Film: Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story

Director Stefan Forbes recaps the Republican strategist’s greatest hits—and hit jobs.

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Boogie Man kicks off with a musical montage, intercutting footage of legendary Republican strategist Lee Atwater exuberantly jamming on guitar with clips of the presidents he helped elect taking the oath of office, all while a chugging blues backbeat runs underneath. But don’t let this biopic’s terrific soundtrack (including tracks by Gov’t Mule, Buddy Guy, and Curtis Mayfield) distract you; Atwater’s short life was more about rifts than riffs. He loved the blues, but wasn’t afraid to exploit racial divides; he grew up middle class in South Carolina, yet spent his career getting millionaires like Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. into office.

With interviews with journalists and political insiders like Tucker Eskew and Mary Matalin, director Stefan Forbes recaps Atwater’s greatest hits—and hit jobs, like the 1988 primary ad for Bush that dubbed Bob Dole “Senator Straddle,” and the Willie Horton spots that helped Bush Sr. crush Michael Dukakis. As liberal pundit Eric Alterman notes, “People vote their fears, and not their hopes, and Lee understood that.” Atwater didn’t just master the dark arts of wedge politics and dirty-tricks campaigning; he also taught the current Republican leaders what he knew. Karl Rove studied under him in college; George W. Bush worked with Atwater on his father’s 1988 campaign.

Atwater loved to win, and Boogie Man shows him having a hell of a good time doing it. Yet Atwater, who died from brain cancer in 1991 at age 40, had some regrets. Dukakis reads from the Life magazine article in which Atwater apologized for the “naked cruelty” and race-baiting he’d deployed against the Massachusetts Democrat.

Superbly shot and edited, Boogie Man is a raucous hidden history of modern politics, revealing how Atwater’s behind-the-scenes work tipped elections—and taught Republicans how to win at any cost.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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