The late Lee Atwater, his campaign advisor, was a huge blues fan and Lee arranged a concert with the best in the business of that era -- Bo Diddly, BIlly Ray Vaughn, Sam Moore, Willy Dixon, Carla Thomas, Dr. John, and the list goes on. The program only shows Lee for a minute and doesn't show Bush at all (even though there is what I'll call an iconic photo of Lee and Bush playing air guitar at the event).
Many thought the tapes of the show were lost. This show has been pieced together from various sources. The man who produced the show in 1989, Howard Begle, also produced the PBS program, which is coming out on DVD soon. It focuses on the music, not the politics. Which was what Atwater wanted, too. He was a huge blues fan. Cut his own album, in fact, featuring many of the same acts, and B. B. King. The show focuses, the review says, on the music, not the politics of the event. And Lee wanted to showcase that music at the inaugural.
Atwater was pegged as the guy behind the Willie Horton issue used against Bush's opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis. (Former Vice President Al Gore when challenging for the Democratic presidential nomination was the first to raise the Horton issue in the campaign.)
Horton was a convicted murderer, who escaped while on furlough. He also was African-American. The Bush campaign, and outside groups mostly in paid ads, beat up Dukakis as a liberal who let murderers out of jail for a break. (Aside: my wife, Chris Black, was the Boston Globe reporter who covered the Dukakis campaign and wrote books on it. Coincidentally, just the other day she came across the Horton trial transcripts she used as research in our garage.) The belief was the issue was used to scare white voters away from Dukakis and to Bush.
I worked for Atwater when he was Republican National Party chairman. In spite of what folks think of his politics (and some of you are right, and some are wrong), he was one charming guy who loved the blues. Lee had three goals in life: run a presidential campaign, chair the national GOP, and record a blues album. He achieved all three goals by the time he was 40, which also was the age at which he died from brain cancer.
The artists, most of them African-Americans, the story goes, questioned even themselves as to why they were participating in a concert initiated by people some thought were racists. Bottom line: they were being asked to play for a president of the United States, and didn't want to miss that opportunity.
For the record, Atwater was not a racist. He was a politician who would use most any issue to win an election. We can debate the ethics of that philosophy another time and Lee spent part of his final days apologizing for some of the things he did.
For today: Lee loved the blues. Saw to it that an amazing concert was produced for the man he elected. And I look forward to getting lost in the music.
(Update: In the Washington, D.C., area, WETA says it will air the show March 15. It will be on New York PBS tonight.)