Somewhere, Lee Atwater is looking down on his home state in disbelief. This can't be what the father of the modern political attack had in mind: a Republican using the modern version of his diabolical invention against another Republican in South Carolina.
King of Bain: When Mitt Romney Came to Town, the newly-released destroy-the-front-runner vehicle from the super PAC run by rival Newt Gingrich's political operatives, blames Mitt Romney for everything from endlessly high unemployment, to the demise of American manufacturing to the destruction of the modern marriage. Visually, it's a montage of smoke-filled rooms, suitcases filled with cash and glinting corporate headquarters juxtaposed with images of cracked sidewalks in broken small towns and the haggard faces of former factory workers.
Over the top? Sure. A gross violation of Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment to Republicans to speak no ill of fellow Republicans? Hands down it is. Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul condemned the film as full of "blatant falsehoods and fabrications."
But the most important point about Gingrich's movie is that it works. And if it is unleashed full force on South Carolina voters as promised, it has the potential to do serious damage to Romney's lead in the state's Jan. 21 primary. That's how powerful it is.
Regardless of whether the film distorts Romney's record as the chief of Bain Capital in the 1980s and 1990s, its underlying premise hits home: that a frenzy of Gordon Gekko-style corporate mergers and acquisitions at the time fueled huge profits and wealth for a relatively small number of managers and stockholders while hundreds of manufacturing jobs were wiped out. The most effective thing the King of Bain does is put a face on the victims of that sad chapter of the U.S. economy.
There is the guy in a Vietnam Vets cap who, despite his obvious blue-collar background, precisely describes how the local economy of Marion, Ind., suffered when Bain took over a paper company and threw 200 out of work, even husbands and wives who both worked at the facility.
A former laundry machine plant worker from Marianna, Fla., sits on a worn couch with his wife and says, "One of the first things that they did when we became part of the corporation was to start cheapening the product. So you'd have to hurry faster through your work, and the quality was going down. It got to the point where we would run out of parts trying to push so many out, that sometimes we'd send a machine out without a part on it."
The narrator intones that Romney's Bain colleagues considered American businesses and their workers "sloppy and lazy."
A young mother who worked at the Marion plant talks about her layoff: "I was pregnant at the time, and at the meeting they told everybody we were all fired and had to reapply for our jobs." As she describes getting rejected, the image on the screen is of an empty crib in a nursery. (See earlier reference to over the top.)
Meanwhile, we see Romney getting in and out of luxury cars and airplanes, and there are multiple shots of his two multi-million-dollar summer homes. In one bit, a middle-aged Indiana woman describes losing her house after losing her job. The next image is of Romney's house on the California coast, as the woman says, "That hurt so bad, to have to leave my home because of one man who has 15 homes."
Romney as chief of Bain is described as "a privileged son of a wealthy businessman and politician. ... He had a Harvard pedigree and he was on a tear, making spectacular returns, stripping American businesses of assets, selling everything to the highest bidder and often killing jobs for big financial rewards."
Pretty harsh, too, is the film's use of some of Romney's more infamous moments on the campaign trail, interspersed with all of the sad sack stories. In one scene, we see Romney defending corporations as earning money that "ultimately goes to the people" -- as people in the crowd jeer with disbelief.
The film's pious exaggerations are laughable in parts (see the aforementioned crib and suitcase of cash). But the 28-minute story is briskly paced, the production quality seems top notch and the work overall adheres to the conventions of compelling documentary-making. Its real-people stories ring devastatingly true, and it's hard to imagine that people sitting on tired couches in South Carolina's hard-hit textile towns won't relate to them.
What we learn from the King of Bain is, a movie camera in the hands of the friends of the famously imprudent Newt Gingrich has the potential to touch off real political chaos, even in Lee Atwater's home state.