Politics & Government

The man behind Willie Horton ads has new target: Hillary Clinton

Floyd Brown, the Republican campaign consultant who created the famous Willie Horton ad in the 1988 presidential race, sets up shop in University Place. His next target is Hillary Clinton. (Russ Carmack/The News Tribune)
Floyd Brown, the Republican campaign consultant who created the famous Willie Horton ad in the 1988 presidential race, sets up shop in University Place. His next target is Hillary Clinton. (Russ Carmack/The News Tribune) MCT

TACOMA, Wash. — The presidential election season has begun. So Floyd Brown is out hunting Democrats.

Brown is among the nation's best-known conservative political knife throwers.

This is the fellow responsible for the "Willie Horton" television ad that helped derail the Michael Dukakis presidential campaign in 1988. Brown later wrote a book called "Slick Willie: Why America Cannot Trust Bill Clinton." He also created a 1-900 line in 1992 so callers could hear edited excerpts of telephone conversations between Clinton and Arkansas lounge singer Gennifer Flowers.

George H.W. Bush, the Republican president at the time, repudiated the Flowers phone line "as the kind of sleaze that diminishes the political process." Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry once accused Brown of being "personally responsible for some of the sleaziest politics this country has seen."

Now Brown and the national conservative group he founded, Citizens United, are working on "Hillary: The Movie" to come out this fall.

"This project aims to expose the truth about her conflicts in the past and her liberal plot for the future," Citizens United says on its Web site.

Citizens United is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that Brown founded in 1988. Brown is now chairman of the board, and his protege, David Bossie, runs the day-to-day operations of Citizens United as its president.

Brown, sitting in a Tacoma Starbucks on a recent afternoon, said there's good reason to focus on Hillary Clinton's bid for the presidency.

"She's going to be the (Democratic) nominee, absolutely," Brown said. "I don't have any doubt she's going to be the nominee."

Brown was circumspect in talking about the movie, bringing the project up casually and describing it only as "accurate." He said it will focus mostly on Hillary Clinton's tenure in the U.S. Senate, as well as delve into matters like the Clintons' financial ties to the Emir of Dubai.

It's being produced by Bossie and Dick Morris, who was President Clinton's top political adviser in the mid 1990s before he resigned amid reports he was seeing a prostitute. Morris, a columnist and television commentator, is now one of the Clintons' harshest critics.

Some Democrats might be surprised to learn that Brown, 6-foot-6 inches tall and dressed in blue jeans and sneakers, does not actually have horns sticking out of his head.

The 46-year-old is relaxed and quick to laugh, the deep, rich laugh of a full-grown kid. He's been a frequent guest on "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher" and appeared on shows like CNN's "Crossfire." He spoke about Hillary Clinton without vitriol in a recent interview with The Tacoma News Tribune, even sounding somewhat admiring of her political discipline.

Brown's involvement in the Hillary Clinton movie aside, he said he's less consumed with politics than he used to be. He has a consulting and media firm in Washington state, Excellentia Inc. Its Web site, http://excellentiamedia.com/, says it specializes in marketing to conservatives and Christians, and that past clients have included the Bob Dole and Steve Forbes presidential campaigns.

He sounded happier talking about fishing than politics.

"There are a lot of things in life more important than politics," Brown said.

Brown's roots in Washington state run deep. He was born in Bremerton. He graduated from Olympia High School and the University of Washington. Brown said his family has been here since before statehood. He and his wife have more than 250 relatives in a 50-square-mile radius of Tacoma.

"I can live wherever I want, and I choose to live in Tacoma," he said.

Brown has three children, ages 12 to 21. His wife, Mary Beth Brown, wrote a book about Ronald Reagan's faith. Her Condoleezza Rice book, "Condi: the Life of a Steel Magnolia," comes out next spring.

He returned to Washington last year after working for five years as executive director of Young America's Foundation, an organization that acquired the Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif. Brown said he oversaw preservation of the ranch and construction of the $20 million Reagan Ranch Center.

To hear Brown tell it, his life was changed as a 15-year-old in 1976 when he met Reagan, who was campaigning in Portland, Ore. at the time.

"He just cast a vision that tapped into my idealism," Brown said.

Brown focused on Reagan in a speech last month to the Mainstream Republicans of Washington State. The meeting organizers were impressed.

"I just find him an intriguing, interesting man," said Grace Bennett, chairwoman of the 29th District Republicans of South Tacoma and Lakewood.

Former Pierce County (Wash.) Republican Party Chairwoman Jane Milhans said she arranged a different Brown event a few months ago where he gave a speech about staying engaged in politics. Milhans, a longtime friend of Brown's, said he can be inspirational.

Seattle Democratic political strategist Cathy Allen said she senses Brown is becoming more moderate. She believes he might want to be more popular and is moving closer toward the moderate Washington Republican tradition of figures like former Gov. Dan Evans and Secretary of State Sam Reed.

Allen said time will tell if Brown ends up mellowing into a nice guy in Tacoma.

Of course, there is the upcoming "Hillary: The Movie."

"I can hardly wait to see that one," Allen said.

Brown refers to it as "ancient history." But his name will be forever linked to one of the most controversial political ads in U.S. history.

It came as Dukakis was competing with George H.W. Bush for the presidency in 1988.

The television ad showed a menacing mug shot of Willie Horton, who is black. A narrator then said that Horton "murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times. Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man, and repeatedly raping his girlfriend. Weekend prison passes - Dukakis on crime."

Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts and had allowed the furlough program.

Critics said the ad preyed on racial fears. Even some Republicans were offended.

"I'm not a big fan of Floyd Brown," Mary Matalin, Bush's political director, told The New York Times in 1994. "He gave us the Willie Horton ads that the Republican Party has had to eat for two election cycles now."

Brown is unapologetic. He has always maintained the ad had nothing to do with race.

"I'm proud of it. It was a great ad," Brown said. "It tackled an issue that has touched a lot of people."

Brown said there's a moment in every campaign when a candidate has something to handle. Dukakis didn't handle Horton well, he said.

George W. Bush, on the other hand, skillfully deflected attacks on his National Guard service during the 2004 campaign, he said. Brown conceded that his old nemesis Bill Clinton was good at it as well, particularly in beating back the Gennifer Flowers allegations that Brown worked hard to publicize.

"Clinton handled that all very masterfully," he said.

He said he can't predict how "Hillary: The Movie" might affect Hillary Clinton's bid for the presidency. Every campaign is different.

Brown compares himself to a worker in a vineyard.

"Every once in a while you produce a fine bottle of wine," he said. "But most of the time you're just up there cutting off grapes."