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Republican political strategist Lee Atwater, in a discussion with political science professor Alexander Lamis, discusses the Republican strategy of using racism to win elections. Lamis will later quote Atwater in his book Southern Politics in the 1990s. Atwater takes Lamis through the evolution of Republican appeals to racism: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N_gger, n_gger, n_gger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n_gger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘N_gger, n_gger.’” Atwater will go on to manage the 1988 presidential campaign of George H. W. Bush, where he will oversee the use of what is considered one of the most overtly racist campaign ads in modern history, the “Willie Horton” ad (see September 21 - October 4, 1988). (Herbert 10/6/2005)
The Bush presidential re-election campaign, trailing Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, in the polls, decides on a “two-track” campaign strategy. The strategy is crafted by campaign manager Lee Atwater. The “high road” track will be taken by President Bush and the campaign directly, attacking Dukakis’s record on law enforcement and challenging his reputation as having led Massachusetts into a period of economic growth (the so-called “Massachusetts Miracle”). The “low road,” designed by Atwater to appeal to the most crude racial stereotypes (see 1981), is to be taken by ostensibly “independent” voter outreach organizations. Because of a loophole in campaign finance rules, the Bush campaign could work closely with “outside groups” and funnel money from “independent” organizations to the outside groups, while denying any connections with those groups were they to run objectionable or negative political ads. Atwater wants to avoid a potential backlash among voters, who may turn against the campaign because of their antipathy towards “attack politics.” Atwater and his colleagues determine that the outside groups will use “brass knuckle” tactics to attack Dukakis, and because the ads come from these “independent” organizations, the Bush campaign can distance itself from the groups and even criticize them for being too negative. In 1999, InsidePolitics.org will write: “In so doing, Bush’s presidential effort would train a generation of campaign operatives how to run a negative campaign. Its ‘two-track’ approach would become a model of how to exploit campaign finance laws and use outside groups to deliver hard-hitting messages on behalf of the candidate. Over the course of the following decade, this strategy would become commonplace in American elections.” The idea of “outsourcing” attack ads had been popularized by the 1980 Reagan presidential campaign, which used what it called “independent expenditures” to finance “outside” attacks on its Democratic opponent, President Jimmy Carter. In 1988, “independent” conservative groups spend $13.7 million on the Bush campaign, most of which goes towards attacks on Dukakis. In comparison, progressive and liberal groups spend $2.8 million on behalf of Dukakis—an almost five-to-one discrepancy. Most of the outside money is spent on television advertising. InsidePolitics will write, “Increasingly, candidates were discovering, electoral agendas and voter impressions could be dominated through a clever combination of attack ads and favorable news coverage.” (Inside Politics (.org) 1999) The result of Atwater’s “two-track” strategy is the “Willie Horton” ad, which will become infamous both for its bluntly racist appeal and its effectiveness (see September 21 - October 4, 1988). An earlier “independent” ad attacking Dukakis’s environmental record provides something of a template for the Horton ad campaign. The so-called “Boston Harbor” ad, which depicted garbage floating in the body of water, challenged Dukakis’s positive reputation as a pro-environmental candndate. The ad helped bring Dukakis’s “positives” down, a strong plus for Bush, whose record as an oil-company executive and reputation as a powerful political friend to the oil companies hurts him in comparison with Dukakis. In July 1988, Readers Digest, a magazine known for its quietly conservative slant, publishes a profile of Horton titled “Getting Away With Murder.” The Bush campaign reprints the article and distributes it by the tens of thousands around the country. (Simon 10/1/1990; Inside Politics (.org) 1999)
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)
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