Almost a quarter-century before the Republican Party decided that the wrong side won World War II, George H.W. Bush recognized the power of the scary black man to galvanize white voters. On this National Day of Mourning for the 41st president, it’s good to remember that his kindness and decency didn’t make him immune from the racism that infects America and has become a raging epidemic in his GOP.
Bush’s Willie Horton ad in his 1988 presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis hit white voters right between the eyes. Featuring a dark-skinned black man with a scruffy Afro glaring ominously in a mug shot, the TV ad drilled deep into white fear in 30 seconds of air time by combining the myths of black depravity and liberal Democrats being soft on violent crime.
It worked. Once the votes were counted in the 1988 presidential election, Democrat Dukakis only won 10 states plus D.C., and Bush beat him by seven million popular votes and a breathtaking 315 electoral votes.
On this National Day of Mourning for the 41st president, it’s good to remember that his kindness and decency didn’t make him immune from the racism that infects America and has become a raging epidemic in his GOP.
William R. Horton was born in 1951 in South Carolina. When he was 23, Horton and two other men robbed a 19-year-old gas station attendant in Lawrence, Massachusetts. After the teen gave them the money in the register, Horton stabbed him 19 times and stuffed him, still alive, into a trash bin. Horton was sentenced to life in prison.
In the 1980s, Massachusetts instituted a weekend furlough program for inmates who had spotless records while locked up. Horton qualified, so in June 1986 he was given a weekend pass. He never returned. In April 1987, Horton invaded a Maryland home, knifed and tied up a male occupant, raped the man’s fiancé, and stole their car. Both victims were white. Horton was caught again and sentenced to life in a Maryland prison.
The Maryland judge who sentenced him refused to return Horton to Massachusetts, saying he didn’t want to take the chance that Horton would be furloughed again. The governor of Massachusetts, the man who oversaw the furlough program, was Michael Dukakis, who ended up being Bush’s presidential opponent.
The ad did more than guarantee Bush’s election by stoking racism. It helped lead to the current era of mass incarceration of black men. In the years following the ad, a dozen states eliminated parole altogether, and programs from work-release to conjugal visits were either stopped completely or severely cut back.
It wasn’t just Willie Horton and subsequent mass incarceration that Bush embraced, but the entire idea that America was under attack because black criminals were selling a new, dangerous, relatively inexpensive drug: crack cocaine.
Unlike the current opioid crisis, where officialdom urges that the mostly white victims be treated with compassion, overdose antidotes, and treatment, the official response to the 1980s and ‘90s crack scourge in mostly black communities was enforcement, jail time, and get-tough policies. White people now get treatment while black people then went to jail, largely thanks to policies of Bush’s Justice Department.
In early September 1989, the Bush administration was preparing to escalate Reagan’s War on Drugs because of white fears of both a rising overall crime rate and the proliferation of crack. Bush was to deliver a televised address from the Oval Office. According to the book “White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters” by Richard Schlesinger, Bush’s speechwriters thought it would be a great idea to illustrate the spread of the crack epidemic by having Bush hold up a bag of crack that had been sold near the White House.
The problem was, aside from a few stressed-out congressional aides or lobbyist yuppies taking the edge off by toking in Lafayette Park, there wasn’t any drug activity anywhere near 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. On orders from the Bush White House, the Drug Enforcement Administration took care of that by mounting an undercover sting and convincing 18-year old Keith Jackson, a high school senior who also dabbled in selling crack rocks, to set up a sale near the White House.
DEA tapes show that Jackson wasn’t even sure where the White House was, since he stuck strictly to his own neighborhood. But the DEA convinced him. Jackson didn’t have a criminal record, but once the feds busted him, tough federal sentencing guidelines for crack meant he was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
Meanwhile, Bush had his visual prop, and on September 5, 1989, he held up a bag of Keith Jackson’s crack rocks and told the nation that if dangerous drugs were being peddled even near the White House, the time had come to get even tougher on crack dealers and users.
George H.W. Bush was “a decent man, a man of great compassion.” According to the Washington Post, those were the exact words the judge used when he sentenced Keith Jackson to a decade behind bars. Noting that he had no choice, the judge said maybe Bush would intervene to commute the harsh sentence. He didn’t. Keith Jackson was behind bars until 1998.
The late president was a war hero, a kind man, and a patrician with a sense of noblesse oblige that led to a career of public service. The current president is a depraved coward, a vicious and petty racist whose only concern for the public is how much he can con them out of. But as much as Bush despised Trump, he helped set the stage for Trump’s overt white nationalism that’s taken over the Republican Party.
From Willie Horton to Keith Jackson, Bush gladly used black men as props to scare white America. Crime and drugs resulted from an out-of-control black population that threatened the very fabric of America. That’s what Bush whispered then, and it’s what Trump bellows now.
The last we heard of Keith Jackson was in 2001. He was living in a D.C. suburb and refused to talk to the press. Willie Horton, age 67, is an inmate at the Jessup Correctional Center in Maryland. George H.W. Bush lies in state.
St. Louis American