Now as we are just one month away from the Iowa caucus, presidential races on both sides of the political spectrum are tightening incredibly with half of Iowan voters saying they could change their minds at any moment. Expect attack ads in that state and in New Hampshire to reach a frenzied peak in the next few weeks. Remember, while most people say that they dislike attack ads, they also work quite well, leaving an indelible impression in the viewer's mind.
It's also important to note that there is a difference between attack ads, and releasing negative information about your opponent. The latter is part of what democracy is all about and may even have a legitimate value. We probably did need to know, in 1972, that George McGovern's vice-presidential running mate, Senator Thomas Eagleton, had had shock treatments and been treated for alcoholism, although certainly the intent in releasing the info was to smear the poor bastard. (Anyone remember how McGovern was behind Eagleton "1000%" and then dumped him, pronto?)
But most real attack ads are alarmist in nature, distorting the truth and intending to scare and anger the viewer. The 1988 George Bush-Michael Dukakis contest was famous for its attack ads. Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater, media advisor Roger Ailes, and political pro Ed Rollins pursued a strategy of “raising the negatives” by churning out commercials attacking Dukakis for being too liberal on drugs and crime and too much of a girly-man on defense. When he was dying young of a brain tumor a few years after the campaign, Lee Atwater apologized for only one thing: his vow to “make Willie Horton Michael Dukakis’s running mate.”
Horton was a 39-year-old black convict who, during Dukakis’s tenure as governor, had taken part in a weekend furlough program in Massachusetts. Instead of returning to prison, however, Horton fled to Maryland, where he raped a white woman and stabbed her white fiancée. The colors matter here, because the Republicans were about to make the most racist series of attacks in modern American electioneering history.
To begin with, Republicans renamed Horton. In actuality, his name was not Willie, but William. He was known to his mother, family, friends, enemies, cops and parole officers as William. Newspaper accounts of his crimes referred to him as William. And yet the Republican attack ads called him “Willie.”
What kind of attack ads?
A few samples:
•“Get Out of Jail Free Card”
Modeled after the Monopoly card and distributed to 400,000 Texas voters, this tiny mailbox stuffer read: “Michael Dukakis is the killer’s best friend and the decent honest citizen’s worst enemy.”
• “Pro-Family Letter”
This was the Maryland Republican party fund-raising letter which coupled pictures of Willie Horton and Michael Dukakis over the headline: “Is This Your Pro-Family Team for 1988?”
But the most notorious one--and here it is, courtesy of YouTube--was the infamous "Revolving Door" commercial. This stark black and white TV spot showed convicts marching through a turnstile into jail and immediately back out again. No matter that the “convicts” were out-of-work Republicans instructed not to shave for the day. The point had been made.
Things go so bad that the Bush campaign claimed in an ad that Chicago mass murderer John Wayne Gacy would be released on furlough if Michael Dukakis were elected. Even the serial killer clown was offended. Gacy dispatched an angry missive from prison: “It is an insult to the voting public that [Republicans are] exploiting the name of John Wayne Gacy to scare people into voting for George Bush.”
Tomorrow: the most famous attack ad of all time.