It is my opinion that what happened on this day 25 years ago was what drove a racial wedge into the heart of America that persists to modern times.
Well, that may be a little extreme. A lot of people and a lot of events over a long period of time have contributed to the polarized state of race relations in this country. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that what happened on this day a quarter century ago played a key role in the erosion of modern race relations.
On this day in 1988, the first of the so–called "Willie Horton ads" aired on TV.
If you're under 35, let me tell you who Willie Horton is/was.
Willie Horton is a black man, a native of South Carolina who was convicted of a 1974 murder in Massachusetts and sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole.
However, in 1986, he was released as part of a weekend furlough program, but he didn't return when the weekend was over. Less than a year later, he raped a woman in Maryland after attacking her fiance. He was captured and convicted, then sentenced to two consecutive life terms plus 85 years. The judge who sentenced him pointedly refused to return him to Massachusetts.
Horton is still incarcerated in Maryland.
Michael Dukakis, the Democrats' 1988 nominee for the presidency, was governor of Massachusetts when Horton was released. Dukakis did not start the furlough program, but he did support it.
The original policy began under a Republican governor in 1972, but first–degree murderers weren't eligible. After the state's Supreme Court ruled that the privilege should be extended to first–degree murderers, the state's legislature passed a bill denying furloughs to such convicts.
Dukakis vetoed the bill, and the furlough program remained in effect until 1988.
So Dukakis clearly bore some responsibility for the program, and the first to mention it during the 1988 campaign actually was one of Dukakis' rivals for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee. Gore brought it up during a debate prior to the New York primary, but he asked a general question and never mentioned Horton's name.
The name was known to the Bush campaign, especially campaign manager Lee Atwater, who was responsible for most of the negative campaigning the Republicans did that year. Late that spring, a group of Republican consultants met with a focus group made up of Democrats who had voted for Reagan four years earlier, and they told the consultants they needed take a negative approach to Dukakis.
For Atwater, it was like a mandate to do whatever it took to win, but he needed the green light to proceed — and he got it but gradually. He wasn't the original spin doctor — that concept originated in the fields of public relations and advertising — but, in his lifetime, he was probably the most effective at applying the spin doctor's tactics to politics.
In June, Bush mentioned Horton by name in a speech to the Texas Republican convention.
And 25 years ago today, Americans for Bush, part of the National Security Political Action Committee, first aired a commercial called "Weekend Passes," which identified Horton and what he had done while free.
The ad was taken off the air two weeks later — on the day that Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen met in the vice presidential debate. The Bush campaign began running its own ad, "Revolving Door," which did not mention Horton by name.
But it didn't have to. His name was already pretty well known around the country by then.
Most of the "inmates" in the commercial were white — but there were a couple of strategically positioned black actors.
It was a not–so–subtle reminder of Horton and his criminal record.
Bentsen and civil rights leaders criticized Bush's campaign and called the ads racist. Bush denied the charge.
While I definitely think race was used by the Republicans in 1988, the fact is that it was only one aspect of the Bush campaign, which was very aggressive and extremely negative. The Bush campaign of 1988 was not above distorting the facts, any facts, and Dukakis was simply ineffective at countering.
For example, the Republicans ran a negative commercial about the condition of Boston Harbor, implying that it was Dukakis' fault when the truth was that the policies that created the situation were promoted by administrations of both parties.
In 1988, the Republicans had been on the ropes before the conventions, and they played hardball during the fall campaign — even after polls showed public sentiment swinging in their direction.
The turning point may have come a week before the first Horton ad made its debut, when the Republican campaign turned Michael Dukakis' ill–fated tank ride into a devastating commercial.
The Republicans held nothing back in 1988.
And Atwater especially wasn't above using anything to win. He insisted he would "strip the bark off the little bastard (Dukakis)" and "make Willie Horton his running mate."
Atwater certainly bears some responsibility for the state of modern race relations in America. And, near the end of his life in 1991, he did seem to be trying to make amends in a LIFE magazine article in which he apologized to Dukakis for the "naked cruelty" of the 1988 campaign.
But even then and under those circumstances, I was inclined to take anything that Atwater said with a grain of salt.
Ed Rollins, manager of the Reagan–Bush re–election campaign, confirmed the necessity of such a policy in a book about Atwater in which he said this about the last days of Atwater's life:
"[Atwater] was telling this story about how a Living Bible was what was giving him faith and I said to Mary (Matalin), 'I really, sincerely hope that he found peace.' She said, 'Ed, when we were cleaning up his things afterwards, the Bible was still wrapped in the cellophane and had never been taken out of the package,' which just told you everything there was. He was spinning right to the end."
Atwater probably would tell you that perception is everything.