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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.

Bush did not have to lead the attack himself. It could have beeleft to surrogates, so he could keep his own hands clean in order to lead the nation unsullied after being elected. But this idea was rejected. "We knew that if we left it to surrogates, it wouldn't have the impact," Atwater said. "Plus, Bush didn't have an image of personal meanness, so we knew he would be credible."

And George Bush did a very credible job.

"Declaring that 'today, it's a whole new ball game -- sprintraining is over,' Vice President Bush ripped into Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis . . . as a tax-raising liberal who let murderers out of jail and whose foreign policy views were 'born in Harvard Yard's boutique,' " David Hoffman wrote of Bush's June 9 speech. Attacking how Dukakis had given "unsupervised weekend furloughs to first-degree murderers," Bush said: "The question is: Is this who we want to put in charge of our drug program? Is this who's going to get tough with the kingpins and break the cartels?

"What it all comes down to," Bush said, "is two different visions."

Dukakis was not worried by Bush's speech when he read it the next day. He was even a little contemptuous of it. The presidential race, he knew, was not about "visions." It was about programs. Policies. Getting things done. It was about competency. Because, deep down, which was more important? Letting Willie Horton out of jail or creating 400,000 new jobs?

Dukakis' communications director Leslie Dach made the officia response to Bush's speech: "The American people aren't interested in mudslinging and tearing down."

Yeah. Right. That would never work.

"WHO WAS THE WILLIE HOR-ton ad made for?" Murray Fishel, a political science professor at Kent State University, asked after the election. "It was made for the 68-year-old lifelong Democrat in Parma, Ohio, who saw it and said: "If I vote for Mike Dukakis, Willie Horton will be my next-door neighbor.' "

ON JUNE 22, BUSH USED WIL-lie Horton's name in a speech for the first time. He was speaking in Louisville to the National Sheriffs Association. "Horton applied for a furlough," Bush said. "He was given the furlough. He was released. And he fled -- only to terrorize a family and repeatedly rape a woman!"

The Bush campaign knew what it was doing. Mention furloughin a speech and that got reported. Keep mentioning it, give the press a name, and you set the press in motion. You started reporters looking into the Horton case on their own. And that would produce more stories in print and on TV. And both media liked pictures. Mention Willie Horton and you got Willie Horton's picture on TV. You never had to mention Willie Horton's race. The pictures would do it for you.

On June 27 Time magazine published an article about WilliHorton titled "The One That Got Away" and subtitled "Why an escaped murderer haunts Michael Dukakis." More importantly, however, Time did what Newsweek had not: It ran Horton's picture.

Menacing, evil, brooding, Willie Horton stared out from the page and into the homes of millions of Americans.

ON THE WALL ABOVE HIS desk at Bush campaign headquarters, Mark Goodin, deputy press secretary, pasted a mug shot of Horton. He was now a member of the team.

"I felt if we could keep the Democrats tied up until ouconvention," Atwater said, "we could open wounds and build their negatives up."

Building up their negatives was critical? "Some voters will go for you because of your positive message," he said. "But most of the swing voters are 'aginners' -- they tend to vote according to who's on their side against the common enemy."

And everybody knew just who the "common enemy" was. Bi guys who break into your home, tie you up, slash you and rape you are, generally speaking, the common enemy. And George Bush was "on your side" against those kinds of people.

Willie Horton was what the Bush people called a "wedge" issue It was an issue that separated people. It was a "hot button" issue, one that drives people to instant anger.

"We can't worry about being too negative," GOP analyst Ed Mahe said. "If we don't get the anti-Dukakis message out, we can't win -- period."

After the election, E. J. Dionne of the New York Times hear rumors of a Massachusetts furlough case similar to Willie Horton's, where the facts "were more devastating to Governor Dukakis, where somebody was pardoned and then murdered someone."

Dionne confronted Atwater with his suspicions at a seminar "You never used that case, and it appears the guy is white," Dionne said. "E. J., about what you just said, I learned about that case after the election," Atwater replied. "Frankly, had I known about it, we would have been smart to go with that and never mentioned Willie Horton. If the guy was white, there would have been zero question about our intent."

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