|January 3, 2005||EDITORIAL ARCHIVES|
"Do Ka-Ka!": What the Democrats Have Never Learned from the Infamous Willie Horton Ad
Note: This January 3, 2005 BuzzFlash Editorial marks the third in 20 consecutive editorials BuzzFlash will be publishing through January 20th.
A BUZZFLASH EDITORIAL
One of the greatest threats to democracy is the lack of historical context found in mainstream television news. In fact, news cycles turn over within 6-hour periods now. It's as though headline news, which is what most influences Americans today, is one giant eraser board that gets cleaned off at least three times a day.
For that reason, BuzzFlash has long made it one of our major goals to give historical background to how we arrived at this moment in time when political and national governmental "information" is conveyed to the American masses primarily through television image, branding, and headline slogans created by the White House.
But there is another key point to remember, which we have also mentioned many a time. Within a campaign cycle, negative ads, negative headlines and negative stories become blurred in the mind of many an American. In the 2004 campaign, the Kerry campaign made two crucial media mistakes: they failed to define Bush before Bush "defined" Kerry in a series of Spring "flip-flop" ads; and the Kerry campaign let the Swift Boat liars story get completely out of hand.
Democrats appear to fail again and again to understand the power of a defining image and negative caricature. Like television news, they appear to begin each campaign without incorporating lessons learned from previous ones.
Within this context, BuzzFlash briefly returns to the infamous Willie Horton ad of 1988, in which Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes, the head of FOX News, both had a hand.
Michael Dukakis was more than 15 points ahead in the polls. Lee Atwater was determined to convince George Herbert Walker Bush, a man who STILL thinks his s*** doesn't smell, to go negative. (It's also worth recalling for the umpteenth time that George W. Bush, the current squatter in the White House, rode shotgun with Atwater during the '88 campaign.)
In the book, "Pols: Great Writers on American Politicians," it describes the infamous Willie Horton ads as "a metaphor for wedge politics at its worst." It goes on to note that the "ad exploits the psychosexual core of American racism." Fear was the emotional trigger of the ad.
Dukakis was never able to effectively counter the Willie Horton ads, believing them to be something that the electorate would not take seriously. It was his undoing, as the weak scion of a worn out, corrupt WASP bloodline went on to win the election with the likes of Atwater, Ailes and his son, George W. Bush, coarsening the level of American electoral politics to a new, despicable, immoral low point.
But Democratic presidential contenders, with the exception of Clinton, have not learned the lessons of the Willie Horton/GOP assault on democracy and public discourse. Television, negative ads that attack character and evoke fear, powerful images: these are all essential ingredients in a modern winning presidential campaign for the Republicans.
The Democrats who dismiss such demagogy as ineffective pandering are playing a dangerous elitist game that dismisses the power of television, visual image and fear to commit effective character assassination, from which a Democratic presidential candidate can never fully recover.
Kerry did an excellent job in the three debates this year, but the damage of the Spring "flip-flop" attacks and the summer Swift Boat liars had already molded the incorrect image of an indecisive, untruthful leader in the minds of far too many voters.
In his book on George Herbert Walker Bush, author Richard Ben Cramer recounts that despite the concern of his aides that Bush might balk at the Horton ads, Bush jumped at the chance to jam them down Dukakis's throat.
Shortly after giving the green light to his junk yard dogs to proceed with the 1988 Horton attack (remember that Ailes now runs FOX "GOP Propaganda" News), Cramer recounts that Bush took the entourage to eat at a local Kennebunkport lobster house. The owner, who knew the feckless vice-president on a friendly basis, approached him playfully asking:
Now that would have been an image worthy of television. The scion of the latest generation of the Bush clan who boasts of his "class" proving that he's just another ass.
But it wouldn't have been enough to move an electorate. For that you need a foundation of fear. Bush the elder had it in Willie Hortonizing his campaign.
George W., Lee Atwater's sidekick in 1988, had it as the under riding basis of his 2004 campaign. The Karl Rove planned character attacks on Kerry just played into the fear factor, as if Goebbels had planned it himself. Kerry couldn't lead America against "the enemy," the fear factor dictated, because he was untrustworthy and indecisive.
Winning a debate on public policy rarely can trump an underlying feeling of craven fear. It's the stuff dictatorships, not democracy, are made of.
The Willie Horton ads showed that fear, character, image, and television are something that can define a race, neutralizing the issue of public policy options for far too many voters.
Didn't we see it again in 2004?
A BUZZFLASH EDITORIAL
BuzzFlash Afternote: A December 30th Washington Post article noted that, "With a $177 million ad budget, the Bush campaign and its allies ran more than 101,000 anti-Kerry 'attack' or negative ads, more than the combined total of 'positive' and 'contrast' ads, according to the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project, based on data from Nielsen Monitor-Plus ratings of media buying effectiveness. Less than 5 percent of Kerry's ads were 'attack' or negative, according to the Wisconsin advertising project, and the remaining 95 percent were positive or contrast ads."
And that doesn't even include the "independently" (yeah, sure) financed Swift Boat Liars assault.