Today’s body politic has no shortage of rhetorical bile, but no campaign attack ad comes close to matching 1988’s race-baiting Willie Horton commercial for sheer visceral partisanship.
Horton was a black murder convict who raped a woman and stabbed her male companion while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison. The ad — which showed a photo of Horton, with the words “raping” and “stabbing” flashing behind him – blamed former Massachusetts Governor and then-presidential candidate Michael Dukakis for Horton’s release. It is generally thought of as a low-water mark in American politics—stoking racial stereotypes in a Machiavellian push for victory at any cost. But it worked. Dukakis never recovered from the attack and George H.W. Bush went on to win the presidency.
Rather than facing censure, the political consulting outfit behind the Horton ad, the Dolphin Group, has thrived ever since.