Film: Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story

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

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.


as we head into 2020 is whether politics and media will be a billionaires’ game, or a playing field where the rest of us have a shot. That's what Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein tackles in her annual December column—"Billionaires Are Not the Answer"—about the state of journalism and our plans for the year ahead.

We can't afford to let independent reporting depend on the goodwill of the superrich: Please help Mother Jones build an alternative to oligarchy that is funded by and answerable to its readers. Please join us with a tax-deductible, year-end donation so we can keep going after the big stories without fear, favor, or false equivalency.


as we head into 2020 is whether politics and media will be a billionaires’ game, or a playing field where the rest of us have a shot.

Please read our annual column about the state of journalism and Mother Jones' plans for the year ahead, and help us build an alternative to oligarchy by supporting our people-powered journalism with a year-end gift today.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.