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How the Willie Horton ad factors into George H.W. Bush’s legacy

Watch the 1988 Willie Horton campaign ad (Video: National Security PAC)

The death of former president George H.W. Bush last Friday at 94 is prompting eulogies from across the political spectrum, remembering him as a public servant, a gentleman who was able to work across the aisle as president and a gracious statesman in his post-presidential life.

For many black Americans in particular, though, the elder Bush’s legacy is tainted by the fact that part of his successful bid for the presidency included one of the most infamous political ads in history, one that stoked racial stereotypes that continue to shape criminal justice policy years later.

Many of the remembrances of Bush are from prominent African Americans, including former president Barack Obama and former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, who served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Bush’s administration.

The ad was part of a broader Bush strategy in his 1988 election campaign to portray his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, as soft on crime.

At the time Dukakis was governor, Massachusetts offered a furlough program for some prisoners, a common practice for state and federal prison systems in their rehabilitation efforts. William Horton, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence in Massachusetts, was granted a weekend furlough in 1986 but did not return to prison. Nearly a year later, he turned up in Maryland, where he had bound, gagged and stabbed a man in his home, raped his fiancee and then escaped in a car belonging to the man.

The “Willie Horton ad,” titled “Weekend Passes” was deployed as an independent expenditure in support of Bush’s campaign. Before it aired, Bush spoke frequently about Horton in reference to Dukakis’s record on crime. Here’s what The Post wrote about Bush’s rhetoric in June 1988, months before the ad aired:

When Vice President Bush picked Massachusetts' "prison furlough" program as a rhetorical hammer to bash Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, Bush's likely opponent in the fall presidential campaign, he seemed to have his hands on a near-perfect campaign issue. The idea of giving "weekend passes" to imprisoned murderers sounded straightforward enough to explain in a single sentence -- just right for TV news -- and it seemed to place Dukakis well to the left of the mainstream.
In fact, the prison furlough question, which Bush has brought up repeatedly this week, is one of the most complicated aspects of criminology, with enough conditions and qualifiers to keep both presidential candidates engaged for months if they choose to continue the debate. And, according to academic and governmental students of prison policy, Dukakis' support for the concept of furloughs puts him squarely in the mainstream today among corrections officials from coast to coast.

The Bush campaign claimed it had nothing to do with the ad, though it did air a related one, “Revolving Doors.”

Critics accused the pro-Bush political action committee responsible for the ad of playing into racial stereotypes among voters about black men as sexualized brutes waiting to prey on innocent white women. Some political strategists think the ad is what put the nail in the coffin for the Dukakis campaign. Years later, shortly before his death from cancer, Bush’s campaign manager Lee Atwater apologized for saying he would “make Willie Horton [Dukakis’s] running mate.”

Here’s how the Marshall Project, in a long and detailed retrospective, described the ad and strategy’s long-term effects:

The Horton ad caught the country at a time of rising crime, fear verging on panic, and a political climate in which Republicans and Democrats competed to prove their tough-on-crime credentials. In subsequent years a dozen states eliminated parole, which had been a longstanding way for inmates to earn release with rehabilitation and good behavior. Work release, commutations, conjugal visits, furloughs — the myriad release valves that had for years served as both incentive and reward for repentance and change — all were eliminated or severely curtailed.

Atwater’s campaign approach lives on. A week before the 2018 midterm elections, President Trump effectively reintroduced the Horton ad to topical conversation by tweeting an ad blaming Democrats for the criminal activity of Luis Bracamontes, a twice-deported undocumented Mexican immigrant who murdered two law enforcement officers.

The Fix’s Aaron Blake wrote comparing the two ads:

It follows an increasing trend of rather shameless misrepresentations and even dog whistles that GOP candidates and the party as a whole seem only too happy to associate themselves with — as if they’ve recognized Trump’s success with this approach and have decided they might as well do it themselves and own it.

In the days following Bush’s death, many highlighted how these racially charged campaign tactics didn’t start with Trump but have roots in a strategy deployed years ago by those supporting Bush’s presidency.

And it is not just the Horton ad that many black Americans reflect upon while thinking of Bush’s presidency, but also the nomination of Clarence Thomas, arguably the most conservative justice on racial matters on the Supreme Court. Also on the list: Bush’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that would have made discriminating on the basis of race illegal and his poor response to the crack cocaine epidemic sweeping inner cities and largely harming black Americans.

Bush was defeated handily by Bill Clinton in 1992, but in the subsequent decades his reputation and legacy as a statesman were bolstered. Yet, as our Post colleague Carlos Lozada points out, Bush never apologized for the Horton tactics used in his campaign. “Bush’s only admission of anything untoward appears in a footnote describing Atwater’s tactics: ‘He was young, aggressive (some people would say ruthless), and brilliant at politics.’ And Bush brilliantly, some would say ruthlessly, averted his eyes.”

While some bristle at the decision of historians, activists and others on the left to highlight this part of the impact of Bush’s presidency on black Americans, others argue that presenting a more comprehensive view of a political leader’s legacy is essential.

The coming days will be spent recalling fondly a time when a president could not turn to social media to attack Americans protesting racism on the football field or when presidents rebuked white supremacists with a harshness that seemed sincere.

But that does not mean that Bush’s presidency was without the accusations of racism that led so many black Americans to look at the GOP negatively then and perhaps even more so today. And for many of those black Americans, understanding why so many within their community look at Trump’s party negatively starts with looking to GOP leaders of the past.