Wednesday, June 18, 2008

US politics and the ghost of Willie Horton

"Can a man so weak in the war on gangs be trusted in the war on terror?" screeches a TV attack ad in North Carolina, sponsored by, a site that has to be seen to be believed.

Floyd Brown is back, and it's gonna get ugly. Comparatively speaking, of course, because it's already an ugly campaign.

Floyd Brown was the gentleman who gave us the race-baiting Willie Horton ad twenty years ago that helped to seal the fate of Democratic presidential contender Michael Dukakis. Sidney Blumenthal, in his book on the 1988 presidential campaign, quoted one gleeful member of Bush
père's team: "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."

The elder Bush's campaign manager at the time was Lee Atwater, a man who almost singlehandedly managed to lower the tone and substance of American political discourse to the disgraceful, negative, demeaning caricature that it is today. He was Karl Rove's mentor, which kind of says it all. He always claimed (publicly) that the Horton ad wasn't meant to be racist (cough), but he clearly thought along precisely those lines:

Atwater slipped in a speech he gave to southern Republicans right before that year's Democratic convention:

"There is a story about a fellow named Willie Horton who for all I know may end up to be Dukakis' running mate. Dukakis is making Hamlet look like the rock of Gibraltar in the way he's acted on this.[This was a reference to Dukakis' search for a vice-presidential candidate.] The guy was on TV about a month ago and he said you'll never see me standing in the driveway of my house talking to these candidates. And guess what, on Monday, I saw in the driveway of his house? Jesse Jackson. So anyway, maybe he'll put this Willie Horton guy on the ticket after all is said and done."

As was noted at the time by Thomas Edsall of the Washington Post and others, Atwater was pretty clearly equating Jesse Jackson with Willie Horton because both happened to be black.

But the hitman here, as noted, was Floyd Brown, whose mentor (when he turned his malign attention to trashing the Clintons) was Southern arch-segregationist Jim Johnson. Officially disavowed by the Republicans, Brown has always seemed to work comfortably enough with them behind the scenes, operating in semi-underground fashion through an "independent expenditures" loophole.

The racialization of the 2008 US presidential campaign continues. There is no end in sight, either, and apparently no depths to which the political opponents of Barack Obama will not sink.

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