Commentary: Dukakis recalls negative ads that blocked him from White House

Special to McClatchy NewspapersOctober 28, 2012 

As millions of dollars pour into negative TV ads in the final days of the 2012 presidential campaign, former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis recalled how his hopes for the White House in 1988 were destroyed by negative ads linking him to rapist and murderer Willie Horton.

The former Massachusetts governor, now a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, claims to have been the first modern day target of negative television ads launched in 1988 by supporters of George H.W. Bush.

“It all started first with me,” said Dukakis, now 79 but still working full time. "If I had beaten the old man, we never would have heard of the kid [George W. Bush], and we wouldn't be in this mess.

“It was my decision that I would not respond to the Bush camp. The lesson is that you can’t do it. You need a strategy of response.”

The anti-Dukakis campaign has become a classic lesson in American political history. It focused on Willie Horton, a convicted Massachusetts murderer who was allowed out on a weekend furlough aimed at preparing prisoners for eventual reintegration into society.

But this one went wrong and Horton raped a woman while on furlough. As governor, Dukakis was held responsible for the policy by Republican opponents.

Bush campaign aide Lee Atwater ran ads showing the black Willie Horton in a frightening close up. The ads said that thanks to Michael Dukakis' "soft on crime" policy, this man was allowed out of jail to rape a woman.

The Willie Horton campaign helped turn a 17-point lead by Dukakis into a Bush landslide victory. Two years later, Atwater came down with terminal brain cancer. At that point, he apologized to Dukakis.

"In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said that I 'would strip the bark off the little bastard' and 'make Willie Horton his running mate,' " Atwater said in a Life magazine article.

"I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not." After Atwater died at age 40 in 1991, Dukakis said “my heart goes out to his family.”

Although Dukakis had served in the U.S. army in Korea, the Bush campaign sought to portray him as a liberal who would be too soft to be a president. The Republican campaign then focused on a photo of Dukakis riding in a tank that was meant to show his support for the U.S. military but came off as a vain attempt to show a tough image.

Dukakis was also surprised by a question during a debate asking if he would continue to oppose the death penalty if a man had raped and murdered his wife Kitty. His response reflected his long-standing opposition to the death penalty but it came across as cold and unfeeling.

“You need a strategy to respond” to such attacks, said Dukakis, sitting in his sunny, book-lined office. “You can turn (an opponent’s) attack into a view of him -- a character issue on him.”

Dukakis also said he made a major mistake by not beginning his campaign right after the convention. Instead he went back to work as Massachusetts governor for two weeks allowing the Bush campaign to set the agenda and forcing him to respond to that agenda.

Asked about President Obama’s lackluster performance in the first debate with Mitt Romney, he said: “Did Obama make a mistake? Yes. When you go into a debate you need a powerful strategy – not just to discuss issues.”

“I know the president wanted to have a discussion with the American people. But that is not enough. You need a strategy.”

Dukakis said he admired the debate strategy of Vice President Joseph Biden which he said was to state: this administration has acted, it has a good foreign policy, and the Romney-Ryan ticket has no plan.

Bearing in mind the enormous defeat he suffered in 1988 – winning only 21 percent of the electoral college vote although he did win 46 percent of the popular vote – he said “I’m the last guy to give advice on debates.”

He noted that there has been little media attention on claims by Romney to have greatly improved the Massachusetts economy when he was governor.

“Who is this guy?” he asked. “You can make the argument that he is totally unqualified.”

“Do you know the numbers?” The state was 47th in the nation in job creation during Romney’s term in office, said Dukakis, “below all but Michigan, Ohio and Louisiana after Katrina.”

“You have got to take him on. He seems to have some degree of credibility. Politics is a contact sport.”

He noted that Thomas Jefferson was attacked for having a black mistress, and John Adams was also bitterly attacked in newspapers that were highly partisan.

Dukakis said that he tried to make the campaign revolve around policy issues and wage a “positive campaign.”

“But I discovered that if you say nothing when attacked, people will believe it.”

For example, Bush was painting Dukakis as being soft on crime but at the time of the election Bush’s home town of Houston had six times the murder rate as Dukakis’ home town Boston. “I never mentioned it. After the fact, it was my fault, nobody else. If you don’t learn from that, shame on you.”

Bill Clinton learned from Dukakis’ failure to respond to negative attacks and “he had 10 people who did nothing but respond to Bush attacks,” said Dukakis. “They called themselves the defense department.”

Dukakis remains active in Democratic Party affairs. He attended the Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina in September. Both he and his wife have been campaigning for the Democratic Senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren. He is also active on health and transportation policy issues. In addition to his professorship in political science at Northeastern, he teaches public policy at the University of California in Los Angeles.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2012 by He can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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