NPR's Problematic "Willie Horton" Analogy

Blog ››› ››› JEREMY HOLDEN

A new NPR piece equating scrutiny of Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital with the racially charged "Willie Horton" ad from 1988 could provide fodder for Romney supporters who want to shield the candidate from criticism.

In a post titled, "Bain attacks on Romney recall notorious 'Willie Horton' ads," NPR's Ron Elving set the clock back to 1988 to explain how criticism of Romney's record at Bain from Republicans in the primary could in turn hurt the GOP during the general election.

But NPR's analogy is flawed. Romney has been citing his experience at Bain Capital as a justification for why he is best suited for the presidency. That makes the intense scrutiny into his record fair game. By contrast, the ads about Willie Horton were unadulterated race-baiting with the intent to scare voters and marginalize Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis.

During the 1988 presidential campaign, Republicans turned questions about Dukakis' support for a program that allowed criminals to participate in weekend furloughs into the Horton attack ads. Elving wrote:

[T]he real danger of the Bain story will not be manifest among Republicans this winter and spring. The real danger is that the story bobs back up in the summer and fall.

[...]

To be sure, Dukakis' general election campaign had plenty of other problems. But none was so lurid and enduring as the ads attacking him for the furlough program (and featuring a frightful prison picture of Horton). Those ads -- which also drew accusations of racism for their frightening portrayal of a black criminal -- helped make George H.W. Bush the 41st president of the United States (and his son the 43rd).

It's a distant mirror, of course, but the circumstances of a weak primary candidate raising an emotional issue in 1988 resemble those by which Gingrich and others now attempt to derail the Romney express.

The Horton issue worked because it resonated with Dukakis' image as a bleeding heart liberal. The Bain assault works if voters come to see Romney as a heartless capitalist, a Wall Street marauder wrapped in patriotic patois.

To his credit, Elving acknowledged the racial component of the Horton ads, but the very analogy can in turn be used to make any effort to examine Romney's record at Bain verboten, even as Romney continues to tout that record on the campaign trail.

Indeed, Romney's tenure at Bain has become central to his campaign, as The Washington Post's Greg Sargent noted. It is Romney who has raised the issue of the decisions he made at Bain, thereby inviting scrutiny of those decisions. It's critical that the media scrutinize Romney's Bain record and the claims he is making related to his time there.

And that scrutiny is not just coming from fellow Republican candidates. Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has parsed the impact Romney's decisions had on employment. Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler has criticized Romney's campaign for using "untenable" employment figures from the Bain years. The Wall Street Journal analyzed the broader financial performance of companies connected to Bain during Romney's tenure there.

The effects Romney's decisions have had on the broader economy remain open to scrutiny.

That is what makes NPR's comparison to "the tale of Willie Horton" so problematic.

As a November 1999 Slate column by Timothy Noah explained:

Horton, you may recall, is a black man who, while doing prison time in Massachusetts for murder, escaped from a weekend furlough and committed a particularly brutal assault and rape. Dukakis hadn't started the state program that allowed prisoners like Horton, who were serving life sentences without parole, to take furloughs--that would have been Dukakis' Republican predecessor as governor of Massachusetts, Francis Sargent. But Dukakis, even after hearing what Horton did on his furlough, was resistant to ending the program, which the state legislature finally did after much crusading by a local newspaper.

[...]

Now recall what the Republicans did with Horton's story: An "independent expenditure" group aired an ad for Bush showing a picture of Horton. A Republican fund-raising letter in Maryland showed pictures of Dukakis and Horton alongside the following text: "Is this your pro-family team for 1988?" Horton told Playboy magazine in 1989 that a woman who identified herself as working for "an organization affiliated with the Bush campaign" phoned him and wrote letters to him up in prison trying to get him to endorse Dukakis. The official Bush campaign, of course, kept its distance from such efforts, and claimed to use Horton only in race-neutral ways. But there is plenty of evidence that it was heartily appreciative of the racial subtext. In his book about the 1988 campaign, Pledging Allegiance, Blumenthal quotes an anonymous member of the Bush campaign team as saying, "Willie Horton has star quality. Willie's going to be politically furloughed to terrorize again. It's a wonderful mix of liberalism and a big black rapist."

Noah also noted the key role Lee Atwater played in connecting Horton to Dukakis. Atwater, who served as campaign manager to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, spoke to a gathering of southern Republicans during the campaign and speculated that Horton "may end up to be Dukakis' running mate." As NPR itself noted:

Republican campaign-master Lee Atwater knew a wedge issue when he saw one. "By the time I'm done," Atwater said with a wink, "people will think Willie Horton is his running mate."

The "Willie Horton tale" proved to be so toxic to the public discourse that Atwater later apologized for his role in it. A January 14, 1991, Associated Press article quoted Atwater, who was gravely ill at the time, apologizing for having pushed the notion that Horton was Dukakis' running mate, and saying that the comment "makes me sound racist, which I am not."

This analogy has no place in the discussion of Romney's record.

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