It was a mug shot only a mother could love. William Horton, convicted murderer, staring down the camera in grainy black-and-white. With his wild Afro and scruffy facial hair, Horton seems to epitomize the racist stereotype of the black man as violent criminal. Maybe (just maybe) that's why conservative media strategist Floyd Brown chose Horton's mug shot as the central image in his infamous 1988 attack ad against Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.
In the ad, William is renamed "Willie" for an added measure of menace. To prove that Dukakis is soft on crime, the ad rails against the Massachussetts governor for his state's prison furlough program, which allows convicted felons -- even those serving life sentences -- to earn weekend "get out of jail free" cards.
In gruesome detail, the ad explains how Horton, who was serving a life sentence for the stabbing death of a boy, used his free weekend pass to break into a suburban couple's home bind and stab and the man, and rape his girlfriend. The grim story is punctuated with three words on the screen: "Kidnapping. Stabbing. Raping." Then comes the dark punchline: "Weekend Prison Passes. Dukakis on Crime."
Don't blame George H.W. Bush for the ad, which was paid for by an independent political action committee and conceived by Floyd Brown. But you can hardly hold Bush blameless for the aftermath. Even though the ad only aired once, Bush picked up the theme in his campaign stump speeches, labeling Dukakis "a tax-raising liberal who let murderers out of jail" [source: Schwartz].