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Bush Made Willie Horton an Issue, and for African-Americans, the Scars Are Still Fresh

Category: Political News,Politics

Mr. Bush expressed no regret for the Horton ad, and some of his longtime allies have long argued that he got a bad rap for something that was not really of his making. Al Gore, then a senator from Tennessee, was the first to try to wrap the Horton case around Mr. Dukakis’s neck during the Democratic primaries that year.

By summer, Mr. Bush picked up the theme, citing the case during speeches, and by fall, his campaign began airing an ad attacking the Massachusetts furlough program, showing a series of prisoners walking through a revolving door. But that Bush campaign ad did not mention Mr. Horton.

The one that would be remembered for years to come was produced not by the Bush campaign but by an operative named Larry McCarthy working for an ostensibly independent group called the National Security Political Action Committee. The ad, called “Weekend Passes,” singled out Horton, showing a picture of his scowling face as the narrator described his torture and rape of the Maryland couple. In the end, it was shown only briefly on cable television, but its impact was magnified by repeated coverage on television newscasts.

When critics called the ad a brazen appeal to racial fears, the Bush campaign distanced itself from the ad and wrote to the committee that aired it asking that it be withdrawn. But Mr. Dukakis did not buy the explanation that the committee was independent. “Anybody who believes that believes in the tooth fairy,” he said at one point.

Indeed, Mr. Bush’s advisers had been focused on Mr. Horton for months. “If I can make Willie Horton a household name, we’ll win the election,” said Lee Atwater, the campaign strategist. He later referred to making Horton “Dukakis’s running mate.” Roger Ailes, another Bush strategist, said, “The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it.”

A little more than two years later, when stricken with a cancer that would take his life, Mr. Atwater repented the hardball tactics used in 1988. He said he particularly regretted saying he would make Mr. Horton into Mr. Dukakis’s running mate “because it makes me sound racist, which I am not.”

What was never clear was how involved Mr. Bush was in crafting the strategy. But as Josh King, the author of “Off Script,” a book about political stagecraft, and a student of the 1988 race, put it, “He was willing to employ campaign aides who would use the barest of knuckles in pursuit of the goal of humiliating and destroying the opposing candidate.”

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