Worst Than The Willie Horton Ad, Or Why You Should Vote Against Sam Brownback, Even If You Like His Reactionary Politics

It’s no secret that Kansas Governor Sam Brownback is a reactionary who is hell-bent on taking the state backwards in time. And it is no secret that many Kansans, including many Republican Kansans, don’t want to go back in time as far as Brownback wants to take them. Thus, his reelection is in some doubt, even in such a conservative state.

And that is why this weekend, as I watched local TV here in Joplin, Missouri (just a few miles from the state line), I finally saw Willie Horton come to Kansas.

As essential background for understanding the point of this post, a little history is in order. Willie Horton and two of his criminal friends robbed and brutally murdered a 17-year-old service station attendant in northeastern Massachusetts in 1974. The young man was stabbed 19 times and bled to death in a trash barrel where his body had been stuffed. Horton, who had previously served time in South Carolina for assault with intent to murder, was eventually convicted of actually committing murder in Massachusetts and sentenced to life without parole.

Except that as part of a weekend furlough program, which was designed to help rehabilitate criminals other than first-degree murderers (the state’s highest court eventually decided the program should also apply to those criminals too), Willie Horton was released in June of 1986 for a weekend of unsupervised freedom. It was his tenth such weekend out, and it was at that time he decided he wasn’t going back to prison. He fled instead.

The next year, still a free man, Horton went to a home in Maryland one evening, in a suburb of Washington, D.C., and pointed a gun at the man who came to the door. For seven hours, Horton tormented the 28-year-old by punching and kicking him and whipping him with his gun. He also sliced his torso multiple times with a knife. Horton bound and gagged the man, who then listened as his fiancée unfortunately came home during this horrific episode. Horton similarly abused her for four hours, but added to her torments by raping her. Twice.

Horton was eventually captured, after a police chase and shootout. He is still in prison today in Maryland, a judge there refusing to send him back to Massachusetts for fear officials would let him out again on another furlough.

It was in 1988 that Willie Horton was introduced to the nation via the following infamous—and effective—ad produced by a man who used to work for Roger Ailes and put out by supporters of the George H. W. Bush campaign that year:

After that ad was taken down, the official Bush campaign ran another one, which did not use Willie Horton’s image or mention his name. But the message was already out there. A vote for Dukakis was essentially a vote for Willie Horton’s freedom.

Now, the original ad makes two claims about Michael Dukakis, who was governor of Massachusetts from 1975-1979 and from 1983-1991. One, that Dukakis “opposes the death penalty,” and, two, that he “allowed murderers to have weekend passes.” Famously, Dukakis did (and presumably still does) oppose the death penalty, having hurt himself in the 1988 campaign by too-soberly answering a question related to the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife. But did he also allow murderers, murderers like Willie Horton, to have weekend passes?

Well, sort of. Like other states at the time and still today, Massachusetts had a furlough program in place when Horton killed that young service station attendant. And that program was signed into law by a Republican governor in 1972, although it was understood that the program would not be open to killers like Willie Horton who were serving life terms without the possibility of parole. No state had such a furlough program, all of them sensibly denying the benefit to first-degree killers.

As I mentioned, though, the state’s highest court ruled that the language of the law that established the program did not specifically prohibit first-degree murderers from benefiting from it. Soon after that ruling, the legislature passed a bill in 1976 that would have unequivocally prohibited Willie Horton-type criminals from getting weekend passes. But Michael Dukakis vetoed that bill and therefore the court’s interpretation of the law stood, resulting in Willie Horton’s tenth state-sanctioned weekend of freedom in June of 1986.

So, as far as raw electoral advertising goes, it was plausibly true that, as that ad claimed, Dukakis “allowed murderers to have weekend passes.” In politics, it is close enough to the truth to say he did, considering that if he had not vetoed that bill, it is quite unlikely that Willie Horton would ever have been out in 1987 to commit those awful crimes in Maryland. (By the way, Dukakis eventually gave into pressure and in 1988, the same year he was running for president, the questionable furlough program was abolished.)

But the point of that ad was, as Republican political strategist and “Southern strategy” proponent Lee Atwater said later, to make Willie Horton “Dukakis’ running mate.” The ad would not have been nearly as effective, in terms of appealing to the fear and angst of white people, if Willie Horton had been as white as they were. It is incontrovertible that Willie Horton’s likeness, more than the crimes he committed or the situation in which he was able to commit them, was the main reason that ad was conceived. The ad, after all, was initially limited to running on cable channels and ended up in the mainstream because of press attention to its overtones.

Having said all that, let’s look at the latest ad from Sam Brownback in Kansas, attacking his Democratic opponent Paul Davis with a Willie Horton-style ad:

Is there any doubt that the following image is really what this ad is all about:

carr brothers

No, there is no doubt. It is more their complexions than their crimes, as brutal and as awful as they were, that make them perfect stars of a Republican political campaign ad in mostly rural and mostly lily-white Kansas. And make no mistake about it, their crimes were bad, as The Wichita Eagle described them:

The brothers were convicted of murdering five people, including a brutal execution-style quadruple murder, during a weeklong crime spree of killing, rape and robbery in Wichita in December 2000.

But here is the reason why I went to all the trouble of explaining the context of that original Willie Horton ad. There is absolutely no connection between what the Carr brothers did and Paul Davis. Unlike what Michael Dukakis did, which was veto a bill that would likely have kept Willie Horton in prison forever, Paul Davis had nothing to do, directly or indirectly, with the Carr brothers. As the Wichita paper reported, here is Brownback’s defense of the ad:

Brownback said during and after a debate Tuesday that he thinks it’s justified to link Davis to the Supreme Court decision because Davis would appoint judges who are more liberal than those Brownback would pick.

You see? Davis can be married to the Carr brothers in a political ad not for something he did as an elected official or as a lawyer, but because of something he might do as governor of Kansas. But of course that is not the real reason Brownback is using that ad. He is in a tough campaign. He needs every white vote. And as the Willie Horton ad proved so long ago, there isn’t a better way for a white candidate in a challenging campaign to get those extra white votes than by featuring images of psychopathic black killers in the same 30-seconds of air time in which your Democratic opponent also appears. It has become a classic sign of desperation.

If this ad doesn’t disgust even white Republicans in Kansas simply as a cynical attack on their intelligence, not to mention as a cynical appeal to their implied fear of black people, then all hope is lost in my old, fast-declining home state. The Brownbacks will have their way.

Finally, I must note that the former district attorney who prosecuted the Carr brothers, Nola Foulston, said this about Brownback’s ad:

It is beyond disgraceful that Sam Brownback would exploit this tragedy and make the victims’ families relive that horrific crime every time they turn on their television just for the sake of getting re-elected.

And I must note that the Carr brothers are not out roaming the streets of Kansas. They will spend the rest of their miserable lives in prison. The state supreme court, despite finding flaws in their sentencing, upheld a count of capital murder for each of them.

Previous Post

18 Comments

  1. King Beauregard

     /  October 27, 2014

    But but but Thomas Frank says that racism is not a significant factor in Republican fortunes, not in Kansas anyway!

    Like

    • You know, I liked his “The Wrecking Crew” very much but some of his stuff at Salon has been, well, beneath the quality I expected from a Kansas man. That Cornel West interview he did was awful stuff. And Frank’s recent piece on Krugman’s Rolling Stone article, in which Krugman actually had the liberal nerve to actually praise the president, is a bewildering journey through a mind that seems lost in the impractical world of liberal idealism. It’s as if President Obama should have done two things at once when he got elected: solved all of the nation’s ills by creating and enacting a super-New Deal, while at the same time fighting a rear-guard action against Republican disloyalists who were willing to wreck the country in order to save their political fortunes. And I guess he was supposed to accomplish all this in that tiny window of opportunity when he had 60 shaky, very shaky, Democratic filibuster-proof votes in the Senate.

      I’m all for second-guessing. Heck, that’s what we all do who write in these forums. But some second-guessing is just blatantly dishonest. It’s one thing to say Obama should have been more aggressive here or there or shouldn’t have made this or that deal with his political enemies, but it is another to look back, after all the mistakes and missteps are obvious, and say he should have known and done better on all fronts all the time. Yes, Obama has made some mistakes, particularly in underestimating the ferocity with which Republicans hate him, but given the severe crisis we were facing early in 2009, who would have thought back then that such ferocity would also have meant Republicans were willing to injure the country in order to save themselves? It’s true that we all know better now and should never make that mistake again, but that’s because we are looking back. Obama didn’t have that luxury with the economy bleeding away 800,000 jobs a month and the nation on the brink of Depression.

      Like

      • King Beauregard

         /  October 28, 2014

        I’ve got a particular axe to grind with Thomas Frank, in that not only does he write terrible and unrealistic articles about what Obama and the Democrats could/should have done, he does so all the while completely misunderstanding the nature of the opposition they’re facing, and so can’t even begin to grasp why he’s wrong. And I wonder how much of it is willful ignorance: facing the real problems Democrats are up against would leave Frank without any answers, so he writes about a more hypothetical America that he knows just how to fix.

        Not every Republican is racist, but I would say racism is the main thing holding the Republicans together: the general dread that non-whites are going to make life hell for whites. And Thomas Frank, the great arbiter of what’s wrong with Kansas, doesn’t see it at all. He doesn’t get that, even among traditional Democratic supporters (such as unions), there is some concern that the Democrats are doing too much for minorities, and it becomes a complex balancing act that Democrats have to do to stay in office.

        My personal opinion is, the Democrats who get into office get into office basically because they ARE the Democrats who can get into office. It’s kind of circular, but that’s the point: their survival itself is evidence that they’re right for their constituencies. Dennis Kucinich may be viable in my neck of the woods (where BTW I’ve got Muslim next-door neighbors and black neighbors across the street and I think one of the neighbor’s cats is gay) but I doubt he’s Joplin-ready.

        Like

        • KB,

          I am impressed by your observations.

          1.) “Not every Republican is racist, but I would say racism is the main thing holding the Republicans together: the general dread that non-whites are going to make life hell for whites.”

          The kind of racism you describe is what I have called for five years now “white angst.” Pat Buchanan, a long time ago, put his finger on this Republican pulse. It is definitely a general dread, if not that non-whites will make life hell for whites, but at least a fear that white cultural dominance, and thus privilege, is coming to an end.

          2.) “…even among traditional Democratic supporters (such as unions), there is some concern that the Democrats are doing too much for minorities, and it becomes a complex balancing act that Democrats have to do to stay in office.”

          Amen to part of that. I actually know Democrats who, though they like or voted for Obama, are nevertheless carriers of racist ideas, like blacks are lazy, etc. They see Obama as one of the “good” blacks.

          As far as unions, the labor movement has come a long way. Many unions tried to keep blacks out of better paying workplaces and many were once hostile to immigration reform that allowed undocumented workers to stay here. But times have changed and unions have mostly come to see how they can eventually stop the bleeding of membership by appealing to all workers. In fact, union racism may have been a contributor to the too-small historic base of unionism by excluding a large group of workers and making that group available to employers at a lower wage.

          3.) “…the Democrats who get into office get into office basically because they ARE the Democrats who can get into office. It’s kind of circular, but that’s the point: their survival itself is evidence that they’re right for their constituencies.”

          While on the margins that otherwise unassailable fact changes from election to election, depending on circumstances, I wish more liberals would realize the truth of what you said. Kucinich wouldn’t make it here and Billy Long wouldn’t make it there. We are in fact fighting in places, fewer now after Republican gerrymandering, that could tilt one way or the other.

          Good stuff,

          Duane

          Like

          • King Beauregard

             /  October 28, 2014

            What more Lefties need to do is vote in EVERY election, including the primaries, where they have some ability to put into play candidates more to their liking.

            Of course, after about an hour of volunteering, they’d discover that politics are more complicated than they thought. A little time at a phone bank and they’d discover that (gasp!) not everyone is just like them and their cool friends who have fascinating opinions about single payer. Read a candidate’s position papers, they’d realize that even ho-hum candidates they’d never paid any attention to have actual plans and ideas that just don’t happen to make it to Twitter or bumper stickers. And above all they’d learn that a great many politicians (not all, but probably most) want to do a good job for their constituents and their country, but are participating in a system that by its very design limits the amount of impact a single elected official can make.

            But that’s not what a lot of Lefties want. What they want is someone who will come into power, tell all the bad people to shove it, fix everything, and make the solar-powered trains run on time. (Which is why they vote so much more heavily in Presidential elections.) The nicest way to describe such a ruler is a philosopher king, but sadly, it also happens to describe a tyrant. Not enough Lefties see that.

            Like

    • King Beauregard

       /  November 2, 2014

      Followup on this, and why I think Thomas Frank is such an overrated hack. Here is Thomas Frank’s account of visiting Kansas just prior to the election, conducting interviews, getting a feel for the climate:

      http://www.salon.com/2014/11/02/righteous_rage_impotent_fury_thomas_frank_returns_to_kansas_to_hunt_the_last_days_of_sam_brownback_and_pat_roberts/

      Here is the part where Thomas Frank questions Sam Brownback about the ad:

      TF: “I saw your TV commercial about the Carr brothers. There’s a lot of people who followed you for your stance on cultural issues, and I wonder how a pro-lifer can be in favor of the death penalty.”

      SB: “What that ad’s about is about judges, and the judge’s role. That’s what that ad’s about.”

      TF: “It implied pretty strongly that you would have executed these guys.”

      BB: “That ad is about judges. ’Cause what we talked about is the judges you appoint. Which, that’s the governor’s role, is how, what you appoint. And I’ve appointed a prosecutor to the Supreme Court, and he’s [meaning his Democratic opponent] supported liberal judges, and one of the judges, at their home, had a fundraiser. So, that’s what we were pointing out in that ad.”

      Talk about missing every salient point about that ad! Thomas Frank doesn’t just bury the lede, he wouldn’t know a lede if it bit him in the ass.

      Like

      • I agree with you about that exchange, although to be fair, he did have only a few seconds to ask a question of the retreating governor. I am sure I would have ask about the Willie Horton angle, but, as you suggest, that is far from Frank’s mind apparently.

        But if you read that article, it shows why Thomas Frank can be such a good writer and explainer of what is going on (outside the racial angst issue) in our politics. The problem he has, which he shares with so many liberal thinkers I’m afraid, is that he transfers the obvious cynicism around right-wing politics and politicians too easily to Democratic politics and politicians. I don’t like that equivalency idea, even though it is true that Democrats can be just as crass and cynically calculating as Republicans. But one has to be careful when expressing the relative foibles of Democrats. Because relative to what is going on among the reactionaries on the right, Democratic sins are pretty venial. But you wouldn’t know that if you read the attacks, some of them vicious like Glenn Greenwald and some of them much less vicious like Thomas Frank’s, from the left on people like President Obama. And that’s why I get so aggravated with people on our side.

        Duane

        Like

        • Anonymous

           /  November 4, 2014

          Recently, former Congressman James Traficant was killed in a tractor accident. No, I don’t mean “traffic” accident, I mean he was killed by his tractor on his farm. I bring Traficant up because he’s an example of a corrupt Democrat who lined his pockets with campaign contributions; nothing honorable about how he lived or died. BUT … at least his form of corruption was a matter of personal gain, not using the public trust to disenfranchise huge swathes of the population.

          It’s nearly impossible for a Democrat to be as corrupt as a Republican.

          Like

          • It’s nearly impossible for a Democrat to be as corrupt as a Republican.

            So true. Typically, Democrats promise action to improve life for their constituents, but Republicans seem to think it’s enough to de-regulate businesses and adhere to laissez-faire policies. Our own congressman Billy Long, virtually assured of reelection, is a good example. He has produced no legislation of any significance and who knows what he does with his time, other than voting 50 times to repeal ObamaCare.

            Like

          • Wow. I like the way you put it. I just hope people read that last line in the context of the previous one: “at least his form of corruption was a matter of personal gain, not using the public trust to disenfranchise huge swathes of the population.” It is in that sense that “It’s nearly impossible for a Democrat to be as corrupt as a Republican.” Amen to that!

            Like

          • King Beaureagard

             /  November 4, 2014

            Oh, that Anonymous poster was me. Dunno why my settings went away, shrug. But if anyone here is gonna be talking about the doings and farm activities in northeast Ohio, it’s almost always going to be me.

            Like

  2. My first thought upon reading this, Duane, was that a condensed version ought to be offered to a large Kansas newspaper. But then it occurred to me that those voters who would be swayed by this Willie Horton-style ad are unlikely to read a lengthy op-ed letter. Just as with the ebola panic, fear motivates voters and disingenuous politicians will always take advantage. Given the nuttiness over ebola quarantines, I can’t see that anything has improved in the last quarter century.

    Excellent post.

    Like

    • “…fear motivates voters and disingenuous politicians will always take advantage.” Sadly, that is what is happening in many close Senate races around the country, especially in New Hampshire with Scott Brown, who refuses to stop stirring up fear over widespread Ebola infections. Rand Paul is another one who deserves widespread rebuke for what he, a medical professional, has said about Ebola.

      Like

  3. A politician’s reaction to public fear is, I submit, a good test of leadership and gravitas, and I hope it will come to be viewed that way. Just read a fine article on the subject in the Christian Science Monitor.

    Like

    • That is an excellent piece, Jim.

      I got up early this morning and turned on the TV and found out that Chris Christie not only did not have second thoughts about his move in New Jersey to confine that Ebola-fighting nurse, but he doubled down on it by appealing to the public’s “common sense.” I was outraged by that and began the piece I published this morning, also about leadership. It is politicians like Christie, and, sad to say, some Democratic governors are leaning his way, too, that add fuel to the fire of skepticism that all of our government institutions are monuments to utter failure.

      Like

  4. ansonburlingame

     /  October 28, 2014

    Duane,

    Like it or not, there is a good reason to consider how to vote based on what the candidate “might do” in the future. The type of judges he “might” appoint is certainly something to consider. So the ad raises that question in the minds of voters, would Brownback’s opponent appoint “iberal judges” as opposed to really good judges with no political slants to their decisions.

    Now for the ad. I watched it and saw a VERY brief, maybe a ome second shot of two blacks in jail for ……. But the second shot showed several criminals in jail, with whites and blacks in such situations. Each “shot” was the same length as well.

    So you cherry picked an ad to suggest racial prejudice, focusing just on two black criminals and thus imply that Brownback is anti-black, playing to the fears or prejudice of whites.

    One other point. You wrote your OPINION, not a fact it seems, that “The ad would not have been nearly as effective, in terms of appealing to the fear and angst of white people, if Willie Horton had been as white as they were.”

    It could just as well be said that Brownback was appealing to all voters to prevent judges from being appointed that might well release any criminal, simply because they are “liberal politicians”.

    You cry foul when a black is held up in contempt and call it racism. Would you also cry foul if the criminal was a white skin head? I never considered the Willie Horton issue one of race. I saw it as a “law and order” issue. I view this ad in the same manner. As well, white, black, brown or yellow, I don’t like jiudges that appear to bend over backwards to help any criminals that in fact are guilty of terrible crimes.

    Same goes today with Ferguson. It is primarily a race issue. Had the cop and dead man been of the same race we probably would never have read about it. And the nation would certainly not be hanging around awaiting a grand jury action right now with future threats of violence if the grand jury fails to indict.

    Anson

    Like

    • King Beauregard

       /  October 28, 2014

      The Carr bros’ faces take up almost the entire screen; there’s no way the ad isn’t drawing very deliberate attention to them. Also, I’m not sure where the ad shows “several criminals in jail, with whites and blacks in such situations”, but the fact that you noticed the Carrs’ faces but couldn’t successfully process the rest of the ad suggests how effective it was in showing the Carrs’ faces.

      Like

    • First of all, did you not read the last paragraph? You complain that the ad is okay because it is fair to consider what judges his opponent might appoint. Then you wrote,

      It could just as well be said that Brownback was appealing to all voters to prevent judges from being appointed that might well release any criminal, simply because they are “liberal politicians”.

      “Release any criminal”? These criminals were not released, as I pointed out.

      Then you said,

      I don’t like jiudges that appear to bend over backwards to help any criminals that in fact are guilty of terrible crimes.

      What happened to your “law and order” stand?  The court only “helped” those bastards by sparing their lives, by forcing the government to adhere to principles of good law and order. The court is, presumably (I didn’t examine the reasoning of the appellate court), trying to make the system better by making everyone play by the rules. I guess you would have been alright if they just tried them, convicted them, and took them outside and strung them up without any recourse to the appeals process. Law and order, indeed.

      That ad was about one thing: liberals will, as you falsely picked up on, let out dangerous black thugs like the Carr brothers. If the Carr brothers and their images weren’t central to that ad, then why did their images appear? As a side point, do you think the producers of that ad ask the families involved before bringing all this up?

      You said you “never considered the Willie Horton issue one of race,” when one of the architects of 80s Republican strategy and Bush’s campaign manager in ’88, Lee Atwater, clearly used racist tactics to win elections, as everyone knows and he essentially admitted while he was dying of a brain tumor in 1991. But right after that you said, contradictorily,

      Same goes today with Ferguson. It is primarily a race issue. Had the cop and dead man been of the same race we probably would never have read about it.

      You think I am wrong in asserting that if Willie Horton had been white that the ad would have been less effective. Then you say that if the cop and dead teenager in Ferguson were of the same race, it would have been no big news event. Okay. I’m saying the same thing about Willie Horton. If he had been white, no big deal. It would have been just another “law and order” claim made by conservatives. But you are blind to the absolute reality that it matters, when you are advertising your opponent’s negatives to an almost exclusive white audience, that people see a black Willie Horton or the black Carr brothers in the ad.

      It amazes me that you continue to deny what is so damned obvious.

      Duane

      Like

%d bloggers like this: