Debunking the Willie Horton Ad Controversy
Amid the coverage and commentary commemorating the passing of George H.W. Bush, it was nice of the media to debunk the 1992 New York Times front page story characterizing the 41st president as being flummoxed by a supermarket scanner. Written by a reporter who wasn’t present at the event, it was – in today’s parlance -- fake news.
It would have been far better, however, had the record finally been corrected about the Bush campaign’s much-maligned “Willie Horton ad.” Instead, the nation’s most prominent news outlets doubled-down on a slander that is now 30 years old: namely, that under the spell of Rasputin-like political operative Lee Atwater, Bush ran a dirty campaign with racist overtones to get elected president.
Typical was this passage in a New York article:
“In the 1988 Presidential race, when he defeated Michael Dukakis, his campaign, under the direction of Lee Atwater, pioneered many of the slash-and-burn tactics that disfigure modern elections. (The racist Willie Horton ad was but one of many misleading attacks that the Bush campaign launched.)”
This paragraph is wrong in most of its particulars, and its conclusion. Although he relished political combat, Atwater didn’t pioneer anything in politics. The Bush campaign was careful not to racialize Horton’s heinous crimes. Nor were the accusations misleading. Hardball politics, yes, but factual. Any campaign would have used the issue.
For those too young to recall, the fateful flaws in the Massachusetts prison furlough system arose in 1988 as a contentious campaign issue because that state’s chief executive was running for president. Gov. Michael Dukakis positioned himself as a competent manager of a successful state. What was Dukakis so proud of? The Bay State’s economy, mainly, which he called the “Massachusetts Miracle.”
In truth, the economy was strong nearly everywhere in 1988, though voters tended to give more credit to President Reagan than to any governor. But violent crime was soaring in the late ’80s -- the FBI reported that 1988 was the most violent in the nation’s history -- and the topic was on voters’ minds. Candidates’, too. During a contentious April 12 Democratic primary debate, Al Gore took a jab at Dukakis over failures in his state’s prison furlough program. Gore mentioned no names. But the names were in the public record. One in particular: William Robert Horton Jr.
On Oct. 26, 1974, Horton and two accomplices robbed a gas station in Lawrence, Mass. Joey Fournier, the 17-year-old attendant, gave them all the money in the till and then pleaded for his life. They stabbed him anyway, stuffing him into a trash can where he bled to death. Apprehended by police, all three of the men arrested admitted the robbery, but fingered each other for the killing. It didn’t matter under the law – all three were culpable of homicide -- but prosecutors thought Horton, who’d previously been convicted in South Carolina of assault with intent to kill, had wielded the murder weapon.
Horton was given a sentence of life without possibility of parole, but that wasn’t the end of it in Massachusetts. Gov. Dukakis, who vetoed a capital punishment bill that same year, frequently commuted the sentences of convicted murderers. He also administered a prison furlough program designed to ease the re-entry of felons into civilian life.
It’s true, as his defenders would say, that Dukakis inherited the program from his predecessor, and that it was the Massachusetts Supreme Court that ruled, under the enabling statute, that convicted killers couldn’t be excluded. But it’s also true that Dukakis vetoed proposals to tighten the system. So it came to be that William Horton began getting unsupervised 48-hour weekend passes. While on his 10th one, in 1986, he just took off.
On the night of April 3, 1987, Horton broke into the Oxon Hill, Md., home of Cliff Barnes and his fiancée, Angela Miller. In an ordeal that lasted until dawn, he tortured and abused them both, pistol-whipping Barnes and stabbing him, and raping and beating Miller. Horton was later apprehended in a car chase that ended in a shootout.
When Maryland authorities learned that Horton was a murderer supposedly in prison, they were appalled at Massachusetts. “I'm not prepared to take the chance that Mr. Horton might again be furloughed or otherwise released,” Judge Vincent J. Femia said while sentencing Horton to two consecutive life terms. “This man should never draw a breath of free air again.”
Michael Dukakis did not necessarily agree. He continued to resist attempts to tighten the state’s furlough program, refused to apologize to the Maryland couple – or even meet with them – and stonewalled a crusading Massachusetts newspaper exploring the details of the program. The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize for its efforts, an award announced a few days before Gore raised the furlough program with Dukakis, who responded dismissively. “Al, the difference between you and me,” Dukakis said, “is that I have to run a criminal system. You never have.”
That answer begged the question of why Dukakis ran it in a way that resulted in horrific home invasions. “Ask Dukakis if he wants Willie Horton in his basement” was how Clifford Barnes put it.
The Bush campaign entered the fray in June after an authoritative piece on Dukakis’ furlough program, “Getting Away With Murder,” ran in Reader’s Digest. Atwater and Roger Ailes, who ran the media operation for Bush, knew it was an explosive issue. They also knew it was delicate: Horton is African-American and his victims were white.
Ailes forbade the campaign from releasing Horton’s photograph. When the campaign produced its now-famous Massachusetts prison “revolving door” ad, it was filmed in Utah, in sepia tones, and the inmates appeared to be white, black, and Hispanic. Earlier, two conservative provocateurs, Larry McCarthy and Floyd Brown, produced a low-budget ad showing Horton’s picture and mentioning his name. Democrats pounced. This is racist, they said. Some of the media followed suit and some didn’t, although with each passing year, the “vile” Willie Horton ad narrative entrenched itself more deeply in the collective memories of Democrats and the media.
Those closest to the case were the most nonplussed by this characterization. Dane Strother, a former Eagle-Tribune reporter who became a Democratic political consultant, told me race was never an issue when Dukakis’ furlough program came under scrutiny. “It wasn’t about racism,” he said. “That didn’t come up. Not ever.”
One reason was that as the paper dug deeper into the story, they found other victims of crimes, not all of them white, and other furloughed prisoners who’d committed violent crimes, not all of them black.
Among the details unearthed by the Eagle-Tribune was that of the 80 prisoners listed as “escaped” by the state, all but four were on furlough when they disappeared.
When pressed as to why they deem the Bush campaign’s 1988 treatment of this topic racist, critics cite a litany of factoids and arguments: Ronald Reagan oversaw a prison furlough program in California (true, but irrelevant); Atwater later apologized for his rough campaigning (true, with extenuating circumstances); and the name of the man in the ads was “William,” not “Willie.” A dog whistle, they say, or as liberal activist and opinion journalist Paul Waldman put it last week, “the cherry on top.”
“No one ever referred to William Horton as ‘Willie’ before Republicans started doing it in 1988,” Waldman wrote. That claim doesn’t seem to be true. Clifford Barnes was quoted as calling his attacker “Willie Horton” in October 1987. Where he got it is anybody’s guess, but after his ordeal, no one pressed him on it.
The evidence that Horton was never “Willie” is sketchy anyway. Although it comes from the inmate himself, in interviews with sympathetic visitors, he’s an unreliable source. For one thing, Horton still denies stabbing Joey Fournier and committing the Maryland home invasion. Still, it’s a mystery how that first name took root. The Eagle-Tribune always referred to him, as court documents did, as William R. Horton Jr., as did Robert James Bidinotto in his Reader’s Digest piece. But the newspapers that now play up the race angle routinely referred to him as “Willie Horton” during the 1988 campaign.
I covered the 1988 campaign, and I pressed Lee Atwater about this myself. Not just the name, but the whole issue. He looked at me as if I were being deliberately obtuse. He said that when he first heard about the case, he hoped the furloughed inmate was white. “I wish his name was Jimmy Don Horton or Joe Bob Horton,” he told me. “We’d have made him even more famous, plastered his picture everywhere. This is about crime.”
Many people are skeptical, but that assertion’s truth seems self-evident to me: It would have been a better issue for Bush that way. And although this isn’t proof of anything, I was also in a nightclub one night with Atwater when he played guitar alongside B.B. King. He was the kind of white Southerner who exuded an easy comfort about race on a personal level. Lee died young, of a brain tumor, and it was not an easy death. Before he succumbed, he tried to atone for some of his sins, even apologizing for his tough campaign tactics. In the Horton case, I don’t think he had anything to be remorseful about. If campaign operatives hadn’t used Michael Dukakis’ flawed furlough system -- and his arrogant response to its victims – against him, they would have been guilty of election malfeasance.