New York Times reporter Peter Baker tastelessly marked the beginning of the four-day commemoration of the life of former President George H.W. Bush by....whining about the “dog whistle” racist Willie Horton ads from Bush’s successful 1988 campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis.
For 30 years, media conventional wisdom has been appalled at the supposedly racist campaign ads criticizing the irresponsibly lax prison program of Massachusetts, some of which featured the story of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped and killed a woman in Maryland while on a weekend furlough, used to (accurately) portray Massachusetts Gov. Dukakis as soft on crime.
Bush's own campaign ads didn't even feature Horton's name or picture; an earlier ad showing Horton's face was produced by an independent group. But that doesn’t stop The Times from targeting Bush on race after his death, in Tuesday’s edition: “Horton Ad Set Tone on Race in Politics That Still Stings for African-Americans.” The text box made it even clearer: “A campaign spot is called ‘a pretty clear’ dog whistle.” The online headline: “Bush Made Willie Horton an Issue in 1988, and the Racial Scars Are Still Fresh” (click “expand”):
The tributes to former President George Bush in recent days have focused on his essential decency and civility, and his embrace of others, including even his onetime opponents. But the “last gentleman,” as he has been called, was not always so gentle.
Mr. Bush’s successful campaign for the presidency in 1988 was marked in part by the racially charged politics of crime that continues to reverberate to this day. The Willie Horton episode and the political advertising that came to epitomize it remain among the most controversial chapters in modern politics, a precursor to campaigns to come and a decisive force that influenced criminal justice policy for decades.
Mr. Horton was an African-American prisoner in Massachusetts who, while released on a furlough program, raped a white Maryland woman and bound and stabbed her boyfriend. Mr. Bush’s campaign and supporters cited the case as evidence that his Democratic opponent, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts, was insufficiently tough on crime.
In Baker’s telling, the Horton ad is to blame for “tougher sentencing laws championed by President Bill Clinton, among others”:
“The reason why the Willie Horton ad is so important in the political landscape -- it wasn’t just about a racist ad that misrepresented the furlough process,” said Marcia Chatelain, a Georgetown University professor of African-American history who teaches a class on race and racism in the White House. “But it also taught the Democrats that in order to win elections, they have to mirror some of the racially inflected language of tough on crime.”
The wisdom of the Massachusetts furlough program was open to debate aside from race. Releasing nonviolent offenders on weekends to help ease re-entry into society was the goal, but freeing violent convicts raised questions about security, and such release programs have receded in the decades since 1988.
Under duress, he also acknowledged that the issue did not originate with Bush but with media hero Al Gore:
Mr. Bush expressed no regret for the Horton ad, and some of his longtime allies have long argued that he got a bad rap for something that was not really of his making. Al Gore, then a senator from Tennessee, was the first to try to wrap the Horton case around Mr. Dukakis’s neck during the Democratic primaries that year.
At least Baker accurately stated that the allegedly racist ad that showed a picture of Horton came from an independent group.
Baker refused to give Bush credit for anything regarding race issues:
Mr. Bush’s history with race was complicated....
As president, he vetoed civil rights legislation on the grounds that it would provide for quotas, but ultimately he signed an updated version of the bill into law. He appointed only the second African-American person ever to serve on the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, to replace the first, Thurgood Marshall, but the choice angered African-American leaders on the left who considered Justice Thomas too conservative.