Twenty-five years later, the infamous Willie Horton ad continues to make its impact on American politics.
The 1988 campaign ad was waged by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in his presidential run against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. As depicted in the TV commercial, Horton— a black man serving a life sentence without parole for murder—was released as a part of a Massachusetts weekend furlough program. While on furlough, Horton committed armed robbery and rape.
The specter of Horton played a decisive role in the 1988 race, arguably dooming Dukakis’ bid for the White House. The governor’s decision to ride in a tank—and his principled yet lackluster response to a question on his death penalty stance if his wife were raped and murdered—did not help his cause. But Willie Horton upended the race and represented a new low in race card politics, and the manipulation of white fear of black criminality—and an irrational and visceral hatred of black people in general—to win elections.
As recently as the other day, the spirit of the Horton ad visited the New York City mayoral race. Republican candidate Joe Lhota released an attack ad warning that if Democrat Bill de Blasio is elected, “recklessly dangerous agenda on crime will take us back to this.” The ad, called “Can’t Go Back,” featured ominous black and white photos from the 1970s through the 1990s, including the image of a frightened white woman on a graffiti-filled subway car.
Although the campaign ad never explicitly mentioned Willie Horton, the message was clear. De Blasio fought back, calling Lhtoa’s ad “disgusting, inappropriate and divisive,” and comparing it to Willie Horton.
“I’m looking around at my colleagues, a lot of us went through the 1980s, the 1990s. We saw the way politics developed, sadly for the worst. This is just like the Willie Horton ad. It is divisive and negative,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Willie Horton commercial was the brainchild of the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater, who was the subject of a PBS documentary, Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story. Atwater was a Machiavellian trailblazer of sorts, setting new standards of lowliness in a political arena already marred by sleaze, and destroyed lives in the process. He started his career as a protégé of the racist Sen. Strom Thurmond, someone who thrived on white supremacy and the manipulation of the race card, yet had a black daughter and concealed his hypocrisy until his death.
Apparently, Atwater learned well from his racist mentor. The father of the modern dirty tricks school of political campaigning and architect of the Southern Strategy, Atwater claimed victory for Congressman (later Governor) Carroll Campbell by characterizing his Jewish opponent, Max Heller, as someone who “should not be elected because he was not a Christian and did not ‘’believe Jesus Christ has come yet.’”
Atwater’s Horton ad played on the narrative of the menacing black man who rapes white women, of which rumors often led to race riots and the lynching of black men under the Jim Crow era. This ad represented the ultimate in the Southern Strategy, that is, the Republican Party’s raw, unabashed appeals to white Southerners through the invocation of white-skin solidarity and fear of people of color. Further, it had built upon the successes of Reagan-era racial scapegoating in the form of the “welfare queen.”
Appointed to Howard University’s board of trustees in 1989, then-Republican party chair Atwater was shown the door by Howard students, in a level of protest not seen on the Washington, D.C. campus since the Vietnam War. Perhaps Atwater thought his love for Black music would get him over, but such was not the case.
On his deathbed in 1991, with his Bible still wrapped in its cellophane, Atwater repented and had his coming-to-Jesus moment. Succumbing to a brain tumor, he apologized to all those he had defamed and destroyed for political gain. And yet, the damage had been done.
Over the years in American politics, the Southern Strategy has continued in the form of the black boogeyman, the scapegoat, the “other”—a personification of conservative white resentment over the gains African-Americans made in the civil rights movement.
In 1990, political consultant Alex Castellanos was responsible for the “Hands” commercial, used by North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms in his reelection bid against a black challenger, former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt. The ad, one of the most divisive ever, featured an angry white man crumpling up a job rejection letter. According to the commercial, the worker was the best qualified, but had lost out because “they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.”
And in the 2000 presidential primary season, the campaign of George W. Bush spread rumors that his then-rival, Senator John McCain, fathered a black baby out of wedlock.
In addition, the Republican National Committee financed a television commercial against the Senate bid of Harold Ford, Jr. in Tennessee in 2006. The racially controversial and sexually suggestive ad featured a bare-shouldered white woman winking at the camera and saying “Harold, call me.”
Meanwhile, on November 4, 2008 with the election of Barack Obama, the Southern Strategy came full circle in the age of the Tea Party. The Southern Strategy is all the GOP has left. Since the Atwater days, conservative Republicans have been anti-tax and anti-government because blacks are viewed as the beneficiaries of government, with African-Americans standing to lose more than whites with the slashing of government programs.
However, now the president is black, and he represents everything they have fought all these years—the product of an interracial marriage, presumed foreign, with Ivy League diplomas unfairly secured through affirmative action programs. The former party of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass turned Obama, their political enemy, into the new boogeyman, Willie Horton 2.0.
Bringing down President Obama meant defunding his crowning achievement, Obamacare. And they were willing to shut down the government in the process.
As politicians continue to stoke the fires of racial anger, anxiety and resentment, the Willie Horton ad lives on.