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DVD review: Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story

Atwater at the height of his powers and in the shadow of death.

Newly available on DVD, Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story ($24.95 retail) is a cautionary but never outdated primer on how to win elections by any means necessary.

Its title character is a blues-loving son of the South who never met an opponent's jugular he didn't like. He's been gone but not forgotten for nearly two decades after a cancerous brain tumor took his life at age 40. Were he still slingin' the B.S., Atwater would be just 59 and ready for lots more fun in this year's sure-to-be-dirty mid-term elections.

The 88-minute film, directed by Stefan Forbes and shown at the 2008 Dallas Video Festival, vividly portrays a hyper-active Republican campaign strategist adept at playing the media like a banjo in addition to capably wielding his electric guitar. At his zenith, Atwater managed the successful 1988 presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush, who won in part by portraying opponent Michael Dukakis as a soft-on-crime governor whose lax "furlough" program allowed the likes of Willie Horton to run free and murder again.

Dukakis and his wife, Kitty, are interviewed anew. As is the first opponent that Atwater brought down, South Carolina congressional candidate Tom Turnipseed. The seed was planted that he'd had electroshock treatments as a teenager, which he did. But in a session with reporters, Atwater chose to say that Turnipseed had been "hooked up to jumper cables."

"I'm laughin' now. But it ain't funny," Turnipseed says.

Colorful, accessible and ever-willing to plant a juicy story, Atwater was well-liked by many reporters. One of his proteges, Karl Rove, turned out to not be all that much fun at all. But Atwater had the common touch and the willingness to glad-hand.

"He understood that the media beast can only be chewing on on one ankle at a time," says veteran political reporter Howard Fineman, himself a TV gadfly of the first order. "Make sure the ankle is the other guy's."

Atwater's first mentor was Strom Thurmond, the old-line bigot who became somewhat refined in his dotage. He later worked in the administration of President Ronald Reagan as an aide to fellow campaign mastermind Ed Rollins. Almost benignly profane in the film, Rollins recounts how Atwater "betrayed" him during Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign before eventually getting what he wanted -- full control of George Bush Sr.'s 1988 run.

Atwater soon became fast friends with George W. Bush, a kindred hell-raiser who is shown defending his pal's aggressive campaign tactics by saying, "I don't think it's strident. I think that's a mis-adjective."

Shortly after his triumphant gyrations and guitar-playing at Bush Sr.'s inaugural ball, Atwater learned he had a cancerous brain tumor. His face became grotesquely bloated from steroids and his demeanor changed from cocksure to repentant. Before his death, Atwater wrote letters of apology to many of his old adversaries, including Drinkwater.

"Fear had been a part of his tool kit. That fear came back on him," says Republican consultant Tucker Eskew, who admired Atwater and went on to help shepherd Sarah Palin's vice presidential campaign.

Atwater died on March 29, 1991. Sorting through his belongings, Rollins said that the bible he claimed to have read religiously in his last months had never been taken out of its cellophane package.

"He was spinning right to the end," Rollins said, providing the film with its last words.

The title of the film comes from longtime Republican strategist Mary Matalin, who says the media "had to kill the messenger because they couldn't kill the message. They had to turn him (Atwater) into the boogie man."

Still, this is no out-and-out hatchet job. Atwater overall can be seen as an intrinsically insecure over-achiever who experienced tragedy at an early age when his three-year-old little brother, Joe, pulled on the cord of a deep fryer. Its contents scalded him to death, and Atwater told intimates that he regularly heard his brother's screams from that day on.

His credo, as a political operative, was brief and to the point: "Your job is to stick it to them first."

He became a maestro at it. And one Republican ally says to this day that Bill Clinton never would have beaten George Bush Sr. had Atwater been alive to run his re-election campaign.

We'll never know for sure. But Boogie Man leave little doubt that the Clintons would have had their hands full.

GRADE: A-minus