Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Atwater Story is Appointment Television

If I’m a little blurry-eyed today, it’s because I got drawn into a fascinating program on PBS Frontline last night about the late Lee Atwater. Atwater was the take-no-prisoners political strategist behind George Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign.

Sometime around 11:30 p.m. I realized I could have captured “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story” on Tivo. By then, it was literally too late.

The program had it all: Willie Horton, Michael Dukakis in a tank and a “no new taxes” pledge. It was all orchestrated by an overly ambitious, blues-loving southerner who was willing to pay any price and burn any bridge for victory.

From a PR guy’s perspective, a few things stood out.

First, Atwater believed that the best way to keep the press from dissecting his guy was by attacking the opponent. In Atwater’s world, the press was like a dog that could chew on only one ankle at a time.

Secondly, Atwater knew the press had neither the wherewithal nor the appetite to dive into substantive issues. They preferred quick sound bites that were tailor made to his themes of justice, flag burning and gun-owner rights.

Finally, and perhaps most astounding, was the revelation from Dukakis that he knew Atwater’s issues were hurting him, but had been counseled not to respond to them. On the aforementioned Willie Horton, for example, he said none other than Ronald Regan had run a similar prison furlough program as governor of California. Certainly, the national press corps would have howled at the irony, if the story had been told.

In later years, Clinton would take the opposite approach, stamping out each allegation against him before it gained steam, like a fairgoer with a mallet whacking at mechanical moles. Of course, Clinton had his own Atwater in James Carville.

As an aside, the program also features some fascinating footage of a young George W. Bush, who was then stumping for his father, alongside Atwater.

For all these reasons, I highly recommend “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story” … just set your Tivo first.

No comments: