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How A Murderer And Rapist Became The Bush Campaign's Most Valuable Player

November 11, 1990|By ROGER SIMON | ROGER SIMON,Roger Simon is a nationally syndicated columnist for The Sun. This excerpt is from his new book, "Road Show," published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Copyright 1990 by Roger Simon. Reprinted with permission.

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?

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