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Bush’s relationship with Dukakis begins and ends with Willie Horton

George H.W. Bush (left) and Michael Dukakis shook hands before a September 1988 debate in Winston-Salem, N.C.Dennis Cook/Pool/File

George H.W. Bush forged a famous friendship with Bill Clinton, the Democrat who turned him into a one-term president. By contrast, his relationship with Michael Dukakis, the Democrat he vanquished, begins and ends with Willie Horton.

Dukakis has no mash notes from Poppy Bush, nor any apologies concerning the nasty Republican campaign of 1988 that was lowlighted by Bush’s willingness to sanction race-baiting. When they met in December 1988 in the vice presidential mansion, Dukakis said that he and then President-elect Bush talked about the deficit. “We didn’t talk about the campaign. He had won, I had lost,” Dukakis said during a phone conversation on Sunday morning. At that meeting, Dukakis remembers Bush telling him, “If I raise taxes my first year, they’ll kill me.” Bush waited until 1990 and, with that pledge-breaker, may have sealed his loss to Clinton.


What happened in 1988 is still with Dukakis, who blames himself for not fighting back. “A month ago, I almost picked up the phone and called Beto O’Rourke,” said Dukakis, referring to the young Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in Texas against incumbent Republican Ted Cruz and is now being touted as the party’s new star. “I was going to tell him, ‘You’re doing the same thing I did and Kerry did. You have got to turn his attack campaign into a character campaign on him (Cruz). ”

If that’s the lesson of 1988 — still apparently unlearned by Democrats — the master teacher was Bush. It’s a straight shot from the race-baiting appeal of Willie Horton to Donald Trump’s blatant smearing of Mexicans and other immigrants. At least Trump owns his enthusiasm for whipping up racist fears. Bush never accepted responsibility for his, as represented by a 30-second ad called “Weekend Passes.”


It starred Horton, a black man who was convicted of murder and granted weekend furloughs under a state program that existed while Dukakis was governor. Horton fled during one furlough and was eventually convicted of entering a Maryland home, attacking the male homeowner and raping his fiancée. While the furlough policy was worthy of debate, the ad was designed to encourage voters to believe that, under a President Dukakis, black criminals would be set loose.

Never mind that California had a similar policy when Ronald Reagan was governor, and the federal government sanctioned a furlough policy during the Reagan-Bush years. Since the ad was financed by the National Security PAC, the Bush campaign could say they officially had nothing to do with it. However, Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater was quoted as saying, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’s running mate.” And a Bush campaign aide kept a mug shot of Horton on the office bulletin board.

After being diagnosed with brain cancer, Atwater apologized to Dukakis in an article that was published in Life magazine, in February 1991. “In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said that I would ‘strip the bark off the little bastard’ and ‘make Willie Horton his running mate,’ ” he wrote. “I’m sorry for both statements, the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I’m not.” Asked for comment at the time on Atwater’s statement, then-President Bush said, “I found that very interesting and enlarging.”


In “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush,” Jon Meacham spends considerable time deconstructing the 1988 campaign. But as Meacham presents it, even in retirement Bush had little to say about the Horton ad: “I was accused of playing a black trump card against my opponent because of Willie Horton. Well, I didn’t do that, one group did and (we) denounced them,” recalls Bush in the book. Meacham also notes that Bush always said the issue was first raised by Al Gore. During a Democratic primary debate, Gore did raise the furlough policy as an issue but did not name Horton.

Bush, who did allow Horton to become the face of an attack ad, is being eulogized as a symbol of civility and decency in politics. Of course, the ad doesn’t totally define Bush. But his life’s work can’t be weighed without considering how low he was willing to go against Dukakis.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.