"By the time we're finished, they're going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis' running mate."--Lee Atwater
He was big. He was black. He was every guy you ever crossed street to avoid, every pair of smoldering eyes you ever looked away from on the bus or subway. He was every person you moved out of the city to escape, every sound in the night that made you get up and check the locks on the windows and grab the door handles and give them an extra tug.
Whether you were white or black or red or yellow, Willie Horton was your worst nightmare.
Decent people had no defense against him. That was the mosterrifying thing of all. Capture him and take away his knife and sentence him and put him behind bars -- we pay taxes for these things! -- and what would happen?
He would be given a weekend furlough. Ten times, MichaeDukakis opened up the prison doors in Massachusetts and said to Willie Horton: "Go and sin no more."
Nine times Horton followed instructions. But the tenth time, hwent to Maryland and broke into a home and tied a man to a joist in the basement, slashed his chest and stomach with a knife, then beat and raped his fiancee while she screamed and screamed and screamed.
Willie Horton was a killer, a rapist, a torturer, a kidnapper, brute.
In other words, he was perfect.
WILLIE HORTON WAS ALREADY FAmous in Massachusetts by the time Michael Dukakis began his campaign for president. But in July 1988, Reader's Digest gave America its first in-depth look at Horton in an article the Bush campaign would reprint by the tens of thousands. The article was titled "Getting Away With Murder" and free-lance writer Robert James Bidinotto began by recounting Horton's first big-time crime.
It was Oct. 26, 1974, and Joey Fournier, 17, was working alone aa gas station in Lawrence, Mass. William Robert Horton Jr., Alvin Wideman and Roosevelt Pickett entered the station, brandished knives and demanded money. Fournier gave them $276.37 and pleaded for his life.
They killed him anyway.
Minutes later one of Fournier's friends dropped by and founFournier's lifeless body stuffed in a trash barrel. He had been stabbed 19 times.
Horton and the two others were arrested and all confessed to the robbery, but none confessed to the murder. Horton had previously served three years in South Carolina for assault with intent to commit murder and prosecutors believed he had done the stabbing.
In May 1975, all three men were convicted of armed robbery anfirst-degree murder. (Just which of the three actually stabbed Fournier -- or whether it was done by one or two or all three -- was not established in court. Under the law, it was irrelevant who actually delivered the killing blow. Under the law, all three were guilty of murder.)
A few weeks before they were sentenced, Michael Dukakis ha vetoed a bill that would have instituted the death penalty in Massachusetts. But the state had a very severe first-degree murder law, which mandated life without parole.
Under a furlough program begun by Republican Gov. FranciSargent in 1972, however, Horton and the others would be eligible for unguarded 48-hour weekend furloughs. Horton was granted 10 such furloughs. On the last one, from the Northeastern Correctional Center in Concord on June 7, 1986, Horton went to a movie, a church, a few stores in Lawrence, and then disappeared.
"I didn't plan to do that," he later said. "It was spontaneous. I waout of bounds in my conduct."
OVER THE DECADES, WE HAVElearned not to demand absolute, technical truth from TV commercials. The negative TV ads directed against Michael Dukakis and his furlough program never told the complete, absolute, technical truth. They were TV commercials; they didn't have to. Ads are not about facts anyway. They are about emotions. They are very often about fear. In political ads, the miracle that will cure our problems, save our nation, reduce the deficit and eliminate our fears is a person who represents a particular way of life. Ronald Reagan understood it well. He continually promised miracles: He would build a great nation, lower taxes, spend more for defense and balance the budget all at the same time. Eight years later, the fear was of crime and any atavistic terror that lay deep within the souls of the voters. George Bush was the miracle. He was the cure. He would keep us safe. Safe from crime, safe from harm, safe from Willie.
WILLIE HORTON LEFT MASSACHU-setts and went to Maryland by car. On April 3, 1987, he broke into a home in Oxon Hill, a working-class suburb of Washington, D.C. The home was owned by two people who came to be known to America as "the Maryland couple." They were Clifford Barnes and Angela Miller and they were engaged to be married.
Cliff was 28 and a sales manager for a car dealership iWashington. Angi was 27 and did accounting work for a development company in Virginia. They were both registered as independent voters.
At 7:20 p.m., Cliff came home from work. His wedding to Angwas two months off. She was spending the evening at a birthday party with friends.
Cliff started unbuttoning his shirt as he walked up the stairs. Hstripped off his tie and went into the bathroom. While there, he heard noises from downstairs and figured Angi might have come home early.
"Angi?" he called out. There was no answer.
Willie Horton kicked in the bathroom door. He was wearing stocking mask. Earlier in the day, he had broken into the house through the basement and had searched the place. He had found Cliff's handgun. Now he hit Cliff across the head with it, while screaming obscenities at him at the top of his lungs.
Horton pushed Cliff to the floor, tied his hands behind his back and went through his pockets. Then he led him to the basement and tied him to a two-by-four support, using telephone cord and Cliff's shirt and necktie. He blindfolded and gagged him.
Then the torture began. Horton told Cliff he was going to han him by his neck in the basement and watch him strangle. Then he jammed the gun barrel into Cliff's eyes hard enough to blacken them. Then he rammed the gun into Cliff's mouth. Then he began slashing Cliff with a knife. He slashed him across the stomach in all directions.
"Do you know how scary it is to have somebody drag a knif across your body and never know when they're going to push it in?" Cliff said later.
Cliff told Horton where his credit cards and bank cards were. H told Horton everything Horton asked. But the torture did not stop.
About 2:30 a.m., Angi came home. She walked up to th bedroom, where she noticed a broken beer bottle and Cliff's eyeglasses. As she walked back out into the hall, Horton jumped her.
He rammed the gun into her face, grabbed her by the throat and dragged her into the bedroom. He tied her hands behind her back and blindfolded her. Then he tore open her shirt and camisole. He cut her jeans open with his knife, dragged the knife over her body and raped her.
"Total disbelief," Angi said later, describing her emotions during the rape. "Then fear. Constant fear. Constant survival mixed with fear. Do anything you can to just get out of it alive. And then if you get a chance to kill them, that's what you want. You just want to get a chance to get ahold of that gun."
After he was done, Angi tried to distract him. She asked him t get her a beer, which he did. She asked him to watch TV, which they did. All the while, Horton held the gun to the back of her neck. Then Horton raped her again, in the living room this time with the stereo turned on. Angi tried to grab the gun, but failed. "He got really violent with me," Angi said.
She did not know if Cliff was dead or alive, but Cliff could hea her screams while she was being raped and beaten. When he heard the second attack starting, Cliff knew he might be able to escape.
"This is really terrible, but if he hadn't attacked her, raped her a second time, I wouldn't have tried to escape because the way he had me blindfolded, I couldn't really tell where he was at," Cliff said.
Cliff managed to get free. Bleeding from his many knife wounds, his clothes hanging from him in shreds, he fled the house and ran for help. He pounded on the doors of four neighbors before one let him in to call the police.
When Horton had finished with Angi, he discovered Cliff haescaped from the basement. Knowing the police would soon be there, he began loading up Cliff's Camaro with booty from the house. While he was doing this, Angi escaped through a bathroom window.
Horton took off in the car and led police on a chase northboundown the southbound lane of a nearby highway. After a shootout with officers in which he was wounded, Horton was captured. It was now about 7 a.m.
Horton was tried and convicted of multiple counts includinrape, kidnapping and attempted murder. Prince George's County Circuit Judge Vincent J. Femia sentenced Horton to two consecutive life terms plus eighty-five years and refused to allow Horton to return to prison in Massachusetts until he was done serving his time in Maryland.
"I'm not going to take the chance you'll be on the streets againbecause you're dangerous," Judge Femia told Horton. "You should never breathe a breath of fresh air again. You should be locked up until you die."
("I never did the rape," Horton indignantly told me. Horton was not the only person feeling sorry for Horton. The Bush campaign's use of Horton would make him into the one thing he was not: a victim. There would be stories sympathetic to him. "During this whole ordeal, nobody has cared about me," Horton said. "I was used. Nobody knows the truth of my innocence. Someday they will." Horton had no shortage of people wishing to tell his story. While he was in prison, he had an aide to help him screen media interview requests.)
Later, Cliff found out that while in prison in Massachusetts, Horton had been cited for 11 disciplinary violations, including possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia. Yet during that period, Massachusetts prison officials had given Horton evaluations of "excellent" and said "he projects a quiet sense of responsibility."
Dukakis eventually would call Horton's furlough a "terriblmistake." But he would never apologize to the Barneses. The Dukakis campaign said there was no need for Dukakis to apologize for something that was not his fault. The Barneses never forgave Dukakis for that.
Cliff and Angi did not return to their home (though they had to continue the mortgage payments on it). They rented a house for a while and got five large guard dogs before buying a new home. Cliff checks all the doors and windows each day. Angi doesn't like to go out after dark anymore and doesn't like to be anywhere alone. She is withdrawn. Cliff is angry. They don't mind admitting that their sex life suffered.
Cliff, Angi and Horton were all tested for AIDS. All testenegative, but the Barneses worry that it might show up later. They worry about that because Horton was using drugs in prison. "How many clean needles can you get in prison?" Cliff asks.
Cliff doesn't sleep well and Angi wants to sleep all the timeWhen she does, she keeps a knife on the nightstand. Sometimes she keeps one by the bathtub.
WHEN ROGER AILES HEARD THE story of Willie Horton, he immediately saw its potential as an ad campaign for George Bush. "The only question," Ailes said, "is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it."
THE FURLOUGH OF WILLIE HORTON was a supremely rational decision. Prisons are expensive ($15,000 to keep a person in prison for a year; up to $75,000 for each new cell built) and crowded. Over the decades, many governors of Massachusetts had commuted the sentences of men sentenced to life without (( parole.
Some of these men were old. Some were sick. Some were of nfurther harm (the governors hoped) to the community. So a furlough was a way of helping a man adjust to the outside world, a world he might eventually enter even though sentenced to life without parole.
Besides, furloughs were a way of maintaining discipline. A mawith no chance of getting out of prison had no reason to behave himself while in prison. He was a danger to the guards and other inmates. But the possibility of a weekend pass was an incentive for good behavior.
Nationally, first-degree murderers serve only eight years oaverage before they are paroled or have their sentences commuted. So Massachusetts was hardly out of step with the rest of the nation. Under Michael Dukakis, Massachusetts had one of the lowest crime and incarceration rates of any industrialized state in the country. Furloughs were cost-effective and progressive. They were sensible. Michael Dukakis understood that kind of thing. His life revolved around that kind of thing. Government was based on sense. And furloughs made sense. As do a lot of things. Until they go wrong.
LEE ATWATER ALWAYS INSISTED HE first learned about the furlough issue from the Democrats. It was one of the few things he ever gave the Democrats credit for. Al Gore had raised the furlough issue on April 12, 1988, in New York during a primary debate, though he did not name Willie Horton.
The Republicans already were looking for dirt, however. Atwatehad already formed what he called his "Nerd Patrol."
"The only group that I was very interested in having report to mdirectly," Atwater said after the election, "was opposition research." Opposition research was headed by Jim Pinkerton, 30, who had worked in the 1980 Reagan campaign, at the White House and at the Republican National Committee. "He had about 35 excellent nerds who were in the research division," Atwater said. "They came back with enough data to fill up this room."
The Nerd Patrol researched the Democratic candidates, evercontroversial thing they had ever said, every controversial position they had ever taken or policy they had carried out. Dukakis, as the likely nominee, soon became their chief target. In the end, the 35 excellent nerds produced 125,000 quotes from 436 different sources and put them all on a computer disk for instant recall.
But Jim Pinkerton, too, claimed he first heard about the furlougissue from the Democratic debate in New York. A light went off in his head. And he called one of his best Massachusetts sources, Andy Card, a former Republican legislator now working at the White House. Pinkerton asked Card about furloughs. Card filled him in on Willie Horton.
So Pinkerton told Atwater about Willie Horton and a light went ofin Atwater's head, too. "It's the single biggest negative Dukakis has got," Atwater said.
And that's the way the Bush campaign insisted it happened: ThDemocrats raised furloughs first. So go blame Al Gore for injecting Willie Horton into the campaign. Don't blame us.
But if Pinkerton really did first hear about the furlough issue froAl Gore, he should have been fired for incompetence. (Instead Pinkerton was sworn in as deputy assistant to the president for policy planning on Jan. 23, 1989.)
Because Pinkerton didn't need a Nerd Patrol poring over newclippings and transcripts of Democratic debates to learn about furloughs and Willie Horton. All he had to do was read some national magazines or watch TV.
Newsweek not only wrote about furloughs three months beforAl Gore mentioned them during the New York primary but also provided details about Horton. The article did not mention Dukakis' name and was not treated as a political story. But
Pinkerton could have been expected to know who the governor of Massachusetts was even without the Nerd Patrol.
And if nobody in the Bush campaign was reading Newsweekthat still left Business Week. In the March 28, 1988, issue at the end of an opinion column attacking Dukakis, there was this: "One escapee from a 'Dukakis furlough' dropped in on a Maryland couple last year, stabbing the man and raping the woman. Maryland Judge Vincent Femia locked the prisoner away for several lifetimes after refusing to return him to Massachusetts. The Boston Herald quoted Judge Femia: 'I am not going to take the chance that he will be furloughed or #F released there again.' "
Which brings up another point. The Massachusetts press ha been writing about Willie Horton for months and months before Al Gore ever opened his mouth. The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune had done more than two hundred stories about the furlough program in 1987 and had won a Pulitzer Prize for them in March 1988. There had been public meetings, stormy debates, legislative maneuverings and a petition with 70,000 signatures to place the furlough issue on the ballot.
And even if nobody at the Bush campaign was reading anprinted matter, all they had to do was watch the CBS Evening News on Dec. 2, 1987, to hear all about Willie Horton and furloughs. But Bush officials always insisted they first heard about furloughs from Al Gore. Once they heard, though, they knew what they had. "The Horton case is one of those gut issues that are value issues, particularly in the South," Atwater said. "And if we hammer at these over and over, we are going to win."
Nobody had to ask what Atwater meant by "particularly in thSouth." Everybody knew how the Bubba (white Southern) vote would react to a black man raping a white woman.
Dukakis was not especially worried about furloughs. It was local issue. It was an old issue. He had handled it. Besides, he had all sorts of facts and figures in his defense. And on May 17, 1988, a New York Times/CBS poll showed Dukakis leading Bush 10 points. On May 25, the furlough policy came up once more in the last Democratic debate in San Francisco, raised by one of the panelists. Dukakis brushed it off, and many papers, including the San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times, didn't even mention it in their coverage. The furlough issue was not a big deal.
The next day, a Washington Post/ABC poll gave Dukakis 13-point lead over Bush.
But on that same day, Bush's top handlers got together behind two-way mirror in Paramus, N.J.
BY THE MEMORIAL DAY WEEKENDthe Bush campaign was in low gear. Bush had spent almost all the funds he legally could on the primaries and now, except for a few events, he had to coast until the Republican National Convention in August. It was not a good period for the campaign. Bush's negatives were high, up around 40 percent, and he was doing especially poorly with women, his so-called gender gap.
At the same time, the Democrats seemed to be sending ousignals as to what kind of campaign they were planning for the general election. On May 20, Paul Kirk, chairman of the Democratic Party, had called Bush "a quintessential establishment elitist Republican" who had "neither the toughness to govern nor the compassion to care."
Bush had seethed when he heard it. But conventional campaigwisdom dictated that Bush would have to establish a strong positive image of himself before he could strike back at the Democrats.
Lee Atwater didn't care about the conventional wisdom. Hbelieved in attack. Attack early, attack late, attack often. Attack was always good. Driving up the opponent's negatives had been his strategy in every campaign he had ever run. "I knew we had to go on the attack," he said. "If we waited until our convention to go on the attack, we would have been hopelessly behind. And I knew if we could pick the right three or four issues for a frontal attack we could shave off 10 points from the polls."
Bush had retreated to his home in Kennebunkport, Maine, tpowwow with his top advisers over the Memorial Day weekend. But few of his top advisers seemed to be around. Bush was around (he greeted reporters on Memorial Day with a cheery "Happy Veterans Day!" and nobody bothered to correct him), but where were the important people? "Where's Teeter? [Robert Teeter, Bush's pollster]" David Hoffman, a ferociously tenacious reporter for the Washington Post, kept asking people. "Where's Lee? Where is everybody?"
EVERYBODY WAS HUDDLED AT Amodernistic white-sided, black-windowed office building off a shopping strip in Paramus, N.J., about a dozen miles from Manhattan. A marketing company hired by the Bush campaign had assembled two groups of people in a conference room. The people were being paid $30 apiece to sit in comfortable blue-backed chairs around a round ++ wooden conference table for 90 minutes. They had been carefully selected.
"They all had voted for Reagan last time," Roger Ailes explaine later, "but they said they were going to vote for Dukakis this time. They were lower-white-collar, upper-blue-collar types. And they were not going to vote for George Bush. We were trying to determine why." The people were white, largely Catholic, over 25 years of age and making more than $40,000 per year.
They were swing voters, those people who swung back and forth between one party and another and determined the outcome of elections. (Some campaign strategists feel that each party has a base of 41 percent of the vote and the real election is a battle for the remaining 18 percent.) These particular swing voters were, in campaign terminology, "Joe Six-Pack" voters: white, urban and ethnic.
Republican consultant Stuart Spencer had identified a "Mediterranean tilt" among swing voters in general. Many swing voters were Catholic, many were Italians, and while they had supported Ronald Reagan in the past, they could be expected to feel a certain affinity for the "ethnic" Dukakis. So the Bush campaign wanted to know what it would take to swing these swing voters away from Dukakis and toward George Bush.
On one wall of the focus-group room was a huge two-way mirrorThe participants were told they were being watched, but they could hardly have missed it anyway: The mirror was the size of a small movie screen. Behind it were Atwater and Ailes; Robert Teeter, Bush's pollster; Craig Fuller, Bush's chief of staff; and Nicholas Brady, Bush's senior adviser. They sat in upholstered white-backed chairs and watched through the mirror as the moderator began to tell the story of Willie Horton to the group. And then he told them about Dukakis and his veto of the Pledge of Allegiance bill. And then about his opposition to prayer in the schools and to capital punishment.
Some of the people reacted with outrage; almost all reacted with surprise. They had not known these things about Dukakis. They hadn't realized, until the moderator told them, how liberal Dukakis really was. And they sure hadn't heard about furloughs and how he let that guy out of jail.
At the beginning of the focus groups, all had been Dukakisupporters. By the end of the evening, about half had switched to Bush.
"Basically, their mouths fell open," Debra Vandenbussche, icharge of interactive group research for Market Opinion Research, said. "They were appalled that he would let first-degree murderers out on furlough. There was some real strong reaction. In that hour and a half we ended up switching as many as half the voters from Dukakis voters to Bush voters."
Behind the mirror, just about all the Bush aides were impressedThe reactions of the Paramus focus groups were taped and brought back to Kennebunkport for Bush.
ROGER AILES WAS PRETTY MUCHalone in his opposition to focus groups. A focus group, he said, "is five professionals in a room who say: 'We don't know what to do, so let's get 20 amateurs to tell us what to do.' " Even so, the Bush campaign used focus groups for everything, including testing Ailes' commercials.
The data from the focus groups told the Bush handlers that the furlough issue was especially potent with women. Home invasion and rape were subjects that could be expected to outrage women. And women were exactly the voters Bush needed; this could wipe out his gender gap.
Atwater could barely believe his good luck. If the Bush campaign needed Bubba and Joe Six-Pack and women, the furlough issue was one good way to get them all. Willie Horton was going to be 191 pounds of rompin', stompin' dynamite.
The Bush campaign had found its poster boy.
ON JUNE 9, AT THE TEXAS REpublican state convention in Houston, Bush officially launched his negative campaign against Michael Dukakis. Though there were to be pauses in it, it would continue to election day.
Bush did not have to lead the attack himself. It could have beeleft to surrogates, so he could keep his own hands clean in order to lead the nation unsullied after being elected. But this idea was rejected. "We knew that if we left it to surrogates, it wouldn't have the impact," Atwater said. "Plus, Bush didn't have an image of personal meanness, so we knew he would be credible."
And George Bush did a very credible job.
"Declaring that 'today, it's a whole new ball game -- sprintraining is over,' Vice President Bush ripped into Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis . . . as a tax-raising liberal who let murderers out of jail and whose foreign policy views were 'born in Harvard Yard's boutique,' " David Hoffman wrote of Bush's June 9 speech. Attacking how Dukakis had given "unsupervised weekend furloughs to first-degree murderers," Bush said: "The question is: Is this who we want to put in charge of our drug program? Is this who's going to get tough with the kingpins and break the cartels?
"What it all comes down to," Bush said, "is two different visions."
Dukakis was not worried by Bush's speech when he read it the next day. He was even a little contemptuous of it. The presidential race, he knew, was not about "visions." It was about programs. Policies. Getting things done. It was about competency. Because, deep down, which was more important? Letting Willie Horton out of jail or creating 400,000 new jobs?
Dukakis' communications director Leslie Dach made the officia response to Bush's speech: "The American people aren't interested in mudslinging and tearing down."
Yeah. Right. That would never work.
"WHO WAS THE WILLIE HOR-ton ad made for?" Murray Fishel, a political science professor at Kent State University, asked after the election. "It was made for the 68-year-old lifelong Democrat in Parma, Ohio, who saw it and said: "If I vote for Mike Dukakis, Willie Horton will be my next-door neighbor.' "
ON JUNE 22, BUSH USED WIL-lie Horton's name in a speech for the first time. He was speaking in Louisville to the National Sheriffs Association. "Horton applied for a furlough," Bush said. "He was given the furlough. He was released. And he fled -- only to terrorize a family and repeatedly rape a woman!"
The Bush campaign knew what it was doing. Mention furloughin a speech and that got reported. Keep mentioning it, give the press a name, and you set the press in motion. You started reporters looking into the Horton case on their own. And that would produce more stories in print and on TV. And both media liked pictures. Mention Willie Horton and you got Willie Horton's picture on TV. You never had to mention Willie Horton's race. The pictures would do it for you.
On June 27 Time magazine published an article about WilliHorton titled "The One That Got Away" and subtitled "Why an escaped murderer haunts Michael Dukakis." More importantly, however, Time did what Newsweek had not: It ran Horton's picture.
Menacing, evil, brooding, Willie Horton stared out from the page and into the homes of millions of Americans.
ON THE WALL ABOVE HIS desk at Bush campaign headquarters, Mark Goodin, deputy press secretary, pasted a mug shot of Horton. He was now a member of the team.
"I felt if we could keep the Democrats tied up until ouconvention," Atwater said, "we could open wounds and build their negatives up."
Building up their negatives was critical? "Some voters will go for you because of your positive message," he said. "But most of the swing voters are 'aginners' -- they tend to vote according to who's on their side against the common enemy."
And everybody knew just who the "common enemy" was. Bi guys who break into your home, tie you up, slash you and rape you are, generally speaking, the common enemy. And George Bush was "on your side" against those kinds of people.
Willie Horton was what the Bush people called a "wedge" issue It was an issue that separated people. It was a "hot button" issue, one that drives people to instant anger.
"We can't worry about being too negative," GOP analyst Ed Mahe said. "If we don't get the anti-Dukakis message out, we can't win -- period."
After the election, E. J. Dionne of the New York Times hear rumors of a Massachusetts furlough case similar to Willie Horton's, where the facts "were more devastating to Governor Dukakis, where somebody was pardoned and then murdered someone."
Dionne confronted Atwater with his suspicions at a seminar "You never used that case, and it appears the guy is white," Dionne said. "E. J., about what you just said, I learned about that case after the election," Atwater replied. "Frankly, had I known about it, we would have been smart to go with that and never mentioned Willie Horton. If the guy was white, there would have been zero question about our intent."
But Atwater didn't learn about that white guy until after the election. He had sources in Massachusetts, he had Pinkerton, he had the Nerd Patrol -- 35 excellent guys tapping away at those computer keyboards! -- but he didn't learn about a white example until after the election.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS WAS STILL not worried. He felt he had already handled the issue. After Horton's arrest in Maryland in April 1987, Dukakis had halted further furloughs until the policy could be studied. And after outrage from both the public and the state legislature convinced him he could not really veto a bill ending furloughs, he signed it into law in April 1988. And that, he thought, was that.
Besides, the polls after the Democratic convention were very good. Oddly, the same polls that pleased Dukakis also pleased Atwater.
"I was pleased when we came out of the Democratic conventio17 points down," Atwater said. "Being 17 points down was a victory. Without the attacks we would have been 27 points down. And I was pleased with their convention for being so ungracious and unwise in their personal attacks. It gave us all the room we wanted to be personal back."
After the Republican Convention in August, the polls were no longer so good for Dukakis. The negative campaign was hurting him. So Dukakis struck back. Speaking in Massachusetts on Aug. 30, he said: "Here's a man who supported the sale of arms to a terrorist nation, one of the worst foreign policy disasters of this decade; was part of an administration that was doing business with drug-running Panamanian dictators, funneled aid to the contras through convicted drug dealers; went to the Philippines in the early '80s and commended Marcos and his commitment to democracy -- and he's talking about judgment?"
Afterward, Dukakis explained why he was now giving as good ahe had gotten. "I came to a reluctant conclusion that if it continues, you have to respond," he said. "I think that's unfortunate, but I think it's very clear what kind of campaign the Republicans are running, and I think we're going to have to deal with it."
By Labor Day, the polls showed Dukakis and Bush running evenNow it was time for the Republicans to go nuclear.
Just after Labor Day, the National Security Political ActioCommittee (also known as "Americans for Bush") called a news conference to launch a 30-second commercial featuring the face of Willie Horton.
Titled "Weekend Passes," it went like this:
VISUAL: Side-by-side photographs of Bush and Dukakis.
SOUND: "Bush and Dukakis on crime."
VISUAL: Picture of Bush.
SOUND: "Bush supports the death penalty for first-degremurderers.
VISUAL: Picture of Dukakis.
SOUND: "Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, hallowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison."
VISUAL: Police photograph of a glowering Willie Horton.
SOUND: "One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in robbery, stabbing him 14 times."
VISUAL: Picture of Willie Horton towering over a police officewho has him in custody.
SOUND: "Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekenpasses from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend."
VISUAL: The words "Kidnapping," "Stabbing" and "Rapingappear on the screen.
VISUAL: Photo of Dukakis.
SOUND: "Weekend prison passes. Dukakis on crime."
"When we're through, people are going to think that Willie Hortois Michael Dukakis' nephew," Floyd Brown, a political consultant for the group, told reporters.
The group notified James Baker, the Bush campaign chairman, that the commercial would run for 28 days. It ran only on cable TV, but that didn't matter. The network news shows picked it up and used it as an example of how negative the campaign had become.
On the 25th day of the ad's run, and after considerable publicriticism over the use of Horton's picture, Baker announced his official disapproval of the ad and sent a letter asking that the commercial be stopped.
Floyd Brown responded: "If they were really interested istopping this, do you think they would have waited that long to send us a letter?"
The Bush campaign disavowed the ad and said it was made ban independent group and the campaign had nothing to
do with it. But as the New York Times would point out in a front-page story, the ad was filmed by a former employee of Roger Ailes and the group claimed to have the tacit support of Bush officials. "Officially the [Bush] campaign has to disavow themselves from me," Elizabeth I. Fediay, the group's founder, said. "Unofficially, I hear that they're thrilled about what we're doing."
The Dukakis staff was pleased with the New York Times story, ocourse. But it couldn't help noticing that on the front page the Times had run a freeze frame from the commercial. It was the picture of Horton towering over his guard, with the words: "Horton Received 10 Weekend Passes From Prison."
So even when Dukakis won, he lost.
PRISONER NO. 189182 AT THE Maryland State Penitentiary was allowed a television set. "I had borrowed a set to keep up on the ads," Willie Horton told a reporter. "I had it in my cell. The first time I saw it was on the 11, 11:30 news. With Mary Hartman. What's the name of that news? 'E.T.' That's right. "Entertainment Tonight." They had me on that.
"When I woke up in the morning, I saw the ad again. When I wento bed at night it was on again. On again the next morning. They even had it on at midnight. One night I watched a midnight show and they was making a joke of me."
Mark Gearan, Dukakis' deputy press secretary, now wabeginning to see signs of Horton mania. "I knew the election was over," he said, "when I returned a phone call to a newspaper and I was told the reporter couldn't take my call because she was talking to Willie Horton.
DUKAKIS UNLEASHED HIS own negative ads. ("I have the videotapes of 19 Dukakis negative ads," Ailes would fume after the election. "People just don't remember his because they weren't very good.") One ad showed black-and-white photos of padlocked factory gates. The announcer said: "Should there be a law to give you and your company 60 days' notice? George Bush says no."
Six days later, the Bush campaign responded with "Crime Quiz,the ad that asked: "Which candidate for president gave weekend passes to first-degree murderers who are not even eligible for parole?"
There were two pictures: Bush, brightly lit, looking handsomand clean and American. Dukakis, shrouded by a dark background, looking swarthy and foreign. Not quite as menacing as Willie Horton, but close.
Once again, the news media gave a huge boost to the Bush adThough "Crime Quiz" ran only in Texas and California, newspapers, newsmagazines and network TV picked it up and ran it everywhere. The three network newscasts were reaching into more than 25 million homes every night. A one-minute commercial on the nightly news cost about $90,000 and to get on all three network newscasts would cost more than a quarter of a million dollars. But the networks were running Willie Horton's picture for free.
The value to the Bush campaign was incalculable. By electioday, there were few people in America who could not have picked Willie Horton out of a lineup.
THE DUKAKIS CAMPAIGN floundered for a fresh response. On Sept. 21, it had released a five-page document titled "George Bush Distorts Mike Dukakis' Record." Within 24 hours, the Bush campaign responded with a 127-page refutation.
So on Sept. 30, the Dukakis campaign aired "The Packaging oGeorge Bush." The commercial featured actors playing the Bush handlers (one looked a little like Roger Ailes) sitting around a table and saying wry, cynical things:
"I think we need another TV commercial on this furlough thing."
"No way. They're beginning to write about Dukakis' real crime record."
"Nobody reads anymore."
"Let's hope not. First of all, Dukakis changed that furlougprogram. Look at this: more cops on the street, more drug offenders behind bars, crime down 13 percent in Massachusetts."
"Just what I mean -- how long do you expect to get away with this furlough thing?"
"How many more weeks to the election, Bernie?"
Then the announcer says: "They'd like to sell you a packageWouldn't you rather choose a president?"
The Bush campaign conducted a focus group to test theffectiveness of the Dukakis ad. They found that people were confused. They didn't know if it was a Dukakis ad or a Bush ad.
"We didn't worry about it from then on," Ailes said.
Some Dukakis staff members were equally confused. They kneit was their commercial all right, but they couldn't figure out why Michael Dukakis was spending millions of dollars on a commercial that brought up the furlough issue.
In Texas, where the campaign was being especially hard-foughtEd Martin, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, was near despair at how the Dukakis campaign was being run. And he didn't believe the "Packaging of George Bush" ad was the answer.
"Maybe if you tied Bubba in a chair and tortured him with cattlprods, you'd get him to pay attention through the whole thing," he said.
AILES UNVEILED THEkind of ad Bubba would watch without a cattle prod. It was called "The Revolving Door." It was made by the Milwaukee ad agency of Dennis Frankenberry & Associates and it was a beaut.
It was black and white. Grainy. Documentary style.
Ailes knew all about fear. In an interview with the Gannett CenteJournal, Ailes said the Bush campaign's most effective commercials against Dukakis were "thematic" ones like "The Revolving Door." How did the commercials make people feel about Dukakis? "They're afraid of him," Ailes said.
"The Revolving Door" was a brilliant play to fear. It began wit throbbing, ominous music in the background.
VISUAL: A security guard walking up the steps of a tower.
SOUND: "Governor Michael Dukakis vetoed mandatorsentences for drug dealers. He vetoed the death penalty."
VISUAL: A long line of prisoners walks slowly through a revolving door made of iron bars.
SOUND: "His revolving door prison policy gave weekenfurloughs to first-degree murderers not eligible for parole."
VISUAL (on screen): "268 escaped. Many are still at large."
SOUND: "While out, many committed other crimes likkidnapping and rape and many are still at large. Now Michael Dukakis says he wants to do for America what he has done for Massachusetts. America can't afford that risk."
Only a few of the men who streamed through the revolving dooin the ad were black. Ailes said that he and Atwater had made sure that only "one or two" were black. But as the New York Times noted, the ad's "dull gray tones make it hard to identify the men by race."
Numerous stories were done about how "The Revolving Doorranged from misleading to untruthful. The 268 escapes from Massachusetts prisons were over a 10-year period, and only four of them involved convicted murderers. And at least 72 of the 268 were not really escapees, but had returned from their furloughs more than two hours late. Only three were still at large, not "many," and none of them was a convicted murderer.
There were also long detailed stories about furlough policieacross the country. On an average day around 800,000 people are in prison or jail in America and temporary releases from custody are granted to almost 10 percent of them.
But the absolute "truth" about furloughs was not the point o"The Revolving Door." Ailes wanted to create a feeling and he had. People were scared to death.
ON OCT. 18 WILLIE HORTON was asked by the Gannett News Service whom he supported for president. "Obviously, I am for Dukakis," Horton said.
The next day, Dukakis was on a campaign bus, waving tsupporters through an open window. Sam Donaldson came up the aisle with a camera crew and asked: "Did you know Willie Horton said he would vote for you?"
Dukakis didn't even turn around. "He can't vote, Sam," Dukakisaid in a tired voice. "He can't vote."
CLIFFORD AND ANGELA Barnes went on a tour of seven California and Texas cities to speak against the furlough program. Cliff said part of his motivation was that Dukakis had never apologized to them or shown the least bit of concern. When he heard this, Roger Ailes went to see a psychiatrist. Not for himself. But to check out Dukakis. "I talked to a psychiatrist about him, because I was worried Dukakis was going to turn around and start apologizing for the furloughs and everything and we'd be in trouble," Ailes said. "The psychiatrist said 'Forget it. This is a classic narcissistic personality; he's right and everybody's wrong and he's smarter than everybody else. He'll never apologize.' "
GINGERLY AT FIRST, AND then more openly, the press began questioning whether the use of Willie Horton was racist. It was an obvious question and there seemed to be an obvious answer. But the Dukakis campaign didn't want any part of it. The Dukakis campaign didn't want to accuse Bush of racism. Only after the campaign did Susan Estrich, the campaign manager, explain why.
" 'We can't afford to alienate white voters,' I was told by many imy party and my campaign; whites might be put off if we 'whine' about racism," Estrich wrote. "I am not proud of our silence."
The Dukakis campaign needed Bubba and the Six-Pack vote as much as Bush did. So it kept silent about the racial aspect of the Horton attack. Which left it to Jesse Jackson to say that the Bush campaign's use of Willie Horton and "the furlough ad with black and brown faces rotating in and out of jail" was "designed to create the most horrible psychosexual fears."
Finally, when Dukakis' silence on the subject threatened to alienate his black supporters, Lloyd Bentsen, his running mate, was allowed to speak. In an Oct. 23 appearance on "This Week with David Brinkley," Bentsen was asked whether the Bush campaign's use of the furlough issue contained racial elements.
Bentsen paused and then said: "When you add it up, I thin there is, and that's unfortunate."
After the campaign, Estrich, speaking as a white woman who had herself been raped by a black man, said: "There is no stronger metaphor for racial hatred in our country than the black man raping the white woman. If you were going to run a campaign of fear and smear and appeal to racial hatred you could not have picked a better case to use than this one."
THERE WERE MANY ATTACKS on Dukakis besides the furlough issue. He was attacked for his membership in the ACLU, his veto of the Pledge of Allegiance bill, phony reports that he had seen a psychiatrist, phony accusations that his wife, Kitty, had burned a flag while in college and even rumors that he supported bestiality.
But no issue was as potent as Willie Horton. In October pollster Lou Harris said the furlough ad and attacks on Dukakis' opposition to the death penalty had influenced voters more than anything else in the 1988 campaign. "Really more than the debates, more than anything else, they have determined the set of the election until now," he said. Some 63 percent of the voters now saw Dukakis as soft on crime as compared with 52 percent before the Bush attacks were aired. And 49 percent now termed Dukakis out of the political mainstream as compared with 34 percent before.
Time magazine declared in a headline that Willie Horton habecome "Bush's Most Valuable Player."
So in the end, everybody wanted to know the same thing: Whdid Dukakis wait so long to respond to Bush's attacks?
But the real problem in responding to the Willie Horton ad anthe furlough ad was that Dukakis had nothing to say. This was best demonstrated by a senior Dukakis aide who disgustedly pushed a piece of paper across a table at me and said: "OK, you write our response to Willie Horton. You write the catchy phrase. You come up with the 30-second spot. You come up with the jingle. What are we supposed to say? That Horton wasn't let out of prison and that he didn't rape that woman? What the hell are we supposed to say?"
The Willie Horton attack did not succeed against Dukakis because Dukakis responded to it too late. It succeeded because race and fear worked in America in 1988. And every time Dukakis responded by mentioning furloughs or Willie Horton, it only reminded people of how Dukakis had let this terrible man out of prison.
In desperation, Dukakis took another route. There is an olsaying that you should never get down in the mud with a pig because you will get dirty and the pig will like it. But with his ad about Angel Medrano, Michael Dukakis got down in the mud with George Bush.
"George Bush talks a lot about prison furloughs," the Dukakis asaid. "But he won't tell you that the Massachusetts program was started by a Republican governor and stopped by Michael Dukakis. And Bush won't talk about the thousands of drug kingpins furloughed from federal prisons while he led the war on drugs."
Then the photo of Angel Medrano, a convicted heroin dealerappeared on the screen. "Bush won't talk about this drug pusher one of his furloughed heroin dealers -- who raped and murdered Patsy Pedrin, pregnant mother of two." Then the picture of Patsy Pedrin being carried away in a body bag flashed on the screen.
"The real story about furloughs," the ad concluded, "is thaGeorge Bush has taken a furlough from the truth."
The Bush campaign felt that Dukakis had given up any morasuperiority by running that ad. After all, the Bush campaign had never "officially" used a picture of a black man, while the Dukakis campaign had "officially" used the picture of a Hispanic.
"What about their ad about the halfway house?" George Busasked reporters whenever they brought up his furlough ad. "Is that racism against Hispanics? That's what I think."
Michael Dukakis was sure that the voters would see througBush's ads. "The American people can smell the garbage," Dukakis said. But by the end of the campaign, neither side was exactly smelling like a rose.
THE BUSH HANDLERS REC-ognized that Willie Horton had set off a hue and cry in the press. They read the analytical pieces saying they were making Dukakis look like a victim and gaining him sympathy. They read predictions that the public would become disgusted with their tactics and reward Dukakis with a victory.
They read these pieces and they shrugged them off. They wernot going to change course now. By Oct. 18, the Bush campaign had earmarked half of its remaining $30 million advertising budget for negative commercials. "We decided against changing our ad flow," a Bush aide said. "It would be foolish."
Not that the Horton campaign had no downside. It was dirty. Iwas vicious. It was racial. Many people were upset by it. But little of that rubbed off on George Bush.
Bush's aides took pains to point out how Bush had to bdragged -- kicking and screaming! -- into going negative. Atwater told me he needed the data from Paramus not because he believed so much in focus groups -- Atwater would have gone negative without focus groups -- but in order to persuade Bush.
"I needed that [Paramus] to convince everyone on the staff swe could all go to the candidate united and convince him," Atwater said. "That was the purpose. When we went to Kennebunkport and explained it to him, he understood. If you have a valid point, you can make it to him."
So what was your valid point to Bush about going negative? asked.
Atwater said: "I said to Bush: 'We're 17 points back and they'lpick up 10 more points at their convention and we won't win. Even with a good campaign we won't win. You can get so far xTC behind that even a good campaign won't win it for you. That's what happened with Jerry Ford.' And that's what I told him."
"And after that," Atwater said, "it was an easy sell."
As revealing as that anecdote is about Bush's character, it still covers up as much as it reveals. The fact is that Bush began attacking Dukakis before the Paramus focus groups and before the Memorial Day meeting at Kennebunkport. Weeks before Paramus, Bush had attacked Dukakis about his lack of foreign policy experience and his decision not to support the death penalty for drug dealers. And on May 25, the day before the Paramus focus groups were conducted, Bush attacked Dukakis for vetoing the Pledge of Allegiance bill.
Still, anecdotes his aides recounted always had the same pointYou had to twist Bush's arm to get him to attack.
But viewed another way, George Bush appeared to be a mawho went around with his arm stuck out saying: "Twist it! Twist it! Somebody twist it quick!"
George Bush wanted to win. That was his bottom line. The preswould start writing about Good George and Bad George. How in the mornings Good George would tell crowds that he wanted to become the education president and how in the afternoons Bad George would attack Dukakis for being soft on crime.
But it was not a matter of Good George vs. Bad George, eacstruggling for the soul of the candidate. From virtually the first day of the campaign to the last, there was only Flexible George. Pliable George. Expedient George.
To him, the question was not whether it was the right thing. Thquestion was whether it was the winning thing.
"I have no regrets," Bush told reporters shortly before electioday. And he didn't.
Earlier in the campaign, on the same day Bush had first useWillie Horton's name in a speech -- thus assuring Horton's picture would be on television that night -- reporters had gathered around him shouting questions on the negative slant of the campaign and his use of Horton.
Bush said it wasn't a matter of being negative; it was a matter ohis opponent's real record.
Then Bush raised both his arms to the sky and said: 'God strikme down if I'm not telling the truth!'
All eyes followed his arms upward.
But the heavens did not open. No lightning bolt rent the skyGeorge Bush lowered his arms.
Some thought he looked relieved.