When Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg referred to the infamous "Willie Horton" attack ads as "racial politics," U.S. News & World Report senior writer Michael Barone accused Greenberg of "blood libel on the American people."
Barone made his comments as a panelist on the November 15 edition of The Kalb Report, which airs on C-SPAN. Host Marvin Kalb moderated a live panel discussion titled "A Post-Election Analysis: Values, Religion, Politics and the Media." Barone emphatically denied Greenberg's claim that "racial politics" were a factor in the Republican Party's ascendance in the South in the 1980s.
The "Willie Horton" television ads attacked Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis during the 1988 presidential campaign. But even the campaign of Dukakis's opponent, George H.W. Bush, denounced the ads featuring an ominous-looking photo of Horton, who is black, and asked the independent pro-Bush National Security Political Action Committee to stop running them, according to an October 29, 1988, article in The Washington Post. In 1991, Bush's 1988 campaign manager, Lee Atwater, apologized to Dukakis for promising in 1988 to "make Willie Horton his [Dukakis's] running mate." According to a January 14, 1991, Associated Press report, Atwater, who was gravely ill at the time, regretted the statement "because it makes me sound racist, which I am not."
From the November 15 edition of The Kalb Report:
GREENBERG: Well, first of all, I don't know, welfare queen, Willie Horton. That strikes me as racial politics in the 1980s.
BARONE: I think you are absolutely wrong about Willie Horton, and I want to strenuously disagree.
I think this whole Willie Horton thing is a slur on the American people. The argument has been made by Democrats and liberals that the Bush campaign in '88 supposedly showed pictures of this man. It did not. There was an independent expenditure ad that did. But they did not. They showed white prisoners in the ad. And the argument against Michael Dukakis, which he never effectively countered because there is no effective counter, is that giving furlough to people who have life without parole is a position that Dukakis defended over 11 years as governor of Massachusetts or governor candidate, is a crazy law, and he supported it over 11 years. You don't have to be a racist to want a murderer, whatever his race, to stay in jail and not be allowed outside on the weekend. To say that the American people were racist and they just want black people in, is blood libel on the American people.
The term "blood libel" specifically denotes accusations that a particular group -- often Jews -- practices murderous human sacrifice. The online encyclopedia Wikipedia "notes: "A famous example of blood libel is the allegation that Jews kill Christian and Muslim children and use their blood to make Passover matzohs."
In the fall of 1988, the National Security PAC, an independent political action committee aligned with the Bush-Quayle '88 campaign, ran a television spot called "Weekend Passes," which introduced America to "Willie Horton." Horton, a convicted murderer, had raped a Maryland woman and brutalized her husband after escaping from the Massachusetts prison furlough program. As Salon.com explained in a 2000 recap of the Horton affair, "'Weekend Passes' meshed well with an official Bush campaign ad, 'Revolving Doors' -- another spot critical of prison furlough programs," though the official Bush campaign ads did not include Horton's name or photo.
Apart from the Bush-Quayle '88 campaign's denunciation and Atwater's admission that race was an element in the Horton attack, other nonpartisan outlets have also acknowledged this obvious fact:
- The Washington Post referred to "the case of Willie Horton, which has become synonymous with racist politics" in a January 22, 2000, article.
- Washington Post reporter and syndicated columnist David S. Broder wrote in a February 26, 1997, column that then-President Bill Clinton "has separated the crime issue from the race issue -- no Willie Hortons in his ads -- and thereby made it possible for the former to be addressed seriously on its own terms, without the stigma of disguised racism."
- Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who served as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under President George H.W. Bush, also found the Horton ads racist. A September 14, 1995, Associated Press article quoted the relevant passage from Powell's 1995 memoir, My American Journey: "Was the ad depicting the [Horton] incident racist? Of course. Had it bothered me? Certainly," Powell wrote. "It was a political cheap shot."
- An article on the "Willie Horton" ads at the website InsidePolitics.org by Darrell West, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University, also highlighted the race-baiting in the Horton ads:
These ads were effective on the crime issue, but they also held another advantage for Bush. The spots aroused racial fears as well. Owing to Horton's visage, made clear in "Weekend Passes" and network news coverage, race was an obvious factor in how voters saw the crime spree. After all, Republicans had picked the perfect racial crime, that of a black felon raping a white woman.
- A 1993 analysis of "Weekend Passes" by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication, noted that the ad's reference to Horton as "Willie" Horton, rather than "William," injected a racist undertone into the ad, given that Horton himself used the name "William," as did court records and news reports:
Although his given name is William, he calls himself William, court records cite him as William, a July 1988 Reader's Digest article identifies him as William J. Horton, Jr., and press reports prior to the Republican ad and speech blitz name him "William," the Bush campaign and its supporting PACs identified the furloughed convict as "Willie" Horton. Even the crusading anti-Dukakis newspaper that won a Pulitzer Prize for its exposé on the furlough program consistently identifies Horton as William Horton or William Horton, Jr. ...
One might trace the familiar "Willie" to the naming practices of slavemasters, to our patterns of talk about gangsters, or to the sort of benign paternalism that afflicts adults around small children. Whatever its origin, in discussions of murder, kidnapping, and rape, "Willie" summons more sinister images of criminality than does "William."