The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Willie Horton’-style campaigning? Here’s where it first came from.

Watch the 1988 Willie Horton campaign ad (Video: National Security PAC)
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The voice in the now-infamous 30-second political ad, created by supporters of George H.W. Bush during his 1988 presidential campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis, sounds ominous as it tries to paint Dukakis as weak on crime.

“He allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison,” says the voice in the $8 million television ad, produced by the National Security Political Action Committee.

The television camera then cuts to a shadowy photo of a Black man and announces, “One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times … Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend.”

The ad, which political analysts say evoked racist stereotypes and fueled racist fears about crime , concludes, “Weekend prison passes: Dukakis on crime.”

It would help get Bush elected as the 41st president, and the political strategy behind it would usher in an era of “wedge politics,” aimed at dividing voters and fueling their concerns about social issues, including abortion, school prayer and crime.

Some politicians said the ad was an overt appeal to racist fears in the country. “There have been a number of rather ugly, race-conscious signals sent from that campaign,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a civil rights leader who ran for president in 1984 and again in 1988, told a Knight-Ridder reporter in 1988. “There are those who use these signals to reinforce the worst fears of people. That is beneath the dignity of a presidential campaign in our country.”

For years to come, the name “Willie Horton” would become shorthand for racist campaign tactics — tactics that some Democrats say continue to pervade politics, including in key Senate races in the 2022 midterm elections.

A recent ad supporting Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) attacks his challenger, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D), with language similar to that used against Dukakis.

“What happens when criminals are released because bail is set dangerously low?” says the voice in the ad, created by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Then the ad cuts to news footage showing “tragedy” in a Wisconsin community as an SUV plows through a crowd at a Christmas parade, before cutting to a man who was arrested. “Mandela Barnes wants to end cash bail,” the voice in the ad says. “Completely. He wrote the bill. Barnes still wants to end cash bail. Today.”

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Supporters of Barnes have called the insinuations in the ad outrageous, comparing it to the Willie Horton ads of 1988.

In Pennsylvania, Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz has highlighted Democratic opponent John Fetterman’s recommendation of clemency and release for a pair of incarcerated brothers whose last name happens to be Horton. Fetterman said he expected his opponent’s team to “Horton us.”

Willie R. Horton, who was born in 1951 in Chesterfield, S.C., was sentenced to life in the 1974 fatal robbery of Joseph Fournier, a 17-year-old gas station worker in Lawrence, Mass., according to court records.

Horton, who was 23 at the time, denied killing Fournier. In 1978, Horton and two other defendants were convicted of armed robbery and first-degree murder. Horton was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Years earlier, in 1972, Massachusetts Gov. Francis Sargent, a Republican, had implemented a program that allowed prisoners weekend time away from prison in exchange for good behavior.

In 1986, while on furlough from prison, Horton escaped. He was later arrested and charged with an April 3, 1987, attack on a man and woman in their home in Oxon Hill, Md. Horton was convicted in the attack and sentenced in Maryland to two life terms plus 85 years.

Horton denied the accusations, telling the Marshall Project in a 2015 interview, “I’m not — this picture that they paint.”

Horton’s case, some political analysts say, may have first been raised on a national level not by Republicans but by presidential candidate Al Gore. During a 1988 debate against Dukakis, Gore brought up the case of Horton, asking Dukakis about “weekend passes for convicted criminals.”

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Dukakis explained “that the Massachusetts furlough program for murderers sentenced to life imprisonment had been canceled,” according to a 1988 Washington Post column. “The issue did not take for Gore, but the exchange attracted the interest” of the research director for the Bush campaign.

After Dukakis won the Democratic nomination, Lee Atwater, a young but shrewd political strategist who ran Bush’s presidential campaign, jumped on the issue.

The Willie Horton ad and Atwater’s political strategy would become a “a symbol of the dark side of American politics,” The Post said in its obituary of Atwater, who died in 1990 at the age of 40. To Atwater’s critics, “his success in elevating a black murderer-rapist named Willie Horton into a national figure used to crush the presidential bid of Michael S. Dukakis was a crude appeal to racism and the epitome of the negative campaign.”

Months before Atwater died, he expressed regret for using divisive political tactics. Atwater wrote in a Life Magazine story: “In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said that I ‘would strip the bark off the little bastard’ and ‘make Willie Horton his running mate.’ I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound like a racist, which I am not.”

But Rep. Mervyn Dymally (D-Calif.), who had served as the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the campaign had already set a dangerous precedent and “appealed to fears along racial lines.”