Conservative commentators have taken to repeating the mantra that Al Gore introduced Willie Horton, the inflammatory racial symbol who enlivened the 1988 presidential race, to political debate in America. On Oct. 24, William Kristol, editor and publisher of the Weekly Standard, said on ABC’s This Week:
Gore’s a mean, tough political fighter. Gore is the one who introduced Willie Horton to American politics in the 1988 primary against Mike Dukakis.
Kristol repeated this, almost verbatim, in a “Memo to Bill Bradley” that appeared in the issue of Newsweek that hit newsstands the following day:
Big Al can be a tough, mean player. After all, he’s the guy who introduced Willie Horton to the American public in his primary campaign against Michael Dukakis.
Four days after that, Paul Gigot wrote in his Oct. 29 Wall Street Journal column:
Recall that the candidate who first raised the prison furlough (Willie Horton) issue against Mike Dukakis in 1988 wasn’t George Bush. It was Al Gore.
Horton, you may recall, is a black man who, while doing prison time in Massachusetts for murder, escaped from a weekend furlough and committed a particularly brutal assault and rape. Dukakis hadn’t started the state program that allowed prisoners like Horton, who were serving life sentences without parole, to take furloughs–that would have been Dukakis’ Republican predecessor as governor of Massachusetts, Francis Sargent. But Dukakis, even after hearing what Horton did on his furlough, was resistant to ending the program, which the state legislature finally did after much crusading by a local newspaper. Horton’s story was subsequently offered up by Vice President George Bush’s campaign as evidence of Dukakis’ softness on crime, and–less directly–of the Democratic party’s excessive fondness for black people. (It was an ugly election.) Introducing Willie Horton to American political discourse would not seem to be something to be proud of. Is it true that Gore did so? And if it is true, was Gore’s 1988 campaign guilty of injecting cryptic racist messages into the debate? The answers to these questions are, respectively, yes and no.
Gore did ask Dukakis, in a debate right before the 1988 New York primary, about “weekend passes for convicted criminals.” Here is how Sidney Blumenthal, now a Clinton White House aide but then a reporter for the Washington Post, wrote it up a few months later:
An uncomfortable Dukakis, after dispassionately reciting statistics, conceded that the Massachusetts furlough program for murderers sentenced to life imprisonment had been canceled.The issue did not take for Gore, but the exchange attracted the interest of Jim Pinkerton, the research director for the then flailing Bush campaign. “That’s the first time I paid attention,” said Pinkerton. “I thought to myself, ‘This is incredible’ …It totally fell into our lap.”
In reviewing this history, it’s important to make some crucial distinctions. Gore never mentioned that Horton was black; indeed, he never mentioned Horton by name. He merely drew attention, correctly, to the damaging fact that Dukakis had tolerated a furlough program for especially violent criminals in his state even after a horrific incident strongly suggested this was a bad policy. It’s conceivable, of course, that Gore was warming up for more explicit and racially tinged use of Horton’s story later in the primary fight. But that would have been uncharacteristic of him. In any event, Gore dropped out of the race shortly after the debate.
Now recall what the Republicans did with Horton’s story: An “independent expenditure” group aired an ad for Bush showing a picture of Horton. A Republican fund-raising letter in Maryland showed pictures of Dukakis and Horton alongside the following text: “Is this your pro-family team for 1988?” Horton told Playboy magazine in 1989 that a woman who identified herself as working for “an organization affiliated with the Bush campaign” phoned him and wrote letters to him up in prison trying to get him to endorse Dukakis. The official Bush campaign, of course, kept its distance from such efforts, and claimed to use Horton only in race-neutral ways. But there is plenty of evidence that it was heartily appreciative of the racial subtext. In his book about the 1988 campaign, Pledging Allegiance, Blumenthal quotes an anonymous member of the Bush campaign team as saying, “Willie Horton has star quality. Willie’s going to be politically furloughed to terrorize again. It’s a wonderful mix of liberalism and a big black rapist.” Although Bush’s campaign manager, Lee Atwater, always insisted publicly that for the Bush campaign Horton was never a racial symbol, Atwater slipped in a speech he gave to southern Republicans right before that year’s Democratic convention:
There is a story about a fellow named Willie Horton who for all I know may end up to be Dukakis’ running mate. Dukakis is making Hamlet look like the rock of Gibraltar in the way he’s acted on this. [This was a reference to Dukakis’ search for a vice-presidential candidate.] The guy was on TV about a month ago and he said you’ll never see me standing in the driveway of my house talking to these candidates. And guess what, on Monday, I saw in the driveway of his house? Jesse Jackson. So anyway, maybe he’ll put this Willie Horton guy on the ticket after all is said and done.
As was noted at the time by Thomas Edsall of the Washington Post and others, Atwater was pretty clearly equating Jesse Jackson with Willie Horton because both happened to be black. Gore never did that. He never did anything close to that.