The GOP and Willie Horton, Together Again

By Roger Simon

May 20, 2015 5 min read

A question for Jeb Bush. And this one isn't about his brother. It's about his father.

Now that we know whether Jeb would have launched his brother's invasion of Iraq — yes, I don't know, I'm not saying, and no — I want to know whether Jeb would have launched his father's campaign against Willie Horton.

Some might consider that an unfair question. But I don't think there are unfair questions for a presidential candidate, even an unannounced one.

Further, the 1988 presidential campaign, pitting George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis, and the use of race to transform a losing campaign into a winning one are back in the news.

The Bush campaign was run by Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes. Atwater was the campaign manager, and Ailes was the media wizard. Bush was merely the candidate.

And the candidate wasn't doing that great a job.

Dukakis built up a 17-point lead during the summer, and Atwater was afraid the lead would become insurmountable.

So the Bush campaign went on the attack. It had all the usual stuff — for example, taxes and defense — but it also had Willie Horton.

Horton was serving a life sentence without parole in Massachusetts for killing a man. He got a weekend furlough, fled and made his way to Maryland, where he broke in to a home, tied a man to a joist in the basement, slashed his chest and stomach with a knife, and then beat and raped his fiancee.

Horton was black. The couple were white. And Dukakis was the governor of Massachusetts.

(Al Gore had first brought up the furlough issue in a Democratic primary debate in April 1988, though he didn't use Horton's name. But contrary to what Atwater later claimed, the Bush campaign did not get the idea from Gore. It had an attack team gathering information on Horton well before Gore did.)

Atwater was an expert on Southern politics and knew just what he was doing when he unleashed the Horton attack.

So did the Dukakis campaign. Susan Estrich, the campaign's manager, would write: "There is no stronger metaphor for racial hatred in our country than the black man raping the white woman. If you were going to run a campaign of fear and smear and appeal to racial hatred you could not have picked a better case to use than this one."

But how could George H.W. Bush — a Yankee Brahmin, a patrician known for his courtly manners and good nature — be persuaded to go along with such an attack?

Atwater held a series of focus groups and then went to the Bush family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, with the results: Tell Dukakis voters about Horton and they would stop being Dukakis voters.

Atwater told Bush: "We're 17 points back, and they'll pick up 10 more points at their convention, and we won't win. Even with a good campaign, we won't win."

And Bush's response?

"After that," Atwater said, "it was an easy sell."

A group supporting Bush ran a Horton ad, and then the Bush campaign put up its own ad using footage of prisoners going through a revolving door, though not using the name Willie Horton.

The voice-over said Dukakis had granted furloughs to prisoners who went on to kidnap and rape. "Now, Michael Dukakis says he wants to do for America what he's done for Massachusetts," the voice said ominously. "America can't afford that risk."

Ailes was asked about how his ad made people feel about Dukakis. "They're afraid of him," Ailes said.

Bush also did his part. He used Horton's name in a speech in Louisville, Kentucky, to the National Sheriffs' Association. "Horton applied for a furlough," Bush said. "He was given the furlough. He was released. And he fled — only to terrorize a family and repeatedly rape a woman."

The media were complicit. They used a menacing photo of Horton over and over again. They said their hands were clean because they were merely reporting what Bush was saying.

Bush won by nearly 8 percentage points.

Today 1988 is being revisited. Last week, The Marshall Project, a nonprofit that focuses on criminal justice issues, published a lengthy piece on the 1988 campaign, pointing out how Horton-style ads have been making a comeback in American politics.

So let's pose this question to the current Republican field, announced and unannounced:

Knowing what you know now, would you have unleashed the Willie Horton attack as George H.W. Bush did?

OK, Jeb, let's start with you. And then let's move on to the media.

Roger Simon is Politico's chief political columnist. His new e-book, "Reckoning: Campaign 2012 and the Fight for the Soul of America," can be found on Amazon.com, BN.com and iTunes. To find out more about Roger Simon and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

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