the truth. Don’t sell the American public short. There’s a huge appetite for real news, and if the people have to go to the Internet to find it, it will just make newspapers and TV irrelevant even faster. If you want to stay relevant you’ve got to have real content, and that’s what’s going to win in the end.
We’ve got to search for the truth in a healthier way.
Right, the issue shouldn’t be like eating your vegetables. It may be something nobody wants to do, but [the media] has to cook up a tasty dish.
Quick Questions with Stefan Forbes
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
I haven’t had anything, but coffee.
Wow. What dominates your iPod at the moment?
Black Keys, Anthony Hamilton, Jill Scott, and Government Mule, who was on the soundtrack for my movie.
What’s your late-night food craving?
Worst job ever?
I was a pot-washer at an ice cream store called Brigham’s. I washed giant, stainless steel vats of… fudge. It was pretty funky.
Favorite sports team?
New England Patriots.
Moving on… Least favorite celebrity?
I don’t like any celebrities.
Favorite recent film?
One of my inspirations for Boogie Man was The Talented Mr. Ripley.
One book you wished you had written?
Just kidding [laughs]
Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman.