Log in


Willie Horton: True Crime and its Influence on a Presidential Election

I recently finished reading Willie Horton: True Crime and its Influence on a Presidential Election by Steve Takesian. I remember the whole Willie Horton bruhaha from the 1988 election and wanted to read more about it.

For those who were too young, weren't born, etc. Willie Horton was a prisoner serving life for murder while Michael Dukakis was governor. While released for a weekend furlough, he went down to Maryland and committed a very brutal home invasion which included robbery and rape. Massachusetts furlough policy became an issue during the campaign when Dukakis ran for president.

The Dukakis campaign made counter-charges of racism not only because Horton was black, but because his picture was included in an infamous campaign ad, commonly referred to as the "Weekend Passes" ad.

I purchased this book from Amazon because there were a couple of aspects of the case I was still uncertain about. One was how widely shown the "Weekend Passes" was . I never saw it. In fact, I had no idea the offender (I didn't know his name at the time) was black until I heard Dukakis running mate Lloyd Bentsen complain about the racism of the ads.

The other thing I was uncertain about was how much Al Gore had to do with making the furloughs an issue.(Gore was an opponent of Dukakis in the Democratic primary.)  Many on the left say his involvement is a complete myth. I don't think that's the case. I saw him asked about it on "This Week With David Brinkleyy" and give a rather equivocal non-denial.

Takesian's book did a fairly good job of answering these questions. It turns out that the makers of the ad had limited funds. So in addition to buying the small amount of air time they could afford, they gave the ads to public affairs shows, such as The McLaughlin Group, for discussion purposes. Takesian does not go into detail about how many spots were paid for and run, or where the ad was run. But he did make the case that the ad was not very widely run, nowhere near as widely as people think today.

I learned that the New York Times ran a very negative article about the ad, denouncing it as racist. With the article, they ran the mug shot from the Weekend Passes ad. The mug shot was the primary reason the ad was seen as racist. The irony apparently escaped them.

Some light is shed on Al Gore's role in making furloughs a campaign issue. According to Takesian "Gore did not mention Horton's name during a debate, but he did mention the Massachusetts furlough program." So while  Gore's defenders are right to say he did not introduce Willie Horton into the campaign, he certainly introduced the furlough issue.

Takesian's book was informative and helped fill in gaps in my knowledge of the whole Willie Horton saga. He has a unique take on Willie Horton and furloughs. He lived  in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1974 when Horton committed his first crime there, and was a policeman in 1988 when Horton became a campaign issue. Beyond the campaign issues I've discussed here, he provides a lot of details about Horton's criminal career and the history of the Massachusetts furlough program. Although he appears to be an amateur writer (he often cannot resist inserting an irrelevant anecdote from his years on the police force) he does a good job of packing a lot of useful information and analysis into a very short book.  I'll go out on a limb and say it is the definitive book on Willie Horton.