Larry Schweikart: The Willy Horton Moment?
[Mr. Schweikart is Professor of History, University of Dayton.]
Every campaign has a tipping point or two. In 2000, Bush was cruising until the last-weekend revelaion of a DUI. Democratic strategist Bob Beckel estimated that this cost Bush 1 million votes nationally. If so, certainly one can pro-rate that out to say, in another way, that the last-minute smear cost Bush the states of New Mexico, Wisconsin, and probably Iowa, and turned a safe victory into a squeaker.
Until then, however, the focal points of the elections were the three debates, where Bush won two clearly and held his own in the third. Algore looked frantic in one, on Prozac in another, and the appearances nearly finished him.
Other elections have clearer tipping points: in 1988, there were two. One (my favorite) came when Michael Dukakis rode in the tank. But analysts agree that the single most important content-related event of 1988 was when Lee Atwater discovered an ad run by Democrat Gary Hartpence in the primaries exposing Michael Dukakis' prison furlough system in which convicted rapist Willie Horton was somehow allowed out on a weekend pass to attack women again.
The ad was devastating. Critics whined that it played to white America's fear of black men (even though the ad showed mostly white men going through a "rotating door" in prison), but in reality, the ad exposed Dukakis as someone who could not be trusted to enforce the law. G. H. W. Bush sealed the deal---or, rather, the moderator of the debate, Bernie Shaw, sealed the deal---in the debates when he asked Dukakis what he would do if his wife were raped. Dukakis stumbled, fumbled, gave some generic pinhead answer, and that was that: the Willie Horton Moment.
Have we reached that moment in the 2004 campaign? I think so.
The Swiftboat vets' ad---a mere $150,000 ad, compared to the $15 million (please get that, you media types, $15 MILLION) spent by George Soros and Moveon.org, plus the Moore porn film---is as deadly to the Kerry campaign as a round from a .50 cal.
It is devastating because Kerry, like an idiot, made his campaign about Vietnam, forgetting that there were others all around him who had a different take on his "heroism." He forgot that millions of vets DESPISED his antics after he returned home. (Hence, although the news didn't cover this much, his speech in Cincinnati only drew about one-third the number of vets that Pres. Bush drew).
But wait! Here comes the mainstream media to save the day, just like Mighty Mouse. Leave it to the New York Times to try to slime the guys in the ad, tying them (circuitously) to George H. W. Bush. This, of couse, plays right into the hands of the Swifties, the same way the conservatives' protests of "Fahrenheit 9/11" played into Michael Moore's hands and the same way the ludicrous complaints about "The Passion of the Christ" played into Mel Gibson's hands. It's the old mantra about publicity: even negative publicity is good.
Worse, though, for Kerry: by personally responding to the ad itself, he has now made the AD a part of the campaign. This was clear today when people asked Pres. Bush's spokesman about the NY Times story, and the spokesman deftly refused to comment on Kerry's Vietnam service---other than to say he's a "hero"---then turned the focus to Kerry's pitiful SENATE career, where Kerry chopped intelligence budgets and voted against the war.
Checkmate. The press now is either going to get "their" story on Kerry, which is to say, they must cover the Swiftboat scandal (even while trying to refute it), or they will get Bush's version of Kerry---the one they've tried to ignore---which is his terrible record on national security. Both damage Kerry badly. The momentum will continue to build, and even if Kerry's military records were spotless and he released them today, he could not recover entirely from this episode.
Except the dirty little secret is that his records almost certainly support some of the things the Swifties say.
How long can the national press ignore this elephant in the room before some reporter breaks ranks and uses the same Freedom of Information Act, which the press used to slime Mr. Thurlow, to demand Kerry's records? My guess is, not long. Sooner or later, even the Washington Post will face the inevitable question: why won't Kerry just release his records and be done with it?
Because, dear friends, he can't.
And they know it.
Hello, Willie Horton.
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