Vice President George H.W. Bush, left, and Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis before their presidential debate in Los Angeles in October 1988. (Lennox McLendon/AP)

In the wake of former president George H.W. Bush’s death, media outlets are filled with eulogies and assessments of his legacy. As that plays out, some liberals have raised one of the ugliest parts of Bush’s record — his use of the case of Willie Horton to attack Gov. Michael Dukakis (D-Mass.) during the 1988 presidential campaign. In response, some conservatives have leaped to Bush’s defense.

So for those of you who are too young, or for whom the memory has faded, I thought it might be useful to clear up some facts and to consider what that episode really tells us about Bush, the Republican Party, and American politics more generally.

Here’s the background: William Horton was a convicted felon in Massachusetts when Dukakis was governor. The state had a furlough program — begun by Dukakis’s predecessor — that, as a reward for good behavior, would allow some inmates to leave prison for a few days at a time and then return. On one such furlough, Horton ran, eventually breaking into a couple’s home where he assaulted the man and raped the woman. The story was the subject of a multipart series in a small Massachusetts newspaper. After the controversy, Dukakis shut down the furlough program.

During the 1988 primaries, the Massachusetts furlough program was brought up by Al Gore, but was barely noticed. When the Bush campaign got a hold of it in the general election, however, they knew they had something powerful. As Bush campaign strategist Lee Atwater said, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’s running mate.”

And you could have searched the nation and not found a crime more perfectly made to harmonize so purely with a couple of centuries’ worth of racist ideology and propaganda about black men, crime, violence and sexual threat. Here, you had a big dangerous black convict not only raping a white woman, but doing it while her fiance lay helpless on the floor.

And for the cherry on top, here is something almost no one remembers, something that gives more dimension to the barely concealed subtext of the political attack: No one ever referred to William Horton as “Willie” before Republicans started doing it in 1988. He referred to himself as William, court documents call him William and, in the many articles about his Massachusetts case before 1988, he is always referred to as William. Once Republicans — including George H.W. Bush — started telling the story, somebody decided to rename him “Willie.” (For more on this, you can refer to my old mentor Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s 1992 book “Dirty Politics: Deception, Distraction, and Democracy.”)

More from Paul Waldman/WAPO

Posted by The NON-Conformist