Eric Dezenhall, Republican communications strategist who worked with Atwater during the Reagan administration: “Lee’s rise in Washington took place in Watergate’s wake, when Nixon had left Republicans with this political-viper archetype. Democratic political hardball was portrayed in the media as healthy, boisterous discourse—if it was portrayed at all. Republican hardball, on the other hand, had the whiff of shadowy operatives driving enemies off a cliff and high-fiving as they sped away into the night.
“Lee was also the first post-Watergate Republican to flush any pretense of media objectivity down the toilet, along with the canard that political aggressiveness was the unique device of Republicans. He knew that Nixon’s dark side was catalyzed by what the Kennedys did to him during the 1960 presidential election and that LBJ’s crowd placed wiretaps on potentially problematic figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. Somehow, though, Democratic rough stuff had a boys-will-be-boys, Bluto Blutarsky ring of harmlessness to it because the dominant media culture thought the ends were noble. The perception of Republicans was the exact opposite. They were allegedly Doug Neidermeyer vicious—either nasty to great effect or imbecilic, never mind the contradiction. Lee rejected this construct and did what he had to do. He refused to be blackmailed into restraint because he accepted as fact that the Democrats had the news media, academia and popular culture as allies.
“Personally, I was vaguely scared of him. If I was the political freshman in the Reagan White House, Lee was the proverbial hair-trigger senior who drove his muscle car too fast and always left a trail of cigarettes, beer bottles and joints in his wake. He had thin lips, which made him look angry, and veins always seemed to be pulsing around his neck. He reminded me of a mongoose whose eyes redden whenever he sees a snake in the garden.”
The first politician Atwater targeted was Tom Turnipseed, a South Carolina Democrat who ran for Congress in 1980 against Floyd Spence, the Republican incumbent for whom Atwater served as a consultant. “Atwater’s antics included phony polls by ‘independent pollsters’ to ‘inform’ white suburbanites that I was a member of the NAACP, because my congressman opponent was afraid to publicly say so, and last-minute letters from Senator Strom Thurmond warning voters that I would disarm America and turn it over to the liberals and Communists,” Turnipseed recalled in The Washington Post in 1991. In an even lower blow, Atwater mocked the electroshock treatments Turnipseed received as a teenager to combat depression, spinning it as though Turnipseed had been hooked up to “jumper cables.” “No matter how much Mr. Turnipseed talked about education or crime or dirty tricks after that, voters only saw the jumper cables,” The New York Times explained many years later.
As Atwater ascended as a Republican strategist, he also began consciously assembling a dictionary of code words and phrases to attract white voters in the South—a cynical ploy that frequently angered the Democratic National Committee and African American groups. “You start out in 1954 saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger,’ ” he told an interviewer in the early 1980s. “By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing and states’ rights. You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking totally about…economic things, and a by-product of them is that blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that’s part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘nigger, nigger.’ ”
All of which leads to Willie Horton. In 1986, Horton, a convicted murderer, escaped to Maryland during a sanctioned weekend furlough from his Massachusetts jail cell. A few months later he was arrested for home invasion, rape and assault. Because Michael Dukakis was the governor of Massachusetts at the time of Horton’s furlough, Atwater and the Bush campaign seized on Horton (and the furlough program more broadly) as a wedge issue. The wedge became even more divisive because Horton was African American—and seemingly a prime example of Atwater’s abstract race-baiting. Bush surrogates, allegedly with Atwater’s full knowledge, ran a particularly damning attack ad that prominently featured Horton’s menacing mug shot, which critics maintained played up every possible stereotype of the terrifying black male who preys on innocent white people. “Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times,” the ad’s narrator intoned. “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 resulting firestorm led to the ad being pulled and a heated debate about whether or not it was racist.
Willie Horton, from an exclusive December 1989 playboy interview: “Was the ad racist? Hell, you know it was. And I’m not the only victim of racism. All poor people and minorities are portrayed in a similar manner by people who exploit their woes in order to whip up public anger and fear. Obviously, many people resent the gains that blacks and poor people have made in recent years. If they had their way, they’d like to return to the good old days, when blacks and poor people had to shuffle for crumbs. Today, these bigots don’t go out and beat up black people anymore. They do it with a paper and pen. And that’s what happened to me.
“Sadly, there’s no black leader who possesses the moral authority of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If this had happened to me when he was alive, I believe that the public would have known the truth by now. In many ways, blacks are their own worst enemies. We have a tendency to blame everyone else for our problems. And those who do make it often say, ‘To hell with everyone else. I made it. And I’m not going to let anybody take it away from me.’ And some politicians—like George Bush—won’t let the old hatreds die. Why? Because they understand that racial smears win elections.
“Bush said he didn’t authorize the ad, that it was produced by the National Security Political Action Committee, which was totally independent of the Republican campaign. Bullshit. The fact is, the committee worked for George Bush. And it was headed by his top media advisor, Roger Ailes. Do you mean to say that Bush had no idea what was going on? Hell, he used to be the head of the CIA. If you believe that statement, I’ve got some terrific swampland you might like to buy. I didn’t graduate from Yale, but I can certainly tell a scam when I see one.”
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a member of the 1988 Republican Platform Committee’s campaign staff: “William Horton—Willie Horton is what Democrats call Horton to make it sound as if people are using a diminutive for a black guy—is a murderer. In retrospect, there has been an effort to suggest the furlough issue was somehow a dirty trick, but it only became a dirty trick when it became a problem for Dukakis in winning the 1988 election.
“When Massachusetts gave up on the death penalty, its people were promised that murderers would be sent to prison for life without parole. What the public and the juries weren’t told was that the state had a furlough system. Every prisoner got a furlough, regardless of what they did. Republican governors had furlough programs too, but those were different: If an inmate had only six months left on his sentence, he was given a weekend off to visit relatives and find an apartment. The chances of escape were low because if the inmate escaped, he was sentenced to another five years in prison just as he was about to get out.
“The furlough program under Dukakis spoke to his mental state and the fact that you wouldn’t want him to be president. It was furloughing guys who were supposed to spend the rest of their lives in prison, meaning they didn’t have an incentive to return to the penitentiary. Other furloughed prisoners had gotten out and committed crimes; some had even committed murder. The difference with William Horton was that he committed a crime in Maryland. And Maryland started asking questions, such as ‘Did he escape?’
“ ‘No, we let him out on a furlough. Can you please send him back to us?’
“ ‘So you can let him out on a furlough again? He’s wanted here for kidnapping and rape!’
“I always thought it was unfair to attack Lee for the Horton ad as if it was a dirty trick. The Democrats looked at Horton and saw a black guy; the rest of the country looked at him and saw a murderer. Who is the racist? The Democrats are obsessed with race. They governed much of the country based on that platform for a long time. But they couldn’t deal with the facts on the ground of the William Horton story. What Dukakis did was indefensible. How do you hear that story and still think Dukakis should be president?”