Nets Repeat Myth Bush Ran 'the Willie Horton Ad,' Used 'Dog Whistle'

Since the passing of former President George H.W. Bush, most of the networks have revisited one of the longstanding liberal peeves against the former Republican President -- that he brought to the attention of voters the fact that 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis supported a prison furlough program as governor of Massachusetts that allowed a convicted murderer, Willie Horton, to violently attack a couple while he was free.

And, in doing so, the networks have also repeated the recurring myth that Bush's campaign was responsible for "the Willie Horton ad" that used a mug shot of Horton, thus revealing his race, when, in reality, the version of the ad run by the Bush campaign did not use the image and made no hint that Horton was black.

By contrast, as former Fox News anchor and veteran journalist Brit Hume appeared on his network on Saturday evening, he informed viewers of the myth: "You know, his campaign has gotten a reputation for being responsible for the famous Willie Horton ad that was used against Dukakis. In fact, the Bush campaign didn't put out that ad. That was done by a third-party group."

On Saturday's PBS NewsHour, presidential historian Michael Beschloss also admitted that Bush's campaign did not run the ad, but still complained because he ran on the issue as if the poor judgment of letting a convicted murderer serving a life sentence out of prison unnecessarily were somehow not an important enough issue to bring to the voters' attention.

PBS host Hari Sreenivasan cited the myth as fact as he brought up the issue: "Do you think that the Willie Horton ad against Michael Dukakis ushered in a new era? Because while that is still a bad ad, when you look at it now, it seems tame compared to what kind of ads are on the air every two years."

Beschloss began: "It seems tame now, but that was something that hinted at racial animosity. It was certainly by no means George Bush's best moment. In later years, he was not proud of it."

He soon admitted that Bush's campaign was actually not responsible for the ad in question, but the liberal historian still found a way to impart culpability onto the Republican President anyway: "In retrospect, he never should have allowed the ad that, actually, though, the Willie Horton ad was an independent ad, but there was an official ad that hinted at some of the same things. They should not have done that."

Late Friday night, during a pre-recorded report by CNN's John King, the network went so far at to run a clip of the ad showing Horton's face without King informing viewers that Bush's campaign had not, in fact, run that particular ad.

Throughout Saturday, the Horton ad was brought up several times on MSNBC. Appearing as a guest, The Atlantic's Vann Newkirk claimed that it "predicted Trump" because Bush "ran on the Willie Horton ad, and Trump just cut a campaign ad in the wake of the migrant caravan crisis that many people said echoed that one."

He soon added: "I think that a lot of the forces that Republicans in 1988 through 1992 really thought that they could command, I think you see with the Willie Horton ad and other things of that ilk, have now taken command of the party, and Trump is the representation of that."

And on Sunday morning, NBC contributor Heather McGhee appeared on NBC's Meet the Press and claimed that the ad "was the most famous dog whistle ad until this cycle," and, on ABC's This Week, Matthew Dowd claimed Bush "was the one who did the Willie Horton ad," and asserted that it was a "mistake."

So pervasive is the myth that even Fox and Friends Sunday included a presidential historian who credited Bush with producing the ad.


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NBDaily Campaigns & Elections Crime Race Issues Racism ABC This Week NBC Meet the Press PBS News Hour Fox News Channel Fox & Friends CNN CNN Tonight MSNBC MSNBC Live Atlantic Uncorrected Falsehoods Video Eddie Glaude Hari Sreenivasan Ali Velshi John King Brit Hume George H. W. Bush Michael Dukakis Willie Horton Matthew Dowd