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THE KILLER AND THE CANDIDATE
HE WAS BIG. HE WAS BLACK. HE WAS UGLY. HE WAS EVERY GUY YOU ever crossed a street to avoid, every pair of smoldering eyes you ever looked away from on the bus or subway. He was every person you moved out of the city to escape, every sound in the night that made you get up and check the locks on the windows and grab the door handles and give them an extra tug.
Whether you were white or black or red or yellow, Willie Horton was your worst nightmare. "I thought of all the late nights I had ridden in terror on the F and A trains while living in New York City," Anthony Walton, a black writer and filmmaker, would write in the New York Times Magazine. "I thought Willie Horton must be what the wolfpacks I had often heard about, but never seen, must look like. I said to myself, `Something has got to be done about these niggers.'" Horton defied common sennse, which dictated that criminals committed crimes for some reason, for some gain. Give them what they wanted and they would leave you alone. But Willie Horton did not care if you gave it to him or not. As he would demonstrate at least twice, giving him what he asked for would not make any difference. Horton like crime. He did it for pleasure, for power, for control. Decent people had no defense against him. That was the most terrifying thing of all. Capture him and take away his knife and sentence him and put him behind bars - we pay taxes for these things! - and what would happen? He would be given a weekend furlough. Ten times, Michael Dukakis opened up the prison doors in Massachusetts and said to Willie Horton: "Go and sin no more."
Nine times Horton followed instructions. But the 10th time, he went to Maryland and broke into a home and tied a man to a joist in the basement, slashed his chest and stomach with a knife, then beat and raped his fiancee while she screamed and screamed and screamed. Willie Horton was a killer, a rapist, a torturer, a kidnapper, a brute. In other words, he was perfect. television viewer had the set on for 6 hours and 59 minutes a day. There was entertainment, sports, drama, adventure, comedy, sex, documentaries, anything. And it was free. All you had to do was put up with the commercials that paid for it all. Every week, the average viewer saw about 1,000 commercials. They became part of our lives. We could recognize the jingles, the catchphrases, the music. We could date ourselves by the time stamp that commercials placed on our memories: "You'll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent." The Marlboro The Gardol shield. "See the USA in your Chevrolet!" L.S.M.F.T.
We didn't "watch" commercials. They were just there. They entered into our subconscious. Which made them a very potent force in American politics.
"The [political] commercials make the American public captive in two respects," Curtis Gans, the director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, wrote. "Since they occur in the midst of regular programming, they can't be readily shut off. And since their primary appeal is not to reason but rather to emotions, they are virtually unanswerable."
The first political video commercial preceded television. In 1934 Upton Sinclair, the great muckaker, ran for governor of California as a Democrat. His big issue was hardly surprising considering the country was in the depths of the Great Depression: he wanted to eliminate poverty.
To combat him, the Republicans hired an ad agency and the first political consulting firm in the country, Whitaker & Baxter, to paint Sinclair as a crazed Bolshevik.
"Whitaker & Baxter produced phony newsreels of staged events," wrote Edwin Diamond and Stephen Bates in The Spot: The Rise of Political Advertising on Television. "In one, dozens of bedraggled hoboes leap off a freight train. . . Explains one bum: `Sinclair says he'll take the property of the working people and give it to us.' In another commercial, a bearded man with a Russian accent explains why he'll vote for Sinclair: `His system vorked vell in Russia, so vy can't it vork here?"
The phony newsreels were shown in movie theaters all over California, thanks to Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM and a power in the Republican party. Though more than a half-century has passed, the fundamentals of that first negative video commercial are the same that are used in negative TV ads today: fear, danger, and stereotyping of the enemy.
But it was Thomas Rosser Reeves, Jr., a legendary ad man, who saw the real possibilities of political ads. In 1948, he went to Thomas E. Dewey, Harry Truman's Republican opponent for president. "This could be a close election," Reeves told him. "I can pretty much tell which states are going to be close. If you would start two or three weeks before Election Day and saturate those critical states with spots, it could swing the election."
Dewey wouldn't even consider it. "I don't think it would be dignified," he said.
Dewey lost. In 1948 there were fewer than 500,000 TV sets in America. Four years later there were nearly 19 million.
And nobody ever said no to television again.
WILLIE HORTON WAS ALREADY FAMOUS in Massachusetts by the time Michael Dukakis began his campaign for president. But in July 1988 Reader's Digest gave America its first in-depth look at Horton in an article the Bush campaign would reprint by the tens of thousands. The article was titled "Getting Away With Murder," and freelance writer Robert James Bidinotto began by recounting Horton's first big-time crime.
It was October 26, 1974, and Joey Fournier, 17, was working alone at a gas station in Lawrence, Massachusetts. William Robert Horton, Jr., Alvin Wideman, and Roosevelt Pickett entered the station, brandished knives, and demanded money. Fournier gave them $276.37 and pleaded for his life.
They killed him anyway.
Minutes later one of Fournier's friends dropped by and found Fournier's lifeless body stuffed in a trash barrel. He had been stabbed 19 times.
Horton and the two others were arrested and confessed to the robbery, but none of them confessed to the murder. Horton had previously served three years in South Carolina for assault with intent to commit murder, and prosecutors believed he had done the stabbing.
In May 1975 all three men were convicted of armed robbery and first-degree murder. A few weeks before they were sentenced, Michael Dukakis had vetoed a bill that would have instituted the death penalty in Massachusetts. But the state had a very severe first-degree murder law, which mandated life without parole.
Under a furlough program begun by Republican governor Francis Sargent in 1972, however, Horton and the others were eligible for unguarded 48-hour weekend furloughs. Horton was granted 10 such furloughs. On the last one, from the Northeastern Correctional Center in Concord on June 7, 1986, Horton went to a movie, a church, a few stores in Lawrence, and then disappeared.
"I didn't plan to that," he later said. "It was spontaneous. I was out of bounds in my conduct."
OVER THE DECADES, WE HAVE LEARNED not to demand absolute, technical truth from TV commercials. The negative TV ads directed against Michael Dukakis and his furlough program never told the complete, absolute, technical truth. They were TV commercials; they didn't have to. Ads are not about facts anyway. They are about emotions. They are very often about fear. Psychoanalyst Erich From was the first to note that fear was the basis for much of American advertising. The famous and long-running "ring around the collar" ads featured people embarrassed in front of their bosses or coworkers or friends by having dirty shirt collars. But they could be rescued from the fear of future humiliation by a laundry detergent.
"This general fear operates primarily on an unconscious level," wrote Hal Himmelstein in Television Myth and the American Mind. "The solution to our rejection comes in the form of miracles." …