Just about everyone interviewed for Stefan Forbes’s fascinating documentary about Lee Atwater—whether Democrat or Republican pols, African-American bluesmen or hardened reporters—ends anecdotes about the Republican strategist’s dirty tricks with a titter that’s either nervous or ambivalently appreciative. Politically speaking, it may be enough to know that Atwater, who shamelessly drove race into the 1988 presidential campaign to destroy Michael Dukakis and win the election for George Bush Sr., was a disciple of Strom Thurmond, got along like a house on fire with Bush Jr., and taught Karl Rove most of what he knows about exploiting media. But Forbes adroitly fills out his picture of this “marsupial” little man with “the eyes of a killer” through the testimony of those who admired and/or loathed Atwater. Less persuasive is Forbes’s perfunctory, psychologically thin rummage through Atwater’s childhood for a traumatic event that would explain his utter ruthlessness. He finds one, but it’s much less interesting than the question of whether the blues-playing Southerner was a racist or merely a cynic, or the film’s revelations about the ambiguities of Atwater’s highly publicized remorse, with hand on Bible, as he lay dying (and largely ignored by the dynasty he had served so assiduously) of brain cancer.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 23, 2008