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Jewish World Review March 18, 2004 / 25 Adar, 5764

Roger Simon

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Willie Horton Redux? | The George W. Bush and John Kerry campaigns are now caught up in a vicious cycle of attack and respond.

While each knows it needs to build a positive image of its candidate, each also believes it must use precious time and resources to respond to attacks from the other side and to launch its own attacks, forcing the other side to respond.

Because Kerry has fewer resources and is less well known than Bush, he may suffer from this kind of competition.

But the Bush campaign is clearly worried, if not downright frightened. It has used its greatest resource, the president, himself, very early in the campaign to launch attacks not only at political events but from the Oval Office, itself.

There are certain benefits an incumbent president gets by remaining above the fray, by staying non-political as long as possible and by doing the public's business before he does his own political business.

But clearly the Bush campaign was concerned with polling that showed if Bush remained on a presidential pedestal, Kerry might open up too large a lead.

So now we have two candidates bashing each other very early Why? Michael Dukakis and 1988, that's why.

The lesson that Democrats take away from that campaign is that Dukakis did not defend himself early and vigorously enough from the Bush attacks on Willie Horton and other issues.

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Just this week, George Stephanopoulos of ABC News said the "Kerry campaign remembers 1988, feeling that Michael Dukakis didn't fight back strongly enough against the first campaign by President Bush."

The lesson that Republicans take away from that campaign is that it pays to attack often and early.

In case you were not around, Willie Horton was a convicted murderer who was granted 10 weekend furloughs from prison in Massachusetts under the administration of Gov. Michael Dukakis. Nine times, Horton returned to his cell. The tenth time he fled to Maryland, broke into a home, repeatedly slashed a man with a knife and beat and raped a woman. Horton was caught and sentenced to two consecutive life terms plus 85 years in a Maryland prison.

The sentencing judge refused to return Horton to Massachusetts, saying, "I'm not prepared to take the chance that Mr. Horton might again be furloughed or otherwise released."

But Dukakis was sure the Horton affair could not be used against him. When Al Gore raised the issue in a New York primary debate, the Democratic crowd booed Gore and applauded Dukakis when Dukakis explained the "facts":

Under Dukakis, Massachusetts had one of the lowest crime and incarceration rates of any industrialized state in the country. Furloughs were cost-effective. They were progressive. They were sensible. Michael Dukakis understood that kind of thing. His life revolved around that kind of thing. Government was based on sense. And furloughs made sense.

But Bush's campaign manager, Lee Atwater, knew that politics often had little to do with sense and much more to do with fear. "The Horton case is one of those gut issues that are value issues, particularly in the South," Atwater said. "And if we hammer at these over and over, we are going to win."

Nobody had to ask what Atwater meant by "particularly in the South." Photographs of Horton showed a frightening-looking black man and Atwater knew the media could not resist running that picture.

And the media could not. Every time George Bush raised the Horton issue, the media ran the Horton picture. Later, a group acting in support of the Bush campaign also ran Horton's picture in a television commercial. And the Bush campaign ran an ad that featured both white and black "prisoners" going through a revolving door.

Today, the use of Willie Horton almost certainly would be denounced fairly or not as racism, but Dukakis did not want to do that. His campaign was going after "Bubba" and "Joe Six Pack" voters, too. So Dukakis's campaign manager, Susan Estrich, was told to stay away from raising the race issue. "I am not proud of our silence," she said later.

But it was not as if Dukakis did not attack Bush at all. By July, Dukakis was already hitting back at Bush in his speeches. And he had always been tough on Bush. He had said Bush "made deals with foreign drug-runners" and was secretly planning to cut Social Security benefits. He said Bush had lied about the Iran-contra affair.

And the polls were showing Dukakis well ahead in July. So why screw around with a winning game? Besides, what was he going to say about Willie Horton that the public would buy?

This was best demonstrated at the time by a senior Dukakis aide who disgustedly pushed a piece of paper across a table at me and said: "OK, you write our response to Willie Horton. You write the catchy phrase. You come up with the 30-second spot. You come up with the jingle. What are we supposed to say? That Horton wasn't let out of prison and that he didn't rape that woman? What the hell are we supposed to say?"

So instead of responding to Horton directly, Dukakis tried to exploit public disgust at the whole nature of the campaign. Dukakis ran a commercial in late October called "Counterpunch" in which he is watching a Bush negative ad on TV.

Dukakis snaps off the set in disgust and turns to the camera and says: "I'm fed up with it. Haven't seen anything like it in 25 years of public life. George Bush's negative TV ads: distorting my record, full of lies, and he knows it."

But the ad was judged not very effective, so Dukakis took the final step. There is an old saying that you should never get down in the mud with a pig because all that will happen is you will get dirty and the pig will like it.

But with the Angel Medrano ad, Mike Dukakis got down in the mud with George Bush.

"George Bush talks a lot about prison furloughs," the Dukakis ad said. "But he won't tell you that the Massachusetts program was started by a Republican governor and stopped by Mike Dukakis. And Bush won't talk about the thousands of drug kingpins furloughed from federal prisons while he led the war on drugs."

Then the photo of Angel Medrano, a convicted heroin dealer, appears on the screen.

"Bush won't talk about this drug pusher — one of his furloughed heroin dealers — who raped and murdered Patsy Pedrin, pregnant mother of two."

The picture of Patsy Pedrin being carried away in a body bag flashes on the screen.

"The real story about furloughs," the ad concludes, "is that George Bush has taken a furlough from the truth."

The Bush campaign felt that Dukakis had given up any moral superiority by running that ad. After all, the Bush campaign had never "officially" used a picture of a black man, while the Dukakis campaign had "officially" used the picture of an Hispanic.

"What about their ad about the halfway house?" Bush told reporters whenever they brought up Willie Horton. "Is that racism against Hispanics? That's what I think."

Mike Dukakis was sure that the voters would see through Bush's attacks. "The American people can smell the garbage," Dukakis said.

But by the end of the campaign, neither side was exactly smelling like a rose.

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