The real meaning of Willie Horton

By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist, 1/20/1999

Bill Bradley, who says his first priority as president would be to ''promote racial understanding,'' now implies that Al Gore is a race-baiter for having been the first to raise the Willie Horton issue in the 1988 presidential campaign.

''Gore introduced him into the lexicon,'' Bradley said in a Boston Herald interview last week. ''I wouldn't have used Willie Horton.... It proved in the course of the campaign to essentially be a poster child for racial insensitivity.''

Bradley didn't go into details. He didn't have to. After all these years, we know we're supposed to react with a shudder when the words ''Willie Horton'' are pronounced. We've been instructed countless times that ''Willie Horton'' stands for the dirtiest kind of dirty politics. For playing the race card to besmirch an opponent's record. For launching attack ads with coded appeals to bigotry. For trying to score points by demonizing an unpopular scapegoat.

So when Bradley drapes Wilie Horton around Gore's neck, we know what he is hinting: that the vice president is not above exploiting race in order to win votes.

As it happens, this is true. Gore's capacity for shamelessness on racial issues is immense. He has suggested, for example, that Americans who oppose racial preferences are not too far removed from the racists who lynched a black man by dragging him from a pickup truck.

But to be fair, it is not true that Gore ''used Willie Horton'' in 1988. In a debate with that year's Democratic presidential hopefuls, Gore noted that the Massachusetts practice of letting first-degree murderers take weekend ''furloughs'' from prison had freed some killers to commit new crimes. He asked whether Governor Michael Dukakis intended to grant similar furloughs to federal prisoners. That was it.

''Al Gore made a legitimate criticism,'' said Dick Gephardt, himself a presidential candidate in 1988, in a statement defending Gore from Bradley's charge. ''He never used Horton's name or image and never resorted to race-baiting.''

But hold on. Why should using Horton's name (as George Bush did in 1988) or showing his picture (as an unofficial Republican group did in a pro-Bush TV spot) be deemed ''race-baiting''? Horton was a vicious murderer who had been sentenced to life without parole yet was repeatedly set loose by the Dukakis administration. On April 4, 1987, he was arrested in Maryland, where he had pistol-whipped and knifed Clifford Barnes, then bound and gagged him and twice raped his fiancee, Angela. It was a shocking scandal, hugely relevant at a time of soaring crime rates. Horton's race had nothing to do with it. So what if he was black? Bush and his supporters would have pounced on the story with equal enthusiasm if he had been white.

What made the Horton case so powerful was what it revealed about Dukakis's values. That he was a believer in furloughing violent criminals was only the start. There was also the fact that he favored furloughs even for murderers who were supposed to spend the rest of their lives behind bars. And the fact that his support didn't waver even when it transpired that 10 other first-degree murderers had escaped while on furlough. Dukakis kept insisting that freeing killers was a good idea. ''Look, we're running a very tough, strong, well-defined furlough program in this state,'' he said in July 1987, ''which by and large has been very successful.''

If Dukakis ever uttered a word of sympathy for Clifford and Angela Barnes, it is not recorded. When asked if he would be willing to meet with them, he was disdainful. ''I don't see any particular value in meeting with people. I'm satisfied we have the kind of furlough policy we should have.'' He was no less cold when a group of women whose children had been murdered pleaded with him to stop freeing killers. ''If you don't like the system, you can change it,'' Dukakis snapped.

So they did. They collected 60,000 signatures to put a repeal of furloughs on the November 1988 state ballot. When it became clear that the measure would pass in a landslide, the state Massachusetts Legislature decided not to wait. In April, it approved a ban on furloughs for first-degree murderers. Dukakis - who wanted the issue out of the way as he campaigned for the White House - reluctantly signed it.

Long before the Bush campaign took it national, the Horton scandal had been a major story in Massachusetts - a story about crime, about liberal penal ideology, about Dukakoid arrogance. What it was not was a story about race. The notion that Bush used Horton as a racial wedge is a shibboleth the Democrats invented to explain away Dukakis's 40-state defeat. It wasn't Dukakis's left-wing ideas that did him in, they insisted, it was Bush's subliminal racism. Some people actually believe this.

Invariably forgotten in talk of the Horton ''issue'' is the boy Horton killed. Joey Fournier was just 17 on Oct. 26, 1974. He was working alone at a Mobil station in Lawrence when Horton and two accomplices drove up, flashed knives, and demanded money. Joey gave them everything he had - $276.37. Horton then stabbed him 19 times and stuffed him in a trash can. When he was found, there were only a few ounces of blood left in his body. His last words were, ''Please don't hurt me.''

Jeff Jacoby is a Globe columnist.