Monday, September 8, 2008

What Exactly Is "A Willie Horton?"

One of the amusing things about watching American politics is noting the difference in how the two parties act when they get beat. The Republicans usually console themselves, regroup, and pick up the fight. The best example of this was when Bill Clinton rocked their world in 1992 and took office with a Democratic majority in both houses. They proceeded to rock his world by adminstering a mid-term pasting for the record books that ended a 40-year Democratic stranglehold on Congress.

Democrats, on the other hand, spend their time complaining about how 'unfair' the other side played in the election. There is a monumental arrogance that seems to assume that there is simply NO WAY a rational, intelligent person could possibly reject their good intentions. And one of the most famous cases involves a rather benign name mentioned every four years, Willie Horton. Democrats have cited this particular case as proof that Republicans play 'dirty' and rely upon 'unfair attacks' to win Presidential elections. Oftentimes this is given as an example of Republicans 'playing the race card' in order to frighten voters. But does such a claim withstand even basic scrutiny?


Willie Horton was born in South Carolina on August 12, 1951. At the age of 23, he and two accomplices robbed a Mobil gas station in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The gas station attendant was a 17-year old boy named Joey Fournier. Fournier handed over all the cash in the register totaling $276.37. Horton then stabbed Fournier 19 times and stuffed his body in a trash can. Found the next morning barely clinging to life, Fournier's last mumbled words were, "Don't hurt me." Horton was sentenced to life without parole (during the early 1970s there was a moratorium on executions that was not lifted until 1976).

That would have been the end of the story but for a liberal governor named Michael Dukakis. Dukakis was a strong supporter of the theory that the reason for prisons was not punishment but rehabilitation. Dukakis also seemmingly thought that one way to rehabilitate a first-degree murderer like Horton was to let him go out on unsupervised furloughs. Horton went out ten times without any reported incident. But his eleventh furlough was different. On June 6, 1986, Horton left for an unsupervised furlough and didn't return.

Until the night of April 3, 1987 when Horton assaulted a man named Clifford Barnes in his house. For seven hours Horton beat, pistol-whipped, and kicked Barnes - and cut him 22 separate times across his mid-section. Barnes' fiancee, Angela, arrived and Horton gagged her and raped her twice. He stole Clifford Barnes's car and was chased by police before being apprehended. Adding to the life imprisonment he already had, a Maryland court sentenced him to two more life times plus 85 years. The sentencing judge refused to send Horton back to Massachusetts for fear the governor (Michael Dukakis) would set him free yet again.

The judge had a very good reason for that fear. Even after Horton's second crime, Dukakis continued to support the idea of furloughs for first degree killers like Horton. The Lawrence-Eagle Tribune newspaper ran over 175 articles and editorials calling for the furlough policy to end, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize. Dukakis refused to even meet with the Barneses to hear their ordeal at the hands of Willie Horton. Dukakis, in fact, only changed his position on furloughs after the state legislature made clear that they were going to change the policy. The basic facts of the Willie Horton case were first mentioned in the political arena by Al Gore in a debate preceding the 1988 New York primary.

Such are the facts in the Willie Horton case.


Michael Dukakis was elected governor of Massachusetts on November 5, 1974, only ten days after Horton's slaying of Joey Fournier. He served one term before losing to Ed King in the 1978 Democratic primary despite polling an approval rating over 50%. He defeated King in the primary in 1982 and re-entered the governor's office, winning another election in 1986. He entered the 1988 Presidential race as one of the possible contenders along with front-runner Gary Hart, House Majority Whip Dick Gephardt, and Senator Joe Biden. Circumstances eliminated both Hart and Biden while the rest of the contenders fell by the wayside. Dukakis won the nomination in June when he beat Jesse Jackson in the California primary by a 2-1 margin.

Dukakis won the nomination as a garden variety liberal. He was in favor of higher taxes, having pushed them through repeatedly to balance the state budget eleven times, favored the pro-choice position on abortion, and favored a national health care system. He also opposed the death penalty in all cases and opposed the rights of homeowners to possess a firearm. In 1986, Dukakis told Roy Innis (of CORE): "I do not believe in people owning guns, only police and military. I am going to do everything I can to disarm this state." (No word on whether Rosie O'Donnell was his campaign manager).

Dukakis' history with Willie Horton was discovered by Republican Jim Pinkerton while watching a replay of the NY primary debate. Pinkerton consulted with Andrew Card (later President George W. Bush's chief of staff), who was from Massachusetts, regarding the incident. This discovery led to Bush mentioning Willie Horton in the first debate, but it did not lead to the infamous Willie Horton ad.


The claim by Democrats is pretty basic. They claim that George Bush made a 'racist' commercial that exploited the Willie Horton case unfairly. By running a commmercial showing a black man with a rather menacing face, they claim that Bush poisoned the well against Dukakis by appealing to race. In fact, they trace the Republican capture of the Solid South from its old Democratic roots to the race wars of the 1960s. But this is wrong on so many counts that it isn't even funny.

First of all, it should be noted that the Bush campaign NEVER RAN a commercial with Willie Horton's picture. You read that correctly. The ad that is supposed to be so controversial was never run by Bush's campaign; it was run by an Independent group chaired by a conservative activist named Floyd Brown. Interested persons might wish to note that this same gentleman was sued by President Bush in 1991 for running an ad attacking prominent Democrats in the Senate that were to consider the future of Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas. This is the actual Willie Horton ad that is allegedly racist.

Secondly, at no time did Vice-President Bush ever mention Horton's race. And finally, it was not Vice-President Bush who bungled a question about what he would do if his wife were raped and murdered; it was Michael Dukakis.

That is not to say that Bush was completely innocent of distortion. This commercial was called 'Revolving Door' and is woefully short of the truth. To the best of my knowledge, Horton was the only one to escape and actually commit another capital crime. It is inconceivable that another inmate went out and murdered someone else or raped someone else and Bush never mentioned him. So while it is indeed a negative ad and a misleading one, it is still not 'the Willie Horton ad.'


It has become common over the last twenty years for Democrats and defenders of Dukakis to make three rather extraordinary claims that are transparent fictions.

1) The furlough program was started by a Republican governor.
2) Dukakis ended the furlough program.
3) Other states had furlough programs including Ronald Reagan's California when he was governor and the federal government.

All of these claims are true, but they are just as misleading as Bush's 'Revolving Door' commercial. It is true that furlough program was begun by Massachusetts Republican Governor Francis Sargent. But Sargent's furlough program explicitly REJECTED furloughs for first-degree murderers like Horton. Dukakis did, in fact, end the program but only because it was going to be ended by the state legislature, as I noted earlier. And the programs in other states as well as the federal program would also not have allowed someone with Horton's past a furlough. So while the apologists are stating 'facts,' they are not whole truth in any of the three situations mentioned.


Never mentioned - never by the media, never by the Democrats, and, unfortunately, not even by the Republicans - was a rather dirty commercial run by Dukakis himself that exemplifies the very thing these folks profess to abhor.

Trailing in the polls and needing to change the subject from his handling of Horton, Dukakis ran a commercial designed to cast Bush as a hypocrite. It concerned the murder of Patsy Pedrin by a convicted Hispanic drug dealer named Angel Medrano. Dukakis ran a commercial funded by his own campaign and insinuated Bush was to blame for it because as the nation's drug czar Bush had not reduced the crime rate and had allowed Medrano to commit his crime. What is quite incredible is that Dukakis ran the commercial with the dark-skinned Hispanic's picture; isn't that racist? Dukakis also talked about the drug dealers furloughed by 'the Bush administration,' a fact that right-thinking Americans would have rejected out of hand since Ronald Reagan was President at the time.

Dukakis' thought process was like that of a lot of liberals. "Hey, all I have to do is show that this guy did the same thing and that makes my screw-up OK!" And that would probably have been true if - and here's where the argument falls apart - the entire issue was about whether or not a black man received a furlough. But it wasn't.

And that is why even 20 years later the Democrats don't get it. They didn't get Willie Horton in 1988, and they still don't get him in 2008. Horton was a symbol for all of the 'wrong' positions in the culture war taken by the left. Horton was not about a black man committing a crime or even receiving a furlough; he was about the fact that liberals like Mike Dukakis believe that a homeowner does not have the right to defend himself with a gun while the criminal - whom he refuses to execute to make society safer - has the right to maim, rape, and even murder - and then get another furlough!!

I've often asked what seems to be an obvious question at this point: yes, the Bush ad was misleading. But do you honestly think Dukakis would have won had it merely told the truth?