The infamous "Willie Horton" television advertisement, aired during the 1988 United States presidential campaign, was the most racially charged, divisive TV ad in the history of presidential campaigns. It is still considered to be a low point in negative campaign advertisements and largely created the backlash against negative campaigning that candidates face today.

The ad starts off by mentioning that Republican candidate George Bush is in favor of the death penalty, but quickly the ad escalates into an all-out mudslinging session. A disparaging picture of Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis is shown and a strongly one-sided story is told, in which a frightening picture of a Massachusetts convict named Willie Horton is shown. The ad then strongly insinuates that the crimes of Horton are the fault of Dukakis, going so far as to hugely display the words kidnapping, stabbing, and raping on the screen right before flashing a large picture of Dukakis and his name. The voiceover told an extremely one-sided version of the Willie Horton story in a harsh, attacking voice.

Here's the story behind the ad. During his term as Governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis continued a program that his predecessor had started in the state called the Prison Furlough Program. Under the program, prisoners who had served a percentage of their sentence with exemplary behavior were allowed occasional weekend passes as a reward. The goal of this program was twofold: to encourage prisoners to behave better while in prison (thus reducing the stress on the overstressed penal program in the state), as well as to allow the convicts themselves to have some opportunity to demonstrate that they had redeemed themselves.

This program has both merits and drawbacks, but the drawbacks were clearly demonstrated by Willie Horton. On June 6, 1986, convicted murderer Willie Horton was released from the Northeastern Correctional Center in Concord, Massachusetts. Under the furlough program, he had become eligible for an unguarded, 48-hour furlough. He never came back.

Instead, Horton went into hiding, and arrived in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on April 3, 1987. Cliff Barnes, a resident of the town, heard footsteps in his house and thought his fiancée had returned early from a wedding party. Suddenly Willie Horton stepped out of the shadows with a gun. For the next seven hours, Horton punched, pistol-whipped, and kicked Barnes and cut him 22 times across his midsection. As far as anyone can tell, this attack was unprovoked by Barnes. When Barnes' fiancée Angela returned that evening, Horton gagged her and savagely raped her twice. Horton then stole Barnes' car, and was later chased by police until he was captured the next day. On October 20, 1987, Horton was sentenced in Maryland to two consecutive life terms plus 85 years.

As a result of the outcry over the Horton case, Dukakis and the state legislature did the right thing and terminated the program in April, 1988, chalking it up to a failed experiment in improving the incarceration system in the state. That's the way things remained until October of that year, when George Bush's campaign drug the incident out of the closet and made the infamous ad.

Rather than addressing the issues of the campaign, this ad dug into the past, found a program in Massachusetts that indirectly gave Willie Horton the opportunity to commit this crime, then visually insinuated that Dukakis was directly responsible for rape, assault, and kidnapping. This advertisement clearly signalled a low point in negative campaigning, and in years since candidates have attempted to avoid sinking to this level of negative campaign tactics.

This advertisement can be viewed online at the following address:

There are many complexities in the Willie Horton story. As a whole, this was an example of vicious mudslinging by the Republicans (it was reported that a leaflet in Illinois said "All the murderers and rapists and drug pushers and child molesters in Massachusetts vote for Michael Dukakis.")

BUT 1. Dukakis did defend the furlough program to the extent of vetoing legislation to exclude first degree murderers from it in 1976.

2. The argument that Horton attracted so much attention simply because he was black, is untenable. His crime was so horrific that he could probably have been put up as the centerpiece of an equally negative campaign regardless of his race (which didn't hurt of course.)

As an aside, it is not true that Willie Horton was first brought up by Al Gore. He actually asked a single question about Horton in a debate for the primaries, without mentioning Horton by name or his race.

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