ARCHIVAL (WILLIE HORTON AD, 1988):NARRATOR: Despite a life sentence, Horton receive 10 weekend passes from prison.
FLOYD BROWN: Its like a baseball player. A lot of times, youre going to do an ad and you strike out. Nobody even cares about it. Its rare that you have one where you swing, and you hit, and you just watch it sail.
IMAGE MAKERS: POLITICAL ADS THAT SHAPED THE BATTLE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE
DANIEL WARNER (EDITOR, LAWRENCE EAGLE TRIBUNE, 1972-99): My assistant called me up, and said, They caught Willie Horton. And I said, What do you mean they caught him? Hes been in prison for life. Why are murderers being let out into the streets? We learned fairly quickly that he was out on a weekend pass, a furlough they called it. And he invaded a couples house in Maryland, brutalized the man and the raped the woman.
SUSAN ESTRICH (CAMPAIGN MANAGER, DUKAKIS 1988): Dukakis believed the furlough policy would encourage better behavior in prison by lifers. They need some kind of incentive or there will be, you know, chaos inside. It was a big story in the local papers. So the minute we had the nomination, we knew we were going to face Willie Horton.
ARCHIVAL (WILLIE HORTON AD, 1988):NARRATOR: Bush and Dukakis on crime: Bush supports the death penalty for first-degree murderers. Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton.
FLOYD BROWN (POLITICAL DIRECTOR, AMERICANS FOR BUSH): I ran an independent expenditure, which is an outside organization that isnt involved with the actual campaign. We were scared Governor Dukakis, who was running rather large leads in the polls, was going to sweep to victory, so it called for some dramatic campaign action.
ARCHIVAL (WILLIE HORTON AD, 1988):NARRATOR: Despite a life sentence, Horton receive ten weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man, and repeatedly raping his girlfriend.
SUSAN ESTRICH: The impact and the effect I believe had a great deal to do with Willie Hortons race.
DANIEL WARNER: Horton was an ugly guy. He looked like everybodys stereotype of a black thug. I cant believe when they made those ads they didnt know what they were doing, raising racial fears.
FLOYD BROWN: Willie Horton was a hardened criminal. People are rightly scared. It doesnt matter if hes black or white or yellow or purple.
SUSAN ESTRICH: But what ultimately killed Dukakis wasnt the Willie Horton ad, it was the Pauley Pavilion answer.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 10-13-88):BERNARD SHAW: Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?
SUSAN ESTRICH: That was as close as we were going to ever get to the Willie Horton question. We must have done the answer 1,000 times: I know what its like to be the victim of crime. Im on the side of victims.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 10-13-88):MIKE DUKAKIS: No I dont Bernard, and I think you know that I have opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I dont see any evidence that its a deterrent.
SUSAN ESTRICH: It came right across the plate and he didnt see it. And it was very clear after that first question we were going to go into freefall.
FLOYD BROWN: It was probably the first of the great independent expenditures. We didnt have any involvement with the Bush campaign. We had a commonality of interest to continue the Reagan revolution, and the ad impacted public policy all across the country. Ill always be glad I did it.
SUSAN ESTRICH: That campaign made clear that the best way to destroy someone was to find an outside group to do the kind of ad that the candidate himself cant do because hell get killed for doing it. Such as Swift Boat Veterans, for instance.
ARCHIVAL (SWIFT BOAT VETERANS AD, 2004):LARRY THURLOW: When the chips were down, you could not count on John Kerry.BOB ELDER: John Kerry is no war hero.
SUSAN ESTRICH: Now its become just a usual tactic. In the wake of that race, every Democratic politician I knew was tripping over themselves to vote for Three Strikes laws, mandatory sentencing, anything they could vote for to prove they were tough on crime. What Willie Horton did was create a generation of legislators who voted for everything, and the result was crowded prisons, suspicion in the minority community, tensions that continue to this day.
DANIEL WARNER: In a way, I tie this to the state of America today. This was somehow when we started beating the heck out of each other for totally political purposes. This ad, I think, hit at the inner fears of people. And thats just escalated over the last, what, 28 years?