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Context of 'May 15, 2009: Gingrich: Pelosi ‘Despicable, Dishonest, and Vicious’'

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The image of Willie Horton as shown in the ‘Weekend Pass’ campaign ad.The image of Willie Horton as shown in the ‘Weekend Pass’ campaign ad. [Source: University of Virginia]A political advertisement on behalf of the George H. W. Bush presidential campaign appears, running on televisions around the country between September 21 and October 4, 1988. Called “Weekend Pass,” it depicts convicted murderer William “Willie” Horton, who was granted 10 separate furloughs from prison, and used the time from his last furlough to kidnap and rape a young woman. The advertisement and subsequent media barrage falsely accuses Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, of creating the “furlough program” that led to Horton’s release, and paints Dukakis as “soft on crime.” It will come to be known as one of the most overly racist political advertisements in the history of modern US presidential politics.
Ad Content - The ad begins by comparing the positions of the two candidates on crime. It notes that Bush supports the death penalty for convicted murderers, whereas Dukakis does not. The ad’s voiceover narrator then states, “Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison,” with the accompanying text “Opposes Death Penalty, Allowed Murderers to Have Weekend Passes” superimposed on a photograph of Dukakis. The narrator then says, “One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times,” accompanied by a mug shot of Horton. The voiceover continues: “Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend.” At this point, the ad shows another picture of Horton being arrested while the accompanying text reads, “Kidnapping, Stabbing, Raping.” The ad’s narration concludes: “Weekend prison passes. Dukakis on crime.” The ad is credited to the “National Security Political Action Committee.” [Inside Politics (.org), 1999; Museum of the Moving Image, 2008; University of Virginia, Introduction to American Politics, 11/18/2009]
'Soft on Crime' - The ad is a reflection of the measures the Bush campaign is willing to undertake to defeat the apparently strong Dukakis candidacy. Dukakis is a popular Democratic governor and widely credited with what pundits call the “Massachusetts Miracle,” reversing the downward economic spiral in his state without resorting to hefty tax increases. At the time of the ad, Dukakis enjoys a 17-point lead over Bush in the polls. Bush campaign strategists, led by campaign manager Lee Atwater, have learned from focus groups that conservative Democratic voters, which some call “Reagan Democrats,” are not solid in their support of Dukakis, and are swayed by reports that he vetoed legislation requiring teachers to say the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of the school day. They also react negatively when they learn that during Dukakis’s tenure as governor, Horton had been furloughed and subsequently raped a white woman. Atwater and the Bush campaign decide that Dukakis can successfully be attacked as a “liberal” who is “not patriotic” and is “soft on crime.” Atwater, who has a strong record of appealing to racism in key voting groups (see 1981), tells Republican Party officials, “By the time this election is over, Willie Horton will be a household name.” Although Dukakis had vetoed a bill mandating the death penalty for first-degree murder in Massachusetts, he did not institute the furlough program; that was signed into law by Republican governor Francis Sargent in 1972. The ads and the accompanying media blitz successfully avoid telling voters that Sargent, not Dukakis, instituted the furlough program. [Regardie's Magazine, 10/1/1990; Inside Politics (.org), 1999]
Running the Horton Ad - The ad is sponsored by an ostensibly “independent” political organization, the conservative National Security Political Action Committee (NSPAC), headed by former Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Thomas Moorer. NSPAC’s daughter organization “Americans for Bush” actually put together the ad, created by marketer Larry McCarthy in close conjunction with Atwater and other Bush campaign aides; Atwater determined months before that the Horton ad should not come directly from the Bush campaign, but from an “independent” group supporting Bush, thus giving the Bush campaign the opportunity to distance itself from the ad, and even criticize it, should voters react negatively towards its message (see June-September 1988). The first version of the ad does not use the menacing mug shot of Horton, which McCarthy later says depicts “every suburban mother’s greatest fear.” McCarthy and Atwater feared that the networks would refuse to run the ad if it appeared controversial. However, the network censors do not object, so McCarthy quickly substitutes a second version of the ad featuring the mug shot. When Democrats and progressive critics of the Bush campaign complain that Bush is running a racist ad, Bush media adviser Roger Ailes says that neither he nor the campaign have any control over what outside groups like “Americans for Bush” put on the airwaves. InsidePolitics will later write, “This gave the Bush camp plausible deniability that helped its candidate avoid public condemnation for racist campaigning.”
Accompanying Newspaper Reports, Bush Campaign Ads - The ad airs for the first time on September 21. On September 22, newspapers around the nation begin publishing articles telling the story of Angie and Clifford Barnes, victimized by Horton while on furlouogh. On October 5, the Bush campaign releases a “sister” television ad, called “Revolving Door.” Scripted by Ailes, the commercial does not mention Horton nor does it show the now-infamous mug shot, but emphasizes the contention that Dukakis is “soft on crime” and has what it calls a “lenient” furlough policy for violent convicts. The central image of the ad is a stream of African-American inmates moving slowly in and out of a revolving gate. The voiceover says that Dukakis had vetoed the death penalty and given furloughs to “first-degree murderers not eligible for parole. While out, many committed other crimes like kidnapping and rape.” At the same time, Clifford Barnes and the sister of the youth murdered by Horton embark on a nationwide speaking tour funded by a pro-Bush independent group known as the Committee for the Presidency. Barnes also appears on a number of television talk shows, including those hosted by Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Rivera. Barnes and the victim’s sister also appear in two “victim” ads, where Barnes says: “Mike Dukakis and Willie Horton changed our lives forever.… We are worried people don’t know enough about Mike Dukakis.” In 1999, InsidePolitics will write that the media gives the “Revolving Door” ad a “courteous reception,” and focuses more on the two ads’ impact on the election, and the Dukakis campaign’s lack of response, instead of discussing the issues of race and crime as portrayed by the ads. It is not until October 24, less than two weeks before the election, that anyone in the mainstream media airs footage of critics questioning whether the ads are racially inflammatory, but these appearances are few and far between, and are always balanced with appearances by Bush supporters praising the campaign’s media strategy. [Inside Politics (.org), 1999; Inside Politics (.org), 1999; University of Virginia, Introduction to American Politics, 11/18/2009]
Denials - Bush and his vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle will deny that the ads are racist, and will accuse Democrats of trying to use racism to stir up controversy (see October 1988).
Failure to Respond - The Dukakis campaign will make what many political observers later characterize as a major political blunder: it refuses to answer the ads or dispute their content until almost the last days of the campaign, hoping that viewers would instead conclude that the ads are unfair without the Dukakis campaign’s involvement. The ads will be hugely successful in securing the election for Bush (see September-November 1988). [Museum of the Moving Image, 2008]

Entity Tags: Angie Barnes, Clifford Barnes, Committee for the Presidency, Dan Quayle, George Herbert Walker Bush, Americans for Bush, InsidePolitics (.org), Francis Sargent, Michael Dukakis, William (“Willie”) Horton, Lee Atwater, National Security Political Action Committee, Thomas Moorer, Roger Ailes, Larry McCarthy

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, Elections Before 2000

GOPAC logo.GOPAC logo. [Source: Mullings (.com)]A New York Times editorial derides a recent effort by a conservative political action committee to label political opponents with slanderous epithets. According to the editorial, GOPAC, the GOP Political Action Committee chaired by Representative Newt Gingrich (R-GA), has issued a glossary mailed to Republican state legislative candidates urging them to use the following words to characterize their Democratic opponents: “sick,” “traitors,” “bizarre,” “self-serving,” “shallow,” “corrupt,” “pathetic,” and “shame.” GOPAC later “regretted” including the word “traitors” in that list of characterizations, the editorial reports, but has continued to back the use of the other epithets. The glossary is part of a pamphlet entitled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” and features a letter from Gingrich advising the candidates to step up the personal invective against their opponents because, he writes, vilification works. The Times writes: “Mr. Gingrich’s injunction represents the worst of American political discourse, which reached a low during the dispiriting presidential campaign of 1988 (see September 21 - October 4, 1988). Then, more than ever before, negative argument displaced reasoned discussion about how a nation might best be governed. The sound bite reigned. Attack commercials flourished. The signs this year aren’t any better. Evidence that negative campaigning can come back to sink the sender has had little impact. The races for governor in California and Texas have already seen the same slash and burn. No doubt the proceedings will grow more rabid still as November nears. Negative discourse serves democracy poorly. The temptation to avoid serious debate is already great. It increases as the stakes soar and slander becomes a rewarding, easy option. The issues of the day go untended. The whole affair takes on the character of the gladiator’s art. The GOPAC glossary may herald a descent into even lower levels of discourse. It comes blessed by a politician of some influence—the Republican whip in the House—and it is intended for candidates on the state level, many of them presumably running for the first time. Even though Mr. Gingrich himself may not have seen the list before it was mailed, this is a disturbing document. The nakedness of the GOPAC offering also makes it useful. There must be limits to the negative politics that voters will bear; the bald appeal to invective will certainly probe those limits. For now, it should be said that some adjectives in the glossary aptly describe the glossary itself: shallow, sensationalist, and, yes, shame(ful).” [New York Times, 9/20/1990; Propaganda Critic, 9/29/2002; Propaganda Critic, 9/29/2002] Later in the year, the pamphlet will win the Doublespeak Award from the National Conference of Teachers of English. [Propaganda Critic, 9/29/2002] Gingrich and GOPAC will expand upon the original pamphlet in 1995, after Gingrich becomes speaker of the House (see 1995).

Entity Tags: National Conference of Teachers of English, New York Times, Newt Gingrich, GOP Political Action Committee

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, Elections Before 2000

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) expands on his 1990 pamphlet advising Republican candidates for office to characterize their opponents as “sick” “traitors” (see September 20, 1990). His political action committee, GOPAC, in a package given to freshmen House and Senate Republicans, includes a video, “We Are a Majority,” and an accompanying memo written by Gingrich that avows the committee is working to fulfill the requests of candidates across the country, who, according to the memo, have flooded its offices with “plaintive plea[s]” of “I wish I could speak like Newt.” The memo responds: “That takes years of practice. But, we believe that you could have a significant impact on your campaign and the way you communicate if we help a little. That is why we have created this list of words and phrases.” The memo advises candidates to “[r]ead them. Memorize as many as possible. And remember that like any tool, these words will not help if they are not used.” The list is divided into two parts: “Optimistic positive governing words and phrases to help describe your vision for the future of your community” and “Contrasting words to help you clearly define the policies and record of your opponent and the Democratic Party.” [Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, 2/1995; Information Clearinghouse, 1996] Communications professor Margaret Zulick will later call the package “a rudimentary rhetorical handbook, providing inexperienced political speakers with a lexicon of terms that drive a wedge of distinctions between themselves and members of the opposing party. At the same time it educates them in a common language that will give evidence of their solidarity with the speaker of the House and his goals for the Republican majority.” [Zulick, 2010]
"Optimistic Positive Governing Words - The memo states: “Use the list below to help define your campaign and your vision of public service. These words can help give extra power to your message. In addition, these words help develop the positive side of the contrast you should create with your opponent, giving your community something to vote for!” The words include: activist; building; candid(ly); care(ing); challenge; change; children; choice/choose; citizen; commitment; common sense; compete; confident; conflict; control; courage; crusade; debate; dream; duty; eliminate good time in prison; empower(ment); fair; family; freedom; hard work; help; humane; incentive; initiative; lead; learn; legacy; liberty; light; listen; mobilize; moral; movement; opportunity; passionate; peace; pioneer; precious; premise; preserve; principle(d); pristine; pro- (issue): flag, children, environment, reform; prosperity; protect; proud/pride; provide; reform; rights; share; strength; success; tough; truth; unique; vision; and we/us/our.
Contrasting Words - The memo states: “Often we search hard for words to define our opponents. Sometimes we are hesitant to use contrast. Remember that creating a difference helps you. These are powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contrast. Apply these to the opponent, their record, proposals, and their party.” The words include: abuse of power; anti- (issue); flag, family, child, jobs; betray; bizarre; bosses; bureaucracy; cheat; coercion; “compassion” is not enough; collapse(ing); consequences; corrupt; corruption; criminal rights; crisis; cynicism; decay; deeper; destroy; destructive; devour; disgrace; endanger; excuses; failure (fail); greed; hypocrisy; ideological; impose; incompetent; insecure; insensitive; intolerant; liberal; lie; limit(s); machine; mandate(s); obsolete; pathetic; patronage; permissive; attitude; pessimistic; punish; (poor…); radical; red tape; self-serving; selfish; sensationalists; shallow; shame; sick; spend(ing); stagnation; status quo; steal; taxes; they/them; threaten; traitors; unionized; urgent(cy); waste; welfare. [Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, 2/1995; Information Clearinghouse, 1996]

Entity Tags: GOP Political Action Committee, Newt Gingrich, Margaret Zulick

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), widely considered a likely candidate for the presidency in 2012, lambasts current Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for her recent complaints about the CIA never briefing her about the Bush administration’s use of torture. “I think she has lied to the House, and I think that the House has an absolute obligation to open an inquiry, and I hope there will be a resolution to investigate her. And I think this is a big deal. I don’t think the speaker of the House can lie to the country on national security matters,” Gingrich says. Gingrich then launches a personal attack (see September 20, 1990) on Pelosi, saying: “I think this is the most despicable, dishonest, and vicious political effort I’ve seen in my lifetime. She is a trivial politician, viciously using partisanship for the narrowist of purposes, and she dishonors the Congress by her behavior.… Speaker Pelosi’s the big loser, because she either comes across as incompetent or dishonest. Those are the only two defenses. The fact is she either didn’t do her job, or she did do her job and she’s now afraid to tell the truth.” [ABC News, 5/15/2009] Former Senator Bob Graham (D-FL), who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee, also says the CIA lied to him about the Bush administration’s use of torture. He says that the CIA’s records about its briefings of Graham and Pelosi conflict with his own records of his briefings by intelligence officials, and he has no recollection of ever being briefed about “any of the sensitive programs such as the waterboarding or other forms of excessive interrogation.” [Huffington Post, 5/14/2009]

Entity Tags: Newt Gingrich, Daniel Robert (“Bob”) Graham, Central Intelligence Agency, Nancy Pelosi

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, 2010 Elections

On NBC’s Today show, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), widely expected to mount a presidential bid in 2012, tells an NBC audience that “tea party” leaders “understand that in the end their job is to help defeat Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.” Gingrich tells interviewer Matt Lauer that it would be a “disaster” if the “tea party” movement split the base of the Republican party in the November elections, and would “guarantee… the re-election of Nancy Pelosi as speaker.” Pelosi (D-CA) and Reid (D-NV) are the leaders of Democrats in the House and Senate, respectively. [Media Matters, 4/6/2010] Gingrich has not hesitated to vilify Pelosi in the media (see May 15, 2009).

Entity Tags: Harry Reid, Newt Gingrich, Nancy Pelosi

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

Newt Gingrich (R-GA), the former House Speaker whom many expect to run for president in 2012, tells an audience that he expects the “tea party” movement to evolve into what he calls “the militant wing of the Republican Party” rather than an independent or third party (see April 6, 2010). Gingrich speaks to an audience at an event sponsored by the Manufacturer’s Association of South Central Pennsylvania; the speech is covered by a regional newspaper, the York Dispatch. Gingrich calls the tea partiers’ rage towards Washington politics a “natural expression of frustration with Republicans and anger at Democrats.” The Dispatch reports that while many in the audience seem to agree with his conclusions, a smaller number do not seem to agree with Gingrich’s characterization of the “tea party” movement as “militant.” Gingrich also calls US public high schools an expensive “baby sitting service,” and says that students who desire to abandon their education “should be allowed to enter the work force”; he says that “[l]ast year’s extension of unemployment benefits was like a bribe to people to tolerate legislators’ incompetence,” and adds he has not yet decided whether to run for president. [Huffington Post, 4/22/2010]

Entity Tags: Newt Gingrich, York Dispatch, Republican Party

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

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