Willie Horton Redux

An attack ad targeting Barack Obama raises a question: Can anyone with doubts about capital punishment, especially a black guy, become president?

To become president of the United States, you've got to be willing to kill black men. That's been the consensus in American politics over the last quarter-century, ever since support for the death penalty became seen as a litmus test for electability to the White House. The issue of capital punishment is inextricable from issues of race, both because most of those executed are African American men, and because the issue carries an encoded discourse about white fear of black crime. With an African American man for the first time within striking distance of the Oval Office, it was inevitable that the issue would rear its head—and so it has, in an attack ad that's being referred to as "Obama's Willie Horton."

In the new ad released by a group calling itself the National Campaign Fund, the camera pans over ravaged, graffiti-ridden urban streets as a voice-over names three victims killed by gang violence in Chicago. Then comes punch line: "That same year, a Chicago state senator named Barack Obama voted against expanding the death penalty for gang-related murders." And finally, the knockout blow: "So the question is, can a man so weak in the war on gangs be trusted in the war on terror?"

That last line operates on any number of levels. To start with, it calls up the familiar, grotesque claim that any reluctance toward allowing the state to strap a human being to a gurney and pump poison into his arm is somehow a sign of "weakness." Then it takes an absurd leap, arguing that such "weakness" translates into an inability to defend the country against terrorists. But there's something else going on, as well, as the camera traverses those burned-out streets. The implied threat is that the black criminals lurking there are just waiting to stream out of the ghettos and get "us" (i.e. white people), just as the Islamic jihadists are waiting to stream over the borders and blow us up. If our only defense against such threats is to be "tough" on these people—to kill the worst ones and jail the rest—is Barack Hussein Obama really the man for the job? Won't he be too soft on his homeboys—and maybe even on people who share the same religion as his father's side of the family, as well? (Needless to say, to be president of the United States in the 21st century, you have to be willing to kill Muslims, too.)

It takes a man possessed of a kind of vile genius to do so much damage in so few words, and that man is Floyd Brown, the conservative activist and Republican strategist with a long and storied history of sleazy media tactics. Brown is best known for the 1988 ad attacking Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, then governor of Massachusetts, during his run against George H.W. Bush. While Bush, the ad said, supported capital punishment, Dukakis "not only opposes the death penalty," but presided over a Massachusetts prison furlough program that gave weekend passes to inmates, including convicted killer Willie Horton. As a photo of Horton—a large, bearded black man—loomed on the screen, a voice-over described the rape and stabbing he committed after absconding while on furlough. The message to white voters was clear: While George Bush will do away with men like this, Michael Dukakis will let them loose to kill, rape, and pillage.

There are plenty of pundits and pollsters who say that Dukakis lost the election on the issue of the death penalty—due in part to the Willie Horton ads, and in part to his answer to a debate question asked by CNN's Bernard Shaw: "Governor, if [your wife] Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" Dukakis's reply—calmly citing facts and figures to support his opposition to capital punishment—was deemed unworthy of any red-blooded American man. Moreover, a nation that had used the threat of death to keep blacks in line—whether by lynching, police shootings, or state-sanctioned execution—appeared unwilling to give up that prerogative.

Four years later, Bill Clinton wouldn't make the same "mistake." The new Democratic Leadership Council had already identified opposition to the death penalty as one of the excessively liberal positions that had to go if the Democrats were ever to retake the White House. In order to win back white, working-class "Reagan Democrats" who had fled to the GOP in the 1980s, they had to overcome the perception that the party was "soft on crime." Despite the fact that it had never been shown to be an effective deterrent, support for the death penalty offered a fast track to the "tough on crime" image the DLC desired. Clinton, a supporter of capital punishment, made a point of declaring early in his campaign that Democrats "should no longer feel guilty about protecting the innocent." Driving the point home, he flew back to Arkansas from the campaign trail to sign the death warrant of Ricky Ray Rector, who had shot himself in the head after killing a police officer. Clinton had repelled pleas to commute the sentence based on evidence that Rector was effectively lobotomized and functionally retarded. (At his last meal, Rector chose not to eat his pecan pie before being taken to the death chamber, saying he wanted to save it "for later.") Rector, like Willie Horton, was a large, bearded black man.

The execution by lethal injection of Rector—who, like some more recent victims of this method of killing, had a long and painful death—took place shortly before the all-important New Hampshire primary. A few weeks earlier, Clinton's bid for the presidency had seemed dead in the water after the eruption of the Gennifer Flowers scandal; instead, he took second place in New Hampshire and declared himself the "Comeback Kid" (despite efforts by the ubiquitous Floyd Brown, who created a 900 number where callers could hear excerpts of conversations between Clinton and Flowers). The Rector execution may have helped save the Clinton campaign by detracting attention from the scandal and transforming the candidate's image. Put in the most cynical terms, Bill Clinton may have gotten away with screwing a white woman by killing a black man.

This might have been the year when vigorous support for the death penalty ceased to be a prerequisite for the US presidency. Statistics show that Americans' taste for capital punishment has actually begun to diminish, due in part to the efforts of the Innocence Project and other advocates who have used DNA and other evidence to exonerate more and more death row inmates. Such exonerations also make it harder than ever to ignore the fact that who gets executed in country has more to do with being black and/or poor than it does with being guilty of a particularly heinous crime—or for that matter, being guilty at all. Four years ago, no one took much notice when John Kerry, without coming out against the death penalty, nonetheless asked that an explicitly pro-capital punishment plank be dropped from the Democrats' presidential platform. In order to make the death penalty function in this election as it has in the past—as the issue that captures and focuses white fear—strategists need to make a concerted effort to push all the buttons of their target voters.

Complicating matters is the fact that Barack Obama's position on the death penalty actually places him not far from the center of current public opinion on the issue. He has said that he thinks it may be appropriate for some particularly "heinous crimes—terrorism, mass murder, child killers" where "the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage." He has also stated, "I cannot, however, support the current system, which is rife with error and lacks sufficient safeguards against wrongful convictions."

As a state legislator, Obama was considered a key player in reform of the state's capital punishment system, most notably by supporting a requirement that confessions in capital cases be recorded to prevent any chance of coercion. The reforms were signed into law by the state's Republican governor, George Ryan, who also placed a moritorium on Illinois executions after more than a dozen of the state's death row inmates were exonerated. Ryan also vetoed the 2001 bill that is the focus of the new attack ad, which would have extended the death penalty to gang-related killings, saying, "I believe its efforts are misdirected in light of existing laws, constitutional concerns, and our past history of erroneously sentencing individuals to death." Even the state representative who sponsored the gang bill has said that the ad makes her "sick to my stomach." Rep. Susana Mendoza, who supports Obama for president, told FactCheck.org that "The ad completely mischaracterizes Senator Obama's position against ruthless criminals and attempts to paint him as weak on crime, when I know that to be the furthest thing from the truth. If anyone should be upset about his not voting for HB1812, it should be me, as its sponsor. But, as I said before, I understood and respected then and continue to do so to this day, his reasons for not supporting that particular bill, none of which were because of a weak position towards criminals...I do not agree in any way whatsoever with the ad and that I find it to be a tasteless and reprehensible misrepresentation of the truth."

No such corrections of the record, however, are likely to affect the ad's target audience. The ad has so far been aired only on the Internet (and on the TV news shows that picked it up), and accompanied a plea for donors to send money to its producers' website, ExposeObama.com, to fund TV broadcasts of the ad. Despite the surprising opinion of some liberal commentators that the ad is not racist, the people it's aimed at will know exactly what it's about. The conservative website DiscovertheNetworks.org, which bills itself as "A Guide to the Political Left" had already attacked Obama's position on the death penalty and his measures to prevent coerced confessions and require police to keep records of suspects' race: "These rules to deter racial profiling, say critics, lead to 'de-policing.' To avoid charges of racism if they question or arrest too many minority suspects, police find it easier to protect their careers by turning a blind eye and leaving minority criminals alone." In other words, Obama's efforts to protect black criminals—in effect, to protect his own—will leave us white folks at their mercy.

In 1960, Roman Catholic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy was forced to publicly state that his loyalty to his country superseded his loyalty to his religion. In a famous speech, he declared, "I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters—and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as President...I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates." The speech assuaged the fears of voters who worried that the White House would be taking orders from the pope.

Absurd as this may now seem, it's not all that different from what's going on with Obama today. His success among the white majority of the electorate depends upon his ability to convince enough of them that while he may be a black American, he will not be a president only for black America, disproportionately representing African American interests. And his opponents' success depends, in part, on convincing enough of them otherwise. What better way than to call up that old, reliable political motivator, fear? Few impulses run as deep in the American psyche as white fear—not only of black crime, but of black rage and even black power—which is in turn rooted in the guilt of slavery and discrimination. But Obama soothes those fears with his rhetoric of inclusivity. He renders the racial divide less threatening through the simple act of bridging it. He offers voters—including and especially white voters—a path out of the crucible of America's racial history, with its burden of rage and guilt, hatred and fear. It's an important and inspiring feat, but also a terribly fragile one.

This latest attack ad, with its implied claim that Obama is unwilling to execute brothers, may be promulgated by a Republican strategist, but right now the candidate it stands to help most is Hillary Clinton. Floyd Brown is anything but a friend to the Clintons: On the eve of the 1992 election he published Slick Willie: Why America Cannot Trust Bill Clinton, and he had a hand in last year's Hillary: The Movie. Yet Hillary is pinning her last hopes for the primary campaign—and her claims to superior "electability" in the general election—on the very white voters most likely to be swayed by the racial loyalties and racial fears that the ad seeks to inflame. The ads might even serve to bolster Clinton's claims that Obama can't weather Republican attacks in the general election. This, of course, is just another way of saying that the United States remains too racist a country to elect an African American president—that in America, a black man still has a better chance of ending up on death row than in the White House.