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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 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."

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