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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.

PRISONER NO. 189182 AT THE Maryland State Penitentiary was allowed a television set. "I had borrowed a set to keep up on the ads," Willie Horton told a reporter. "I had it in my cell. The first time I saw it was on the 11, 11:30 news. With Mary Hartman. What's the name of that news? 'E.T.' That's right. "Entertainment Tonight." They had me on that.

"When I woke up in the morning, I saw the ad again. When I wento bed at night it was on again. On again the next morning. They even had it on at midnight. One night I watched a midnight show and they was making a joke of me."

Mark Gearan, Dukakis' deputy press secretary, now wabeginning to see signs of Horton mania. "I knew the election was over," he said, "when I returned a phone call to a newspaper and I was told the reporter couldn't take my call because she was talking to Willie Horton.

DUKAKIS UNLEASHED HIS own negative ads. ("I have the videotapes of 19 Dukakis negative ads," Ailes would fume after the election. "People just don't remember his because they weren't very good.") One ad showed black-and-white photos of padlocked factory gates. The announcer said: "Should there be a law to give you and your company 60 days' notice? George Bush says no."

Six days later, the Bush campaign responded with "Crime Quiz,the ad that asked: "Which candidate for president gave weekend passes to first-degree murderers who are not even eligible for parole?"

There were two pictures: Bush, brightly lit, looking handsomand clean and American. Dukakis, shrouded by a dark background, looking swarthy and foreign. Not quite as menacing as Willie Horton, but close.

Once again, the news media gave a huge boost to the Bush adThough "Crime Quiz" ran only in Texas and California, newspapers, newsmagazines and network TV picked it up and ran it everywhere. The three network newscasts were reaching into more than 25 million homes every night. A one-minute commercial on the nightly news cost about $90,000 and to get on all three network newscasts would cost more than a quarter of a million dollars. But the networks were running Willie Horton's picture for free.

The value to the Bush campaign was incalculable. By electioday, there were few people in America who could not have picked Willie Horton out of a lineup.

THE DUKAKIS CAMPAIGN floundered for a fresh response. On Sept. 21, it had released a five-page document titled "George Bush Distorts Mike Dukakis' Record." Within 24 hours, the Bush campaign responded with a 127-page refutation.

So on Sept. 30, the Dukakis campaign aired "The Packaging oGeorge Bush." The commercial featured actors playing the Bush handlers (one looked a little like Roger Ailes) sitting around a table and saying wry, cynical things:

"I think we need another TV commercial on this furlough thing."

"No way. They're beginning to write about Dukakis' real crime record."

"Nobody reads anymore."

"Let's hope not. First of all, Dukakis changed that furlougprogram. Look at this: more cops on the street, more drug offenders behind bars, crime down 13 percent in Massachusetts."

"Just what I mean -- how long do you expect to get away with this furlough thing?"

"How many more weeks to the election, Bernie?"

They laugh.

Then the announcer says: "They'd like to sell you a packageWouldn't you rather choose a president?"

The Bush campaign conducted a focus group to test theffectiveness of the Dukakis ad. They found that people were confused. They didn't know if it was a Dukakis ad or a Bush ad.

"We didn't worry about it from then on," Ailes said.

Some Dukakis staff members were equally confused. They kneit was their commercial all right, but they couldn't figure out why Michael Dukakis was spending millions of dollars on a commercial that brought up the furlough issue.

In Texas, where the campaign was being especially hard-foughtEd Martin, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, was near despair at how the Dukakis campaign was being run. And he didn't believe the "Packaging of George Bush" ad was the answer.

"Maybe if you tied Bubba in a chair and tortured him with cattlprods, you'd get him to pay attention through the whole thing," he said.

AILES UNVEILED THEkind of ad Bubba would watch without a cattle prod. It was called "The Revolving Door." It was made by the Milwaukee ad agency of Dennis Frankenberry & Associates and it was a beaut.

It was black and white. Grainy. Documentary style.

Ailes knew all about fear. In an interview with the Gannett CenteJournal, Ailes said the Bush campaign's most effective commercials against Dukakis were "thematic" ones like "The Revolving Door." How did the commercials make people feel about Dukakis? "They're afraid of him," Ailes said.

"The Revolving Door" was a brilliant play to fear. It began wit throbbing, ominous music in the background.

VISUAL: A security guard walking up the steps of a tower.

SOUND: "Governor Michael Dukakis vetoed mandatorsentences for drug dealers. He vetoed the death penalty."

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