Over the past few days memories of William Horton and the 1988 Presidential Campaign have been revived in the press. Some commentators have used these old news accounts as an excuse to label the late George H. W. Bush as a racist. What is the basis for this label? Is it justified?
On October 26, 1974, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, William Horton and two accomplices robbed Joseph Fournier, a 17 year-old gas station attendant, and then fatally stabbed Fournier 19 times after he had cooperated by handing over all of the money in the cash register. Horton was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
In 1972 Massachusetts had enacted a statute establishing a state inmate furlough program. The program excluded convicted first-degree murderers, but in 1973 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the right of furlough extended to first-degree murderers because the law did not specifically exclude them. The state legislature quickly passed a bill prohibiting furloughs for such inmates. Governor Dukakis vetoed this bill and argued that it would “cut the heart out of efforts at inmate rehabilitation.”
On June 6, 1986, William Horton was released for the weekend as part of the inmate furlough program. He did not return. On April 3, 1987, in Oxen Hill, Maryland, Horton twice raped a woman after pistol-whipping, knifing, binding, and gagging her fiancé. He then stole the car belonging to the man he had assaulted. Horton was later wounded and captured by Prince George’s County police. After trial and conviction, the sentencing judge, Vincent J Femia, 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. This man should never draw a breath of free air again.” At the date of this writing, Horton is serving a life sentence in the Patuxent Correctional Facility in Jessup, Maryland.
Michael Dukakis had again become governor of Massachusetts at the time of Horton’s release, and in 1988 Dukakis was nominated as the Democratic candidate to be President of the United States.
The first person to mention the Massachusetts furlough program in the 1988 presidential campaign was Al Gore, who was contesting with Dukakis for the Democratic presidential nomination. During a debate before the New York primary, Gore took issue with the furlough program. However, he did not specifically mention the Horton incident or even Horton’s name, instead he asked a general question about the Massachusetts furlough program. Republicans eagerly picked up the Horton issue after Dukakis clinched the nomination. In June 1988, Republican candidate George H. W. Bush seized on the Horton case, bringing it up repeatedly in campaign speeches. Bush’s campaign manager Lee Atwater said “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.”
On September 21, 1988, the Americans for Bush arm of the National Security Political Action Committee (NSPAC) began running a campaign ad entitled “Weekend Passes”, using the Horton case to attack Dukakis. After clearing the ad with television stations, the producers added a menacing mug shot of Horton, who is African American. The ad was run as an independent expenditure, separate from the Bush campaign, which claimed not to have had any role in its production. The ad referred to Horton as “Willie”, although he later said he had always gone by William.
On October 5, 1988, a day after the “Weekend Passes” ad was taken off the airwaves, the Bush campaign ran its own ad, “Revolving Door”, which also attacked Dukakis over the weekend furlough program. While the advertisement did not mention Horton or feature his photograph, it depicted a variety of intimidating-looking men walking in and out of prison through a revolving door.
The impact of these ads has been described as “devastating to Dukakis.” One journalist described the “Revolving Door” ad as “the political equivalent of an improvised explosive device, demolishing the electoral hopes of Dukakis.”
During much of the campaign, the Horton ads were seen as focusing on issues of criminal justice. The idea of them having an intentional racial aspect was not initially raised. Towards the end of the campaign, however, civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson charged that the Horton ads were designed as an appeal to white voters, playing on their stereotyped fears of blacks as criminals. The racial overtone of the ads wound up being a key aspect of the way they are remembered and later studied.
The Massachusetts inmate furlough program was well intentioned, but it was incredibly stupid to extend its benefits to violent criminals of the most dangerous type. Dukakis deserved to be held accountable for his role in this fiasco.
George H. W. Bush was known as an honorable man, but even he could not avoid the charge of racism for bringing this tragic episode and his opponent’s culpability to the attention of the American electorate. I believe the charge of racism to be totally inaccurate and unfair.
Let us honor the memory of a very good man, a Christian, a patriot, a family man, George Herbert Walker Bush.