Before Rove Was Rovian


Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (WGBH, 9 p.m. 11/11) Michael Dukakis arrived at the Democratic National Convention in Denver bearing an apology. He was sorry, he told CBS’s Katie Couric, that he’d failed to squelch the Bush dynasty 20 years ago: “It’s all my fault, and I feel that very, very strongly.”

One man is responsible for Dukakis’s pangs of regret: Lee Atwater. The father of push polls and wedge politics, he submarined the Duke’s presidential campaign with the infamous Willie Horton ad and allegations that Dukakis was mentally ill and his wife was a flag burner. In so doing, Atwater taught Karl Rove, George W. Bush, and a generation of Republicans how to win at any cost.

Boogie Man, a new Frontline documentary from Boston’s Stefan Forbes, depicts Atwater as a brilliantly shameless tactician, and draws striking parallels between the campaigns of 1988 and 2008. (Former White House operative Tucker Eskew speaks admiringly of Atwater. He’s spent the homestretch of this race as Sarah Palin’s handler.) But Forbes’s sympathy for Dukakis does the governor a disservice. In Denver, Dukakis vigorously punctuated his apology with a call to combat Atwater’s legacy by “[organizing] every damn precinct in the United States of America.” In the film, he just shuffles around his Brookline kitchen, talking about the past, sadness welling in his eyes.