"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.