In the wake of former president George H.W. Bush’s death, media outlets are filled with eulogies and assessments of his legacy. As that plays out, some liberals have raised one of the ugliest parts of Bush’s record — his use of the case of Willie Horton to attack Gov. Michael Dukakis (D-Mass.) during the 1988 presidential campaign. In response, some conservatives have leaped to Bush’s defense.
So for those of you who are too young, or for whom the memory has faded, I thought it might be useful to clear up some facts and to consider what that episode really tells us about Bush, the Republican Party, and American politics more generally.
Here’s the background: William Horton was a convicted felon in Massachusetts when Dukakis was governor. The state had a furlough program — begun by Dukakis’s predecessor — that, as a reward for good behavior, would allow some inmates to leave prison for a few days at a time and then return. On one such furlough, Horton ran, eventually breaking into a couple’s home where he assaulted the man and raped the woman. The story was the subject of a multipart series in a small Massachusetts newspaper. After the controversy, Dukakis shut down the furlough program.
During the 1988 primaries, the Massachusetts furlough program was brought up by Al Gore, but was barely noticed. When the Bush campaign got a hold of it in the general election, however, they knew they had something powerful. As Bush campaign strategist Lee Atwater said, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’s running mate.”
And you could have searched the nation and not found a crime more perfectly made to harmonize so purely with a couple of centuries’ worth of racist ideology and propaganda about black men, crime, violence and sexual threat. Here, you had a big dangerous black convict not only raping a white woman, but doing it while her fiance lay helpless on the floor.
And for the cherry on top, here is something almost no one remembers, something that gives more dimension to the barely concealed subtext of the political attack: No one ever referred to William Horton as “Willie” before Republicans started doing it in 1988. He referred to himself as William, court documents call him William and, in the many articles about his Massachusetts case before 1988, he is always referred to as William. Once Republicans — including George H.W. Bush — started telling the story, somebody decided to rename him “Willie.” (For more on this, you can refer to my old mentor Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s 1992 book “Dirty Politics: Deception, Distraction, and Democracy.”)
Republicans will often defend Bush by noting that his campaign was not the producer of the notorious Willie Horton ad. That is a defense being offered right now. Indeed, this entire episode in our political history has been inaccurately shorthanded to “the Willie Horton ad,” when, in fact, it was an entire Willie Horton campaign. But for reference, here is the ad in question, the one featuring Horton’s mug shot, which was paid for by something called the National Security PAC:
The context here is absolutely critical. This didn’t come out of nowhere, and it wasn’t just the idea of some enterprising Republicans who did it without Bush’s permission. By the time this ad aired — and was replayed on the news innumerable times — Bush had been telling the Horton story on the stump for months. As he, Atwater, and fellow Bush strategist Roger Ailes understood well, whenever he did so, the networks would show Horton’s mug shot on TV. Bush didn’t have to hold it up himself, because they did it for him.
Bush did, however, work to keep the issue of Massachusetts furloughs, and thus the Willie Horton story, front and center, not only in his speeches but also in his advertising. Here’s one of his most memorable ads:
As media scholar Mark Crispin Miller once wrote, you’ll notice that most of the inmates going in appear to be white, while most of those coming out appear to be non-white. The revolving door in the ad seems to have the power to transform these criminals into something even more threatening to the white voters who were its target.
So when you hear “Bush didn’t produce the Willie Horton ad!” you now know why that argument is bogus. There’s one other argument we can dispense with: That crime was indeed an important issue in 1988, and therefore it was perfectly fine for Bush to make such enthusiastic use of the Horton story. While it’s true that crime rates were high in 1988, the United States’ crime problem was not furloughed prisoners. Nor was there much that the federal government did about crime, since most crime is prosecuted at the state level. And at the time, not only did 40 states have furlough programs, the federal government did, too. Bush never criticized it as vice president, and did virtually nothing about the issue he had made the centerpiece of his campaign once he took the Oval Office.
Which might be explained by something being said often about Bush right now, that he believed in a separation between campaigning and governing: Your principles should guide how you govern — where the important work is done — but, in a campaign, you do what you’ve got to do. But not only isn’t that any kind of defense of profoundly immoral choices, it isn’t like you can do a “Men In Black”-style mind-wipe on the electorate after the campaign is over. If you’ve spent months encouraging racism, you’ve made the country more racist.
And that is indeed what Bush did. Even then, Atwater and Ailes were known as ruthless, amoral operators, but when they presented their campaign strategy to Bush, this man of such supposed high character embraced it with vigor. They all knew exactly what they were doing: exploiting, promoting, and encouraging racism as a way to win political office, with the most vulgar and despicable presidential campaign of our lifetimes, at least until Donald Trump came along.
There’s plenty in Bush’s record to admire — he managed the end of the Cold War with skill and restraint, and he signed the Americans With Disabilities Act, for instance. But like so many Republicans before and since, he also decided that race-baiting was an effective way to gain power. Whatever else we remember about him, we must remember that, too.