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Profile: Larry McCarthy

Larry McCarthy was a participant or observer in the following events:

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; Cross 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. (Simon 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; Cross 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)

The Ohio Democratic party and a group called Black Elected Democrats of Ohio file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) over the infamous “Willie Horton” campaign ad of 1988 (see September 21 - October 4, 1988), claiming that the “outside” organization that released the ad, the National Security Political Action Committee (NSPAC), violated the law on independent expenditures, and that NSPAC functioned as an arm of the 1988 Bush presidential campaign. According to the complaint, it was legal for NSPAC to expend funds criticizing Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and supporting President Bush’s election only if the expenditures were independent and uncoordinated between the two organizations. Any spending that was made “in cooperation, consultation, or concert, with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, his authorized political committees, or their agents,” represented an illegal “in-kind contribution” in excess of federal contribution limits. The FEC conducts an investigation into the relationship between NSPAC and the Bush campaign. The investigation uncovers several ties between the two organizations. For example, Larry McCarthy, the NSPAC media consultant who, as a top marketing expert for the NSPAC’s “Americans for Bush” organization, created the Horton ad, worked for top Bush campaign adviser Roger Ailes; McCarthy was a former senior vice president of Ailes Communications, Inc. (ACI), which functioned as the main media consulting firm for the Bush campaign. McCarthy tells investigators he worked at ACI until January 1987, but continued to work with ACI on “a contractual basis” until December 1987, when he began working as Senator Robert Dole (R-KS)‘s media consultant. McCarthy admits to having a number of contacts with Ailes during the Bush-Dukakis campaign, but says some of them were “of a passing social nature,” such as “running into one another in restaurants or at airports.” He denies discussing “anything relative to the Bush presidential campaign, NSPAC, or political matters.” McCarthy’s story is contradicted by Ailes, who tells the FEC that he had talked to McCarthy twice about opportunities to work for the Bush campaign, opportunities Ailes says McCarthy lost by working for NSPAC. The FEC also discovers that another former ACI employee, Jesse Raiford of Raiford Communications, worked on the Horton ad, and while doing so “simultaneously received compensation from NSPAC and the Bush campaign.” Raiford also “expended NSPAC funds for the production of the Willie Horton ad.” Though there is clear evidence of illegal connections and complicity between the Bush campaign and NSPAC, the FEC’s Board of Commissioners deadlock 3-3 on voting whether to bring formal charges against the two organizations. The swing vote, commissioner Thomas Josefiak, says the explanations from Ailes and McCarthy about their lack of substantive contacts during the campaign “were plausible and reasonably consistent.” Josefiak says both were guilty of “bad judgment” and may have acted “foolish[ly],” but did nothing warranting legal action. The FEC also determines that Raiford only “performed technical tasks” for the two organizations, “and played no role in any substantive or strategic decisions made by either organization.” The commissioners conclude that neither organization violated campaign finance law. (Inside Politics (.org) 1999)

A new “super PAC” aligned with presidential candidate Mitt Romney (R-MA) is being formed by a group of Romney backers and former Romney campaign aides, according to a report by the Washington Post. Super PACs are political organizations that exist to influence elections, which take unlimited amounts of outside money from donors, including individuals, unions, and corporations, and pool that money to advocate for or against a candidate (see March 26, 2010). By law, super PACs are supposed to operate independently of a candidate’s official campaign organization.
Restore Our Future - The Romney super PAC, “Restore Our Future” (ROF), is one of a number of such organizations created in the aftermath of the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling (see January 21, 2010). Restore Our Future is apparently the first super PAC to form specifically in support of one of the 2012 presidential contenders, with the sole exception of Priorities USA Action, a super PAC in support of President Obama. ROF treasurer Charles R. Spies, who served as Romney’s general counsel in his 2008 presidential effort, refuses to disclose how much the organization has raised, or who is donating. Spies merely says: “This is an independent effort focused on getting Romney elected president. We will do that by focusing on jobs and his ability to fix the economy.” A Romney campaign aide says that a Federal Election Commission (FEC) filing coming up in July will show the organization having raised some $20 million. A major Romney donor who refuses to allow his identity to be revealed says, “We just want to show that we’ve got more dough than anyone.” The Romney campaign’s communication director, Gail Gitcho, says the campaign welcomes any outside support, and points to the Obama campaign as the largest fundraiser in the race, saying, “We are pleased that independent groups will be active in fighting this entrenched power [the Obama campaign] so the country can get back to work.”
Leaders of ROF - Members of the ROF board of directors include Spies; Carl Forti, political director for Romney’s 2008 campaign; and Larry McCarthy, a member of the Romney media team in 2008. Forti is the co-founder of the Black Rock Group consulting firm and the political director of American Crossroads, a conservative super PAC expected to raise over $120 million for candidates in 2012. Neither Forti nor American Crossroads will discuss the role played by Forti in both organizations. ROF actually registered itself with the FEC in October 2010, but has remained unaffiliated and essentially dormant until recent weeks. Now ROF officials are briefing top donors about the organization’s plans and fundraising goals. Former Obama spokesman Bill Burton, the head of Priorities USA Action, says: “I’m not surprised that there’s even more money coming into this race to help Mitt Romney. He’s a pretty deeply flawed candidate; he’s going to need all the help he can get.” Dave Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics says of the super PACs: “The outside groups are akin to the biggest booster club you can imagine for a college football team. The club can’t give cars or gifts to the players, but they can do everything else possible to support them.… It’s a brand-new way to play politics.” (Eggen and Cillizza 6/23/2011) The Post fails to note many of the details about ROF’s senior officials. According to the Public Campaign Action Fund, Spies is not only a lawyer and a consultant, but a registered lobbyist for Clark Hill PLC, representing a chain of luxury casinos. ROF’s address as listed on its FEC filings is the same as Clark Hill’s Washington, DC, office. The Action Fund observes, referring to the Republican primary and the number of wealthy donors lined up behind each major candidate, “While [ROF] officially can’t coordinate with the Romney campaign, having lobbyists on your side is definitely a good way to boost one’s standing in the so-called ‘wealth primary.’” (Public Campaign Action Fund 6/23/2011) The liberal news Web site Think Progress will soon note that McCarthy is a veteran advertising creator for Republican candidates, and was one of the strongest creative forces behind the infamous 1988 “Willie Horton” ad, which many considered to be extraordinarily racist (see September 21 - October 4, 1988). In 2010, McCarthy served as a media strategist for the American Future Fund, which launched attack ads attempting to link Democrats to the Park 51 community center in Manhattan, deemed by conservatives as the “Ground Zero Victory Mosque” and mischaracterized as a monument celebrating the 9/11 attacks. Those ads were decried by many as being bigoted against Muslims. McCarthy has brushed off criticism of his ads, and said the fact-checking organizations that found his ads to be flawed suffered from a pro-Democratic bias. Think Progress reporter Lee Fang will write that when he tried to find the American Future Fund office in Iowa, the address listed for the group turned out to be a UPS mailbox in a strip mall near an airport. Fang will write, “With a record of such secrecy and racist, anything-goes campaign tactics, one can expect Romney’s new outside group to be just as ugly in the presidential race.” (Vogel 10/29/2010; Fang 6/27/2011)


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