I Just Can't Forget Willie Horton!

The time of one's death often inspires fond memories and warm recollections.  In order to deal with the grief of loss,  we naturally put a positive spin on our memories of the dearly departed.  This has been especially true of George Herbert Walker Bush.  By and large I echo many of the positive kudos  of President Bush's career in public service.  This is particularly true when you contrast his career with that of the present occupant of the White House.

George H.W. Bush was an honorable man.  He served his country in times of war and peace and did so with courage and distinction.  Moreover, he was a loving father and devoted family man with no trace of scandal in his personal life.  He devoted the better part of his adult life to public service when it would have been much easier and certainly more profitable for him  to have pursued a path of self-aggrandizement.  So, for the most part, I look back on the life and times of George Herbert Walker Bush positively.

But there is a contrarian streak in me that finds it impossible to let things go at that, to give President Bush a pass for perhaps the one blot against his record of public service.  I can't help but remember a moment in his life that is decidedly not covered in distinction.  It should be remembered that the early persona of George Bush was that he was too effete, too weak to be elected President of the United States, that the lacked the requisite toughness to occupy the Oval Office.  I don't think there's any question but that this impression of "weakness" kept him from becoming President until he was well into his 60's.  And for the most part, he bore this reputation for being a kind of effete, East Coast wimp with a good deal of equanimity, secure in the knowledge that he did indeed have the stuff to be President.

But, as he faced the prospect of running for President again in 1988 the thought of having to deal with his alleged wussiness once more proved too difficult for him.  He was bound and determined not to put into that "wimp" box yet again.  And so it was at this point that he shucked his nice guy image, hired a professional political attack dog to run his Presidential campaign in the person of Lee Atwater and followed the by now familiar path of conservative Republican politicians, namely, "winning isn't everything, it's the ONLY thing!".

It was in this atmosphere that the infamous Willie Horton ad was born.   The then Vice President Bush's likely Democratic opponent that year was liberal Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.  Mr. Atwater's strategy for defeating Governor Dukakis was to label him as weak, weak all around.  But he was especially anxious to label him weak on crime.  He centered this part of the campaign on a case involving Massachusetts' prison furlough program.  At this point in our history, prison furloughs had become the fad of the moment in penology circles.  It so happened that one of the prisoners who was let loose on a furlough, one Willie Horton, proceeded to escape.  And while he was on the loose he broke into a home, killed the husband living there and beat and raped his wife.  Conveniently enough for Lee Atwater's purposes, Willie Horton was black, a fact that was made crystal clear in the infamous Willie Horton ad.  Lee Atwater played up the racial aspect of the ad for all it was worth, spreading the message that there was something especially sinister about Mr. Horton and leaving the impression that there was something particularly dangerous about him because he was black.  He didn't say so in so many words, but the ad acted as a dog whistle for racial hate and prejudice.

To say the ad was effective goes without saying.  Bush won the Presidency in a rout.  The ad also demonstrated that preying on our prejudices and fears in a blatantly overt way worked politically.  There was nothing subtle about this approach.  It wasn't especially unique, but it proved to Republican politicians that this kind of dog whistle politics worked.  It opened the gates to other, similar appeals that were increasingly used by Republican office seekers all across America.  It helped to create a political atmosphere in which appeals to hate and fear could and would succeed.  One could even go so far as to say that the Willie Horton ad created the atmosphere of appeals to overt racism employed by Donald Trump in his 2016 run for the Presidency.

And thus it is that, in spite a life by and large dedicated to selfless devotion to God and to country, George Herbert Walker Bush will always to tarred with the brush of creating the sulfurous political atmosphere that paved the way for Donald Trump's blatantly racist political rants.  This may be the lone black mark in an otherwise completely honorable career of public service but it is a sufficiently horrific transgression which I can forgive but one which I cannot forget!

Filed under: Politics

Leave a comment