Has The Ghost Of The Willie Horton Ad Been Purged From American Politics?

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In 1987, the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune wrote this about a local criminal case: "The question everyone wants answered is how a cold-blooded murderer ever got out in the first place."

One year later, the entire nation was asking the same question because of a 30-second television ad.

"Bush supports the death penalty for first-degree murderers," said an ominous voice. "Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times. Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend. Weekend prison passes. Dukakis on crime."

The infamous Willie Horton "Weekend Passes" ad completely transformed the 1988 presidential race. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis was running against Vice President George H.W. Bush. Soon after the ad aired, Bush and many other Republicans invoked Horton's name on the campaign trail almost every day.

Lee Atwater was Bush's campaign strategist, and he famously said that by the time the race was over, voters would "wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis' running mate."

Michael Dukakis lost the 1988 presidential election. The Willie Horton ad changed how politicians talked about and dealt with crime for decades.

But, it's now 2015, and we're at the beginning of another presidential race. Crime rates have fallen, and both Democrats and Republicans talk more openly about the failures of the criminal justice system. So, has the ghost of the Willie Horton ad been purged from American politics?

That's the provocative question asked in a deeply thoughtful piece by Beth Schwartzapfel and Bill Keller.


Beth Schwartzapfel, staff writer for The Marshall Project. She tweets @schwartzapfel.


The Marshall Project: Willie Horton Revisited

  • "We talk to the man who became our national nightmare. Thirty years later, does he still matter?"

POLITICO: The GOP And Willie Horton: Together Again

  • "A question for Jeb Bush. And this one isn’t about his brother. It’s about his father.Now that we know whether Jeb would have launched his brother’s invasion of Iraq — yes, I don’t know, I’m not saying, and no — I want to know if Jeb would have launched his father’s campaign against Willie Horton."

This segment aired on May 21, 2015.


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