Fox News’ Brit Hume Defends George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton Attacks


On Monday, Mediaite published a column that pushed back on conservative efforts to distance recently-deceased former President George H.W. Bush from the infamous Willie Horton ad, an effort which included Fox News personality Brit Hume. On Tuesday morning, Hume responded by leaping to Bush’s defense on Twitter.

What follows is the substance of Hume’s debate with the piece’s author, me, and the conclusion that I promised him.

Hume began with his original defense of President Bush, tweeting that “What generated the criticism of the ad was the picture of Horton, which revealed his race. Neither Bush’s debate comment nor the prison furlough ad noted his race,” and added that “the Dukakis prison furlough program was an utterly legitimate” campaign issue.

Hume is correct that the ad featuring Horton’s photo was funded by an independent PAC. But as I pointed out in the original piece, the follow-up ad didn’t need to include Horton’s photograph, since the PAC ad and subsequent news coverage had already established Horton’s race.

The attempt to distance Bush from the PAC ad is also undercut by the fact that shortly before Election Day 1988, Bush told reporters aboard Air Force Two that ”I stand fully behind these ads.”

I also pointed out that Bush’s then-campaign manager, Lee Atwater, established the racist intent of the Horton issue.

This surprised me a little bit, because if Hume doesn’t concede that the Horton attack was racist or “racial,” then why take such pains to point out that the Bush ad did not feature Horton’s photograph?

I promised Hume that I would elaborate later, which is what I’m doing now.

The relative legitimacy of the prison furlough policy is utterly irrelevant to the racism or “racial” nature of the attack. Bush could have criticized the policy without mentioning Horton by name, which he did relentlessly throughout the campaign, including at a nationally-televised debate.

And Bush’s campaign manager nakedly revealed the Horton attack’s racist intent when he compared Horton to Rev. Jesse Jackson in July of 1988, months before the ad in question:

There is a story about a fellow named Willie Horton who for all I know may end up to be Dukakis’ running mate. Dukakis is making Hamlet look like the rock of Gibraltar in the way he’s acted on this. [This was a reference to Dukakis’ search for a vice-presidential candidate.] The guy was on TV about a month ago and he said you’ll never see me standing in the driveway of my house talking to these candidates. And guess what, on Monday, I saw in the driveway of his house? Jesse Jackson. So anyway, maybe he’ll put this Willie Horton guy on the ticket after all is said and done.

Every racist campaign is rooted in some sort of policy issue. When Trump called Mexican immigrants “rapists,” he was discussing immigration policy, but that didn’t make his attack any less racist, or the hysteria he was trying to evoke any less dangerous.

In judging the “legitimacy” of the prison furlough issue, the intent matters. If Bush had a good-faith concern with the prison furlough program, and his campaign manager had not already made it clear that the entire point of the attack was to turn Willie Horton into Michael Dukakis’ “running mate,” and exposed the racist intent by comparing Horton to Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Bush had not already decided to “fully stand behind” the ads that everyone was calling racist, you could try argue that the issue was legitimate.

But all those things did happen, and Bush’s good-faith interest in highlighting the prison furlough policy was belied by his utter lack of interest in prison furlough policy. From October 8, 1988 edition of the Los Angeles Times:

And, under questioning by reporters, Bush aides admitted that the vice president has no firm position on prison furloughs, which the federal prison system also grants.

Bush has not, for example, yet determined whether the federal program should be tightened to exclude drug dealers and murderers, aides said. Bush has vowed a crackdown on drug dealers; in 1986 alone, more than 2,000 federal prisoners convicted of drug offenses were furloughed.

Craig Fuller, Bush’s chief of staff, said that if elected, Bush would direct his attorney general to look into the guidelines for federal furloughs.
Asked why Bush had not reviewed the program in the eight years of his vice presidency, Fuller said: “No comment.”

The impulse toward reverence for a public figure who has recently died is understandable, and George H.W. Bush’s legacy does not begin and end with Willie Horton. But I would argue that an even greater measure of reverence is due to the countless people who have suffered due to the political exploitation of racism, and they deserve to have the truth told.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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