Let's talk dirty tricks and politics!!! Capone interviews BOOGIE MAN director Stefan Forbes!!!
Published at: Oct. 30, 2008, 3:56 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
There's a documentary that's been slowly making its way across the country over the last few weeks that reveals more about the modern political playbook and peaks behind the curtain of today's weapons of campaign warfare than any recent work I can think of, including Oliver Stone's W. The film is called BOGGIE MAN, and it tells the story of Lee Atwater, the campaign advisor to George H.W. Bush and mentor to Karl Rove and George W. Bush. Why a film about Atwater has not been made before now is somewhat astonishing, since his tactics and playbook for winning an election at any cost are still very much in play. He's the man who introduced the world to Willie Horton, a criminal who unknowingly brought the presidential hopes of Michael Dukakis to a screeching halt. Atwater was a master at media manipulation and just flat out lying about opponents, leaving a scoop-hungry press corps to sort out which stories they reported were truth and which were fiction after the damage was done. He was an image shaper (remember Bush Sr.'s cowboy boots?), a button pusher, and a charmer, whose passion for blues guitar playing was legendary (he even sat in with Paul Schaffer's band on the Letterman show in the 1980s).
BOOGIE MAN is a masterful film put together by Stefan Forbes, a cinematographer-turned-director who presents Atwater at both an object of fascination and loathing. Is it possible to admire a person's abilities while still being disgusted by the world that person helped create? You betcha. Forbes has a great deal of interesting views on both the world Atwater has brought us into and the modern uses and misuses of his techniques by both parties. It's less than a week before we election a new president, so here's a heavy dose of politics for your ass. I know how much you guys love the politics! Enjoy…
Capone: To me the obvious first question is, why hasn't someone covered Lee Atwater to this extent prior to now? Do people think he's poison as a subject?
Stefan Forbes: His motto was "Play dumb and keep moving." I think Democrats didn't take him seriously and they still don't. They don't understand how his playbook has reshaped America. Republicans probably didn't want to give the playbook away, as long as it keeps working. Also, there aren't a lot of Republican filmmakers, and when they make movie, they're usually about creationism or how the anti-Christ is bringing a Muslim takeover, and the get millions of dollars from rich Republicans. And they give away 20 million DVDs. You saw last week, this film OBSESSION, it had so much funding. They're probably going to start turning out some pretty good films at some point, considering the money they're pouring into it. But I've been amazed; I've been wanting to do this for a while and I just keep pinching myself and saying, "Oh my god, there's this legendary story, and no one's done the movie."
Capone: How long did it take you to put the film together?
SF: Only 18 months.
Capone: Were you nervous during the process that you'd hear that somebody else was making a similar film, either a feature or another documentary?
SF: Sure, yeah. It's always a worry when you have a new story that hasn't been heard, because there aren't that many of those. As a filmmaker, there are a lot of humble-roots-to-higher-power stories out there. But it's that third act in Atwater's life that is--I mean, this amoral hustler on his deathbed desperately searching for truth. His story is so dramatic that there just aren't that many third acts like that. And so many people with such deep inner conflict. I'm really into music and I've directed a lot of music videos and I did the soundtrack myself, and to me Atwater is about music as well, which made it really interesting. With all of those themes coming together, I was like, "I've got to do this now."
Capone: One of the icky-ist parts of Atwater's life is that weird shot at redemption or salvation that he went through in the end that felt so unbelievably phony. He had a rabbi and a monk and a priest all at his beckoned call, covering his bases. How many people get into any heaven-like place using that method?
SF: That's part of what's interesting, that he's still a rogue and he's desperately searching for truth, yes. He's lying awake at night terrified that he's going to hell. The only way he knows how to do it is as a political operative.
Capone: More like covering his ass from every direction.
SF: That's the tragedy on a human level, that the fear tactics he has used on America come back to destroy him psychologically. It's so much more interesting than the way it was spun in the media. It was exciting covering that whole story. There's no question in my mind that he was desperately searching for truth in a way that America is right now. Atwater is America; he's the guy who likes to go out on Saturday night and sin like crazy, and Sunday morning, get down on your knees and repent, and do it all over again. He's America in so many ways that it's no surprise that his deathbed quest would also reflect what's hilarious, hypocritical, and heartfelt about our country.
Capone: I see elements of his tactics in today's election, but none of his methods seem to hold water as much as they did during that Bush-Dukakis election, when most of America wasn't aware of what political "dirty tricks" were. I guess I'd like to think we've more savvy now. Where do you see his influence today?
SF: People ask me, "Is Obama's current lead a sign that fear doesn't work in American politics anymore?" No. Fear's working better than ever. It's just that there's something real to be afraid of right now--global financial disaster. When you're scared you're going to lose your house, some--in McCain's words--"washing up terrorist" becomes irrelevant. I truly believe that the Democrats don't understand the power of the culture war. Again in this race, they let God, the flag, patriotism, and a working class image get taken away from them. They are the party of elitists who hate America. And they're still winning because there's something out there to really be scared of. I don't think the Atwater playbook has lost anything. I think the McCain campaign has used it so ham-fistedly, it's like they're trying desperately to give this election away to the Democrats. Four years from now, this will be right back against us. I've been traveling on a nationwide tour opening in 40 cities before the election, and in places like Colorado, in these swing states, when you see the unending negative ads for every local race, no matter how tiny. "My opponent for dog catcher has disgraced America! Fraud! Abuse! Waste!" Literally puke-inducing, constant negativity flooding the airwaves 24/7. We're living in the world Atwater created, and it's not going away anytime soon. It's shocking to me that the Democratic Party has not studied this guy.
Capone: But is the Atwater hue fading a bit?
SF: McCain should be 50 points behind right now. The only reason he's in the race is because of these incredible distortions and the ability he has to change the subject. Atwater's central insight was that the issues don't matter. You use the media as an echo chamber to totally change the subject. The Democrats are doing a better job of fighting back, but with scandals of the last eight years, the fact that McCain is anywhere close shows how powerful fear is in the hearts of all of us.
Capone: I don't see the Democrats just lying back and taking it like Dukakis or John Kerry did. Any accusation hurled and Obama is getting addressed immediately
SF: A little bit, but Obama still sounds like a college professor. He started wearing a flag pin. If he'd just come out during the campaign and said "God bless America," worn the damn flag pin, and spoken in simple terms that showed people he wasn't an "elitist," he could have taken a lot of this off the table right away. I heard him on Letterman a few weeks ago, and he used the word "hence." It's hard to get elected president using words like "hence." He hasn't back really forcefully on this terrorist thing. The same way we see in BOOGIE MAN Dukakis' fumbling attempts to fight back on Willie Horton when he had all of these incredible sound bites: "My Republican predecessor started the program; I ended it." "Ronald Reagan had the same program in California. Two of his furlough-ees murdered people." Come out, hit hard, talk simple, get off defense, and go on offense. Obama could be saying, "That educational board started by a Republican who is a buddy of Ronald Reagan appointed as an ambassador by Richard Nixon. Are you calling Ronald Reagan a terrorist? He's a better friend of that board than I am." Hit hard, reach voters on an emotional level, not an intellectual level. That's still the thing Democrats haven't learned how to do. And it's McCain's ineptitude that is losing this race, not Democrats understanding of the Atwater playbook. I'm a little dogmatic on this issue, and I respect that other people don't agree, but I believe that if they understood the playbook, they'd be fighting it a lot better.
Capone: One of the things that keeps coming up in Atwater's life are his attitudes about race. I don't think for one second that the man was a racist, but he knew how to use race as a hot button in the parts of the country where it is a hot button. You interview some of the blues musicians he was friends with, and clearly he was crazy about their music. Talk about his relationship with race.
SF: Atwater is the ultimate American in so many ways, and race was no exception. Like him, we love African-American music and culture. Yet, this country blames many of its problems on black people. We're the most violent country in the world, yet we give crime a black face. There are plenty of white guys out there beating their wives and punching people out in bars. We have this incredibly unfair tax system where we give all of this welfare to these corporations and rich people hardly pay into social security, yet we give welfare a black face, although there are plenty of white people on welfare. Atwater's hypocrisy are those of our nation, and it's ridiculous to just put them all off on him. I think we need to look in the mirror on this stuff. In watching his life unfold on screen, it reveals so much about the soul of America too. [GOP political operative] Roger Stone told me that if being a Marxist-Leninist was the way to win elections, Atwater would have done that. He knew how to push our buttons, and the fact that his tactics were so successful says a lot about us. He might have known America better than we know ourselves. He certainly knew us better than the Democrats do.
Capone: I have no doubt that he was able to do the things he did so successfully because he knew the way America really worked and not some idealized version. When you interviewed the musicians he was friendly with, did you get a sense of how those guys stay friends with him considering how he made a living?
SF: I've been told by friends that as an African-American in this country, you don't have the luxury of vetting your friends based on their enlightenment on racial issues. Anyone who grows up in America has been a load of garbage about race. We all carry around these ridiculous ideas. Sometimes, you become friends with people you like. Atwater also did a lot to give recognition to some of these classic artists like Chuck Jackson and Carla Thomas, who are really ignored in the media. It was long overdue recognition. I think he felt too much responsibility to the music to let that happen. However, at [George H.W. Bush's] inaugural gala, a lot of these artists were completely aware that Atwater was trying to use them. Willie Dixon wore a baseball hat on stage with some anti-GOP message on it. They aren't dumb. To them it was an importantly moment of recognition for the history of the blues and R&B, and they weren't going to pass that up, but many of them were highly critical of Atwater's political actions.
Capone: I'm sure they were torn by the two-faced nature of the man.
SF: They were. They told me. They were horrified by the tactics he used.
Capone: I guess that's what my initial question would be, did anyone actually say that to you?
SF: Yes, but they live in a country that's so hit with the most shocking, racist stuff every day, even from a lot of Democratic politicians. But that inaugural concert was about winning one for the Blues. And that election was over.
Capone: I saw this film just a couple of days after I saw W.; I don't know if you've seen that yet or not.
SF: No, I haven't. How do you make a movie about W. and not have Atwater in it?
Capone: That's what I was going to bring up. Stone simplifies the story to the point where he makes it seem that our current president was the architect of his father's campaign. But it was interesting watching BOOGIE MAN, seeing the old footage of W. He comes across as more of a player than anything he's done in the last eight years had led me to believe, more articulate and smarter and less nervous around the media.
SF: Atwater was in earlier scripts, or at least references to Atwater. Making a Hollywood feature requires so much condensing that sometimes--I haven't seen it yet--but sometimes you throw the baby out with the bathwater. In BOOGIE MAN, you see Atwater teaching both Bush Sr. and Jr. how to fight dirty, and they find their political manhood under him. You can see it on screen. They look fumbling and Waspy, and they become confident gutter fighters. There are time when watching Atwater refer to W. as his "number one soul mate," and W. call Lee a "Southern cracker," I felt like I was watching the Bush dynasty's secret home movies.
Capone: I can't imagine Republicans taking offense to anything in this movie. I don't think it portrays them in a bad light. It makes them seem like they were the first to adapt to a new America. The film feels objective.
SF: It's amazing, the film and Atwater's life are kind of a Rorschach test, and I was amazed at the difference in Republican and Democratic political culture. Democrats come out of this movie horrified to see this secret playbook revealed; Republicans come out agreeing with 99 percent of everything Atwater ever did. Tom Delay told me, "He taught us how to fight." His unrepentant version of politics is war, and it's what the Republican Party to take over America, push this country way to the right, and they believe it's a kind of warfare where there really are no rules. You can torture people, you can lock them up and throw away the key. Nothing is below the belt. Democrats don't understand that about their enemy; they're not even fighting the same kind of war. A heavily armed militia armed with Uzis is facing off against these Cub Scouts, and that's fascinating to me, to see this divide even being played out in the election today. I don't think they're fighting the same way. I mean, McCain had ads calling Obama a terrorist, a pedophile, a wild wolf in the woods that will destroy the White Woman. Democrats came back with a 13-minute documentary about the Keating Five scandal, and the economic underpinnings of it. They fight in two very different way, and that part of the fascinating thing about watching Atwater's story, about how he gave the GOP an extreme makeover and turned them into these brawling Southerners.
Capone: Atwater certainly wasn't the first political advisor to re-imagine his candidate. What was different about his brand of image making?
SF: He was just so brazen about it. Nobody would have thought that you could take a guy from Milton, Massachusetts and Connecticut and convinced people that he was a Southerner. And Atwater dressed (George H.W. Bush) up in drag, with these gaudy cowboy boots and had him eating pork rinds. His opponent had lived the American dream. Dukakis was a centrist, fiscally conservative; they made him look like Che Guevara, and it worked because he other side wasn't fighting on that emotional level with message discipline and repetition and using the media as an echo chamber. Their message got swamped. Atwater's mother told me that, after that election, just as an example of how phony the whole act was, Bush Sr. said to Lee, "Thank God we won. Now I can finally stop eating those pork rinds." He hated pork rinds! But it worked because the Democrats didn't effectively counter it.
Capone: You do talk about this a bit at the end of the film, what a field day Atwater would have had if he'd lived to fight Clinton with all his abilities.
SF: In some ways, seeing this heavily funded campaign of smears and innuendos that continued against Clinton, it may have crippled the Clinton presidency. Atwater started that in 1989, before anyone else even recognized the potential of Bill Clinton. Clinton was never able to pass any meaningful legislation, he spent years battling these guys who were impeaching him for a blow job. It's a kind of permanent warfare that Rove brought into the White House and used as a basis for governing when they took back the White House. Mary Matalin says at the end of the film, "Guys like Rove and Atwater may lose, but they don't go away." And if Obama happens to win this fall, he has four years of constant warfare to look forward to. These guys, even if they lose, they will continue to destroy the opponent by any means necessary, and Obama will be battling these guys from the White House. Investigations over nothing for four years. They play for keeps, and until they're able to understand this playbook, things are not going to change in American political. That's my dark method.
Capone: BOOGIE MAN made me think about and consider politics far more than W. did.
SF: Thank you. Say that in the review. I know the film ends up sounding like it's going to be some long history lecture, so if you're moved to say anything, there's a lot of humor in their. Atwater was a total rogue, and I think people need to know this isn't a civics lesson.
Capone: He's a character the likes of which you could not write from scratch. Thanks for talking politics with us.
SF: It was great meeting you. Thanks.