Willie Horton's Revenge

July 16, 1992

Four years ago, Willie Horton was the unwitting point man, the cutting edge, the bludgeon of George Bush's winning campaign for president. Horton, a black convict furloughed by Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis when he was governor of Massachusetts, had raped a Maryland woman when he was outside prison bars and thereby became part of history.

A Republican operative by the name of Floyd Brown made a TV commercial at once covertly racist and overtly suggestive that the Democrats were soft on crime. Aired repeatedly by the 1988 Bush campaign, the Horton ad became the ultimate political dirty trick. And a successful one, especially when Governor Dukakis made the mistake of not deigning to reply.

Yet after he was elected to the White House, President Bush found memories of the Horton ad did not gibe with his stated wish to be leader of a "kinder, gentler" nation. Defensively and often, he found himself having to deny that the Horton ad was the hate-mongering, fear-mongering gimmick it was.

Thus, when the same Floyd Brown surfaced last week as marketer of a pay-telephone tape of conversations between Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and Gennifer Flowers, the tabloid heroine who claimed she had had a 12-year romantic affair with the 1992 Democratic nominee, Mr. Bush became tougheningly aghast.

"We will do whatever we can. . .to see that (Floyd Brown) does not use my name for these nefarious purposes," Mr. Bush proclaimed. The White House quickly sent out letters dissociating itself and the "Bush/Quayle '92" organization from Mr. Brown's "Citizens for Bush" group.

If Willie Horton has now been transmogrified into a boomerang capable of wounding the politicians who exploited his crimes in 1988, this is a morality tale worth telling. American politics will be changed for the better if its practitioners stop stooping to dirty tricks.

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