Was Willie Horton Gay?

Harvey Wasserman

Few Americans now remember that George W. Bush’s father was elected president in 1988 by using convicted murderer Willie Horton in one of the most racist ad campaigns ever staged in the United States. Now George Jr. seems poised to follow in those tainted footsteps.

But the issue” this time won’t be race, it’ll be gay marriage.

Early in the 1988 campaign, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush trailed then-Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis by as much as 15 points in the mainstream polls. Bush was sunk in a scandal-ridden Reagan administration whose trademark was Iran-Contra, the bizarre scam in which Reaganites illegally sold arms to Iranian fanatics and slipped the profits to right-wing Contra rebels trying to overthrow the duly elected Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Reagan also sold the technology for making chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Reagan’s envoy to Saddam was now-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Reagan was always more popular with the media than with the general public. Constantly proclaiming support for a balanced budget amendment, Reagan left the largest deficits in U.S. history (until the coming of George W. Bush).

George H.W. Bush’s run against Dukakis was hampered by his aloof, upper-crust lack of charisma. His running mate Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana was noted mainly for his deer-in-headlights demeanor. In a crucial televised debate, Quayle was utterly demolished by Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, his Democratic opponent.

But the Bush-Quayle team had a trump card — racism. Lee Atwater, the Karl Rove of his day, was a hard-driving, below-the-belt dirty trickster. Atwater seized on Horton, a black prisoner who’d been paroled from the Massachusetts penal system and then committed murder.

Atwater filled the airwaves with brutally racist black-and-white ads meant to make Horton and Dukakis seem blood-related. One included a mug shot of Horton that aimed to stoke, in the words of ad creator Larry McCarthy, every suburbuan mother’s greatest fear.” The ads helped send the Democrats into a tailspin. Atwater later developed a brain tumor, and repented what he had done.

Rove may soon step into Atwater’s shoes. Recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court against anti-sodomy laws and the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s support for gay marriage have thrown the Christian right.

For Rove, gay marriage is the new Willie Horton, a wedge issue perfectly suited to fire up the right-wing church network while diverting public attention from an ailing economy and a failing war effort.

Ironically, Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter Mary is an openly declared lesbian. Cheney has defended gay rights in general but now supports Bush’s demand for a Constitutional amendment that would prevent the states from allowing gay marriages — including, presumably, one that might involve Mary Cheney. But as David Brock has observed in Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative (paperback, Three Rivers Press, 2003), a number of closeted gay Republicans have found the increasingly homophobic GOP a hard place to be.

Rove, in turn, has not hesitated to attack Brock and anyone else opposing the Republican juggernaut. Bush already has let it be known that he will support a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and the Foxist media is starting to treat this as a major issue.

The major Democratic candidates are on record as approving gay civil unions, which are somewhat different from gay marriage. But the Bush/​Rove GOP is unlikely to make such fine distinctions — any more than George H.W. Bush belabored the legal intricacies of the Willie Horton parole. Nor will they refrain from smearing other Democrats, whatever their actual stance, with the nastiest possible slant on gay rights.

What Bush senior and Lee Atwater did to promote racism in American presidential campaigns, George W. and Karl Rove are poised to do for homophobia.
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Harvey Wasserman is author of Harvey Wassermans History of the U.S. and co-author (with Bob Fitrakis) of George W. Bush vs. the Superpower of Peace (www​.freep​ress​.org).
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