Trying to find the real Willie Horton

DAN RODRICKS

August 12, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Some people visit Baltimore to check out Oriole Park. Others come for the Preakness. Others for Miss Bonnie's Elvis Shrine.

Jeffrey Elliot comes here to see Willie Horton.

He has come up from North Carolina a few times, dropping by the Maryland Penitentiary after 2 a.m. -- a condition imposed by prison officials -- to interview the convicted murderer, rapist and unwitting poster child of the 1988 George Bush campaign.

Elliot, a professor of political science at North Carolina Central University and a prolific writer, might not be the only journalist still interested in Horton, but he is apparently the only with access.

Aside from a brief chat with ABC-TV's Sam Donaldson, Horton has granted interviews to no one else in the five years since he became a household name and his mug shot a symbol of racial exploitation in politics.

Why Jeffrey Elliot and not, say, Barbara Walters?

Elliot's forte is the interview -- he's had several published in Playboy -- and he believes Horton is part of American history because of the way he was used to racially polarize the electorate.

What Elliot has done is humanize a footnote.

Horton was the star of a Republican TV commercial that ran for 28 days in the fall of 1988. Using Horton's mug shot from the Prince George's County police and flashing the words "stabbing" and "raping" and "weekend pass," the ad blasted Bush's opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, for the prison furlough program from which Horton had escaped. (The program was established under Dukakis's Republican predecessor, Frank Sargent.)

The late Lee Atwater, the political whiz who helped make George Bush president, once vowed to "strip the bark off" Dukakis and "make Willie Horton his running mate."

Just before he died in 1991, however, Atwater said he regretted using the Horton case to give Bush the edge. "I am sorry for both statements," he said. "The first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not."

There is little doubt that the use of the Horton case went beyond a Republican attack that Democrats were soft on crime. As Elliot puts it, the commercial constituted "blatant racial exploitation and an appeal to the basest instincts in the American public."

"Rather than appeal to the voters' nobler instincts," Elliot said yesterday, "the campaign appealed to their prejudices and fears."

Intrigued, Elliot went about trying to score an interview with Horton, to humanize him and to learn how he felt about being used as a political weapon.

Elliot's first exchange with Horton appeared in the December 1989 Playboy.

Another interview, the result of 12 hours of conversation, appears in this week's edition of The Nation, entitled, "The 'Willie' Horton Nobody Knows." The first name appears in quotes because Horton, it turns out, has always been known by family and friends as William.

"My name is not 'Willie,'" Horton says in the latest interview. "It's part of the myth of the case. The name irks me. It was created to play on racial stereotypes: big, ugly, violent, black 'Willie.' I resent that."

In The Nation interview, as in the Playboy interview, Horton denies that he committed the 1974 murder of Joseph Fournier in Massachusetts and, while an escapee from the furlough program 12 years later, the brutal rape of a Maryland woman and the stabbing of her fiance.

Horton, whom Elliot describes as "quiet and cautious," becomes highly animated when he denounces the convictions. "A discussion of the rape," Elliot says, "drives him to his greatest and most passionate denial. He is incredibly assertive about it."

Of course, a lot of criminals are.

Horton has been in the Maryland correctional system since his rape and assault convictions, which he attacks with great liberty in the Elliot interview. He says he still plans to appeal.

"Several journalists, some of whom believe in my innocence, have told me that my story has lost its currency," Horton tells Elliot. "Well, the truth remains to be told. I am not a killer, I am not a rapist, I am not a liar, I am not an animal. . . . [The 1988 ads] portrayed a brutal criminal. I would have hated him, too -- that is, if he weren't created out of whole cloth."

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