By David Loomis
INDIANA – The campaign lacked substantive issues, despite a national agenda begging for debate and action. Polls showed the Republican candidate was not very popular.
His supporters decided to go negative with an attack ad featuring a convicted felon. The GOP candidate, joined by media, focused the negative ad around public safety and criminal justice.
And, not so subtly, around race. The televised ad showed the convicted felon, a minority, in a mugshot. News media played the attack ad as a central issue in the campaign.
The year was 1988. The Republican candidate was George H.W. Bush. The felon was William R. “Willie” Horton.
Among Americans of a certain age, “Willie Horton” ranks among the most hate- and fear-mongering political ads in modern American history.
The 1988 election was widely criticized as trivial. In addition to Willie Horton, the campaign focused on the Pledge of Allegiance. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was collapsing and the Cold War was ending.
In reaction, some reformers in the press proposed a new kind of journalism – public journalism. As it was practiced in subsequent elections, public journalism wrestled the agenda away from politicians and vested it with citizens, aided by the press,