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George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” ad will always be the reference point for dog-whistle racism

How “Willie Horton” went from shorthand for black depravity to shorthand for political racism.

A still from a 1988 presidential campaign TV spot created by George H.W. Bush’s supporters that attacked his Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis for being soft on crime.
YouTube screengrab

George H.W. Bush, the one-term president who died on Friday at age 94, is often overlooked by history, despite having presided over the last truly bipartisan “grand bargain” and the end of the Cold War. But if there’s one context in which his name, along with that of another man, is regularly invoked, it’s when political campaigns make coded racist appeals to white voters.

Even as President Donald Trump usurps him with increasingly transparent racist attacks, George Bush Sr.’s “Willie Horton” ad remains the key reference point for dog-whistle politics.

Bush is sometimes fondly remembered for his bipartisanship, for being “the last of the Republican pragmatists,” and for his yearning for a “kinder, gentler America.” He clearly abhorred Trumpism, enough to drive the former Republican president to vote for Trump’s Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

But while his bipartisan civility may have been genuine, his legacy was forever tainted by his campaign tactics. As Jonathan Chait wrote for New York magazine in 2014, though Bush showed himself to be a fair president, that “brutal, low campaign” of 1988 was something liberals could never forgive — and which Bush could never escape.

The explosive ad played on white fears of black crime

The infamous “Willie Horton ad” was a 1988 presidential campaign TV spot created by Bush’s supporters that attacked his Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis for being soft on crime. Dukakis, the then-governor of Massachusetts, supported his state’s “weekend pass” program, which allowed imprisoned individuals — including those not eligible for parole — to leave prison for a day or more to work or go home. (As the Washington Post noted at the time, it was introduced by a Republican governor, and most states had the same policy, including California under Ronald Reagan.)

But the attack ad was more than just an attack on Democrats.

The spot featured convicted murderer William “Willie” Horton, who had been able to escape while on such weekend furlough, and went on to rape a woman and stab her fiancé in a brutal 1987 home invasion. It was widely condemned for playing on racial fears by featuring a black man’s mug shot and linking blackness with depravity.

The ad was intended to drive scared white people to the polls to vote for tough-on-crime Bush, seeking protection from black criminals like Horton and black-friendly candidates like Dukakis. As political-science professor Claire Jean Kim said in a 2012 PBS special, “the insinuation is, if you elect Gov. Dukakis as president, we’re going to have black rapists running amok in the country.”

As Horton — whose name became shorthand first for black crime, then for dog-whistle politics — told the Marshall Project in 2015: “I’m not this picture they paint ... I never lived up to that name that they painted with that picture.”

But it wasn’t just the Horton ad; Bush’s campaign followed that supporter-sponsored ad with one of its own. The “Revolving Door” spot showed inmates coming in and out of prison through a revolving door under Dukakis, claiming that 268 had escaped.

It worked. Dukakis went on to lose the 1988 presidential election to Bush.

As news of Bush Sr.’s death broke Saturday morning, “Willie Horton” began trending on Twitter, with some calling it “proto-Trumpism.” In fact, the name has become such an effective shorthand that most tweets are simply letting it stand for itself.

The revival of “Willie Horton” tactics

Dog-whistle appeals never truly went away, but they have risen in pitch in recent years, particularly since Trump entered the political arena. And with each racist political attack, comparisons are inevitably drawn to Bush’s 1988 campaign ad.

In November, when Trump tweeted a fear-mongering video of Luis Bracamontes, a twice-deported Mexican immigrant found guilty of killing two Californian police officers, many critics noted that he was reviving the “Willie Horton” tactic.

The commercial was also referenced when a racist Republican mailer was sent to Long Island voters, when Trump began invoking MS-13 as a justification for his immigration policies, and when a Republican candidate aired an anti-immigrant ad in the New Jersey gubernatorial race.

George H.W. Bush was not the first nor the last to use coded language and veiled racist appeals in his campaign messages. As Vox’s German Lopez points out in an interview with Ian Haney-López, author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, “the Republicans’ Southern strategy following the 1960s thrived on this idea.”

But it’s the anti-Dukakis ad that has become the reference point for such grotesque political advertising. Bush’s legacy, like that of William Horton, will always be tarred by the Willie Horton attack ad that elected him.