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SEAN HAPPENS! Dissembling Sean played the Horton Card. Behind that, there lies a long story:


SEAN HANNITY’S PROBLEM WITH THE TRUTH: Robert Reich was the latest victim. On last night’s Hannity & Colmes, a fair-and-balanced debate was under way about whether Dems were playing the race card. Reich thought he had the perfect squelch:

REICH: Sean, wait a minute. Who did the Willie Horton ad?
As Hector said of Paris: “Foolish man!” Anyone who has watched Reich’s host through the years would have known what answer would follow. Here is the exchange which ensued—as Alan looked silently on:
REICH: Sean, wait a minute. Who did the Willie Horton ad?
REICH: Who did Willie Horton?
HANNITY: Al Gore. Al Gore. Al Gore.
REICH: Let’s have—
HANNITY: Al Gore brought Willie Horton to the American people. Al Gore.
REICH: Oh, come on, Sean.
HANNITY: In the primary—
REICH: Look it, this is revisionist—
HANNITY: Wait a minute. In the—
REICH: This is revisionist history.
HANNITY: In 1988, Al Gore brought Willie Horton into that race. Al Gore did. Does that answer your question?
REICH: Yes. Well, I see. Well, a lot of Americans who are now watching this program find it very—find your revisionist history fascinating.
HANNITY: My revisionist history? It’s a fact. Go—go read the press accounts.
“This is revisionist history?” Conservative dissemblers have played the Horton Card against Al. Gore since 1992 (see below). Unknowing, Reich went like a lamb.

Is it true? Did Al Gore “bring Willie Horton to the American people?” Did Al Gore “bring Willie Horton into that race?” Only in the dysfunctional world of our deeply devolved public discourse. What actually happened in 1988? In one of 45 Dem debates that year, Candidate Gore challenged Candidate Dukakis to defend a Massachusetts furlough program under which convicts serving life sentences without hope of parole were released on weekend passes. In particular, Gore noted that two furloughed prisoners had committed new murders while on weekend leave. (Willie Horton was not one of these convicts.) The program was almost impossible to defend. But Gore only mentioned the program once, and he never mentioned any prisoner’s name; never mentioned any prisoner’s race; never ran any TV ads on the topic; and never used any visuals. More specifically, he never named Willie Horton, or mentioned his specific crime (Horton committed a brutal rape while on leave). In the Bush-Dukakis general election, the Bush campaign—and an independent, pro-Bush group—made extensive use of the Horton incident. In particular, the independent group used visuals of Horton which seemed to emphasize his race (he was black). In later years, as he neared his death, Bush campaign director Lee Atwater apologized for his own conduct in pushing the racial aspects of the Horton matter.

Did Gore “bring Willie Horton to the American people?” As usual, Hannity was lying, once again. Meanwhile, Alan Colmes again sat silently by as his partner slandered Gore, misled his viewers, and dragged our discourse through the mud where Hannity’s kind has always been happiest. What does it mean? What does it mean when the world’s most important democracy conducts its public discourse this way? We can say one thing: It means that Sean happens. Gaze again on the devolved, corrupt culture we now laughingly describe as a “press corps.”

BAD WILL HUNTING: Conservative dissembling about Gore-and-Horton began in 1992, when Gore was announced as Clinton’s VP nominee. Gore appeared on the July 12 This Week. George Will began the dissembling about Willie Horton, posing this laughable “question:”

WILL: Senator, it’s an article of faith in your party and in much of the media that the use of Willie Horton by the Bush campaign was impliedly racist and certainly negative beyond propriety. The Republicans learned about Willie Horton because you used Willie Horton, because you used Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis in this city [New York] in April 1988, running against him in the primary. Given that you used Willie Horton, do you agree that it was racist and insupportably negative?
Sad, isn’t it? Dissembling hard, Will managed to say “you used Willie Horton” three separate times in a single “question!” Gore, asking if he could offer “a polite correction to the way you posed the question,” said that he had never even heard Horton’s name at the time that he raised the issue. Will broke in: “You raised the issue of furloughs, Senator. You did raise the issue of furloughs which is what Willie Horton was about.” “That’s correct,” Gore said, “I raised the generic issue.” But was something now wrong with raising an issue? The criticism of the Horton matter had dealt with the content of specific TV ads. If there was something wrong with just raising the issue, Will never tried to explain it. But through the years, conservative dissemblers kept making this point, often in ways that were baldly inaccurate. It was really Gore, not Bush or his supporters, who had first “used Willie Horton,” they said. And they kept insisting that this vile conduct showed how negative and nasty Gore is.

HOW CORRUPT WAS YOUR MEWLING PRESS CORPS? How thoroughly corrupt was your mewling “press corps” by the time of the 2000 White House campaign? As they struggled and strained to bork Gore, they eventually played the Horton Card too. The RNC pushed the nonsense hard, all through calendar year 1999. And by the fall, critical mass was attained. Do you blame Sean Hannity for lying so hard when all these others acted out the same borking?

Robert Novak, Washington Post, 10/22/99: Al Gore’s mean streak was not engineered by [adviser] Bob Shrum…In his failed 1988 campaign for president, Gore nailed Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for the Willie Horton affair long before George Bush Sr. took up that cry.

Paul Gigot, Wall Street Journal, 10/29/99: One thing we know about this White House is that it plays for keeps. Recall that the candidate who first raised the prison furlough (Willie Horton) issue against Mike Dukakis in 1988 wasn’t George Bush. It was Al Gore.

William Kristol, Newsweek, 11/1/99: Big Al can be a tough, mean player, not afraid to be tough and inaccurate himself. After all, he’s the guy who introduced Willie Horton to the American public in his primary campaign against Michael Dukakis.

Roger Simon, U.S. News, 11/1/99: Bradley will spend much of his prep time anticipating Gore attacks. “We always expect to be attacked by Gore,” says a senior adviser to Bradley…And just as he did in 1988 when he raised the Willie Horton issue against Dukakis, Gore intends to take whatever shots he deems appropriate.

Sam Donaldson, This Week, 11/28/99: Al Gore does use fear. Remember 1988, it was Al Gore when he was running in the primaries for president who found Willie Horton, and he used Willie Horton against Dukakis.

Andrew Cain, Washington Times, 12/7/99: Mr. Gore has never been reluctant to go for the jugular. During the 1988 presidential campaign, Mr. Gore was the first candidate to raise the Massachusetts prison furlough program and Willie Horton issue against fellow Democrat Michael Dukakis.

Jeanne Cummings, Wall Street Journal, 12/8/99: Mr. Gore’s approach shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with his political history. His 1988 presidential bid foundered well short of the Democratic nomination, but not before Mr. Gore slammed Rep. Richard Gephardt for backing Ronald Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for supporting a controversial prison-furlough system.

Katharine Seelye, New York Times, 12/10/99: Mr. Gore’s combativeness has been evident in the past…After all, he was the candidate who in 1988 first raised the issue of prison furloughs in Massachusetts, laying the groundwork for Vice President Bush to seize on the image of Willie Horton.

Ceci Connolly, Washington Post, 12/11/99: He is aggressive, outspoken and increasingly eager to draw sharp—some would suggest unfair—contrasts with his opponents. The approach, reminiscent of his 1988 effort, has rejuvenated the Gore team…In that race, it was Gore who first pinned rival Michael S. Dukakis for a controversial prison furlough program.

Susan Page, Late Edition, 12/12/99: We’re reminded this week…what a fierce campaigner he is. He showed us before. In 1988, he was the one who raised the issue of prison furloughs against Michael Dukakis in the primaries, before the Bush people had heard of it. He’s a very fierce campaigner.

Dan Balz, Washington Post, 12/20/99: Gore prefers the cut-and-thrust of traditional politics and has often defined himself by criticizing his opponents. It was Gore, after all, who in 1988 introduced Willie Horton into the presidential campaign.

The RNC spin-point had set into stone; Gore showed how nasty he was by the way he used Willie Horton. The spin-point even popped up in the Iowa press, where the nation’s first caucus would soon be held. On December 5, David Yepsen, dean of the state’s political reporters, recited the script in the Des Moines Register. “Gore lost to Michael Dukakis,” Yepsen wrote, “but not before becoming the first politician to raise questions about whether Dukakis was too lenient on prison inmate Willie Horton, an example of just how hard Gore can play the game.” Like the others, Yepsen drew the Standard Conclusion. Gore’s mention of the furlough program showed him to be a “fierce campaigner”—a tough, mean, inaccurate pol who “uses fear” and “goes for the jugular.” Of course, all these reporters were engaged in the very conduct they were so eager to lay off on Gore. They misstated the facts—and savaged Gore’s character—showing how hard they were willing to play. But to a man and to a woman, they projected their dysfunction onto Gore.

But this was all part of the borking of Gore, a process engaged in throughout the media. In this case—as in so many others—utterly bogus RNC spin was transformed into hard press corps dogma. All over America, citizens were fed the rank tale, as the borking of Gore devolved downward.

HOW LUDICROUS COULD THE DISSEMBLING BE? The dissembling could be very ludicrous. As the fall of 1999 began, the Horton card was being played by conservatives only. In particular, the Washington Times had spun the matter all year; the paper’s first misstatement came on February 9, authored by columnist Tony Snow. “Early in 1988, Sen. Al Gore and then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo began railing about a Massachusetts convict named Willie Horton,” Snow wrote. Within weeks, Rush Limbaugh began to echo the charge, even reading Snow’s complaint back to Snow in a Fox TV interview.

Enjoy a good laugh over this one, readers. Snow’s statement was comically bogus, especially as it pertained to Cuomo. In fact, Cuomo never said a word about Horton or the furlough program. Duh! In the 1988 White House race, Cuomo supported Dukakis. What had led to Snow’s groaning error? The sister of Horton’s original murder victim was a woman named Donna Fournier Cuomo (no relation); back in 1988, she was quoted in some press reports about the Horton matter. In some conservative spin-shop or other, a bit of name’s-the-same confusion apparently led to Snow’s mistake. But then, the Washington Times would make factual errors about various aspects of Gore’s campaign for two years, with nary a word of comment or criticism from the press corps’ slumbering watchdogs. The corps was engaged in its great “Clinton payback.” All misstatements, however silly, were allowed.

MORT KONDRACKE: THE LAST HONEST MAN: One journalist, Mort Kondracke, resisted the use of the Horton Card. In particular, Kondracke resisted the greatest act of dissembling of the 2000 race. That act was performed by Bill Bradley.

On January 12, 2000, Bradley conducted a remarkable interview with the Boston Herald. (New Hampshire voting was three weeks away. Bradley was behind in the polls.) Bradley “launch[ed] a laser-sharp new line of attack against Al Gore,” the paper’s Andrew Miga reported the next day. In his interview with the Herald, Bradley “ripped the vice president for injecting racism into the 1988 campaign by raising the Willie Horton case against Michael Dukakis.” Now Bradley was playing the Horton Card too. And Bradley—alas!—knew much better.

Bardley’s attack was especially striking because of something he’d written a few years before. Bradley’s 1996 best-seller, Time Present, Time Past, included a chapter on race in politics. And in the book, Bradley specifically said that Gore had not mistreated race in discussing the furlough matter. Here was the passage in question:

BRADLEY (Time Present, Time Past): In 1988, the race card was played more subtly. The Bush presidential campaign skillfully linked the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, with a black man named Willie Horton, who had raped a woman and stabbed a man while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison, where he had been serving time for murder. Oddly, the first politician to mention Horton (but without racializing it) was not Bush but Senator Al Gore. In the New York Democratic primary that spring, he attacked Dukakis for his prison-furlough program. The Republicans, though, emphasized Horton’s blackness.
In 1996, Bradley said that Gore had attacked the furlough program “without racializing it.” Now—trailing in the polls—he decided to say just the opposite.

How did Bradley explain his reversal? Predictably, the press never asked. Though Bradley’s charge received a good deal of attention, especially in the Boston/New Hampshire press, the press corps engaged in a Code of Silence about what Bradley had said in his book. Incredibly, only Kondracke ever mentioned Bradley’s prior, contradictory statement. Though many voters heard Bradley’s new charge, almost no one ever heard that he’d said just the opposite in his best-selling book. (Double standard, anyone? This went on at a time when the press corps was combing through letters Gore had written before he even entered the Congress, hoping to dredge up vile flip-flops. Your “press corps’” clownishness knows no bounds, as this ugly episode helps make clear.)

Kondracke was willing to fight the good fight within a deeply dishonest press corps. On the January 13 Special Report, Kondracke challenged Bradley’s remarks to the Herald. “Bradley is going back to 1988 to accuse Gore of having raised the Willie Horton issue, as though Gore had raised it as a racial issue, which he did not do,” Kondracke said. Two nights later, on The Beltway Boys, he mentioned Bradley’s book for the first time. “On this Willie Horton thing,” he said, “I mean, Bradley said in his book, Time Present, Time Past, that Gore was not responsible for making the Willie Horton issue a racial issue.” On the January 20 Special Report, Kondracke mentioned the book again, noting that it “absolves Al Gore of any racist intent.” When the Horton matter came up in the January 26 Gore-Bradley debate, he cited the book a third time.

For the record, Kondracke wasn’t the only scribe who knew what Bradley had written. On January 14, the Boston Globe reported that the Gore campaign had distributed the relevant passage from Time Present, Time Past throughout the media. Major reporters were well aware of Bradley’s remarkable flip-flop. For reasons that are abundantly clear, they simply decided to ignore it.

Why did they ignore Bradley’s flip? Because, by the time Bradley’s conduct occurred, the Washington press corps was deeply involved in its relentless War Against Gore. They were deeply involved in their “Clinton payback”—and they had cast Olympian Bradley as the straight-talking hero of the piece. Pundits continued to type favored scripts—Al Gore is nasty and negative, and high-minded Bradley just refuses to fight back. These claims were fantasies, through and through—but your script-typing “press corps” was willing to lie in your face in service to stories they liked.

You might even drop a line to Mort, thanking him for his honorable conduct. (We mentioned it to him in a green room last year.) And you might drop a line to the others too—to all the phonies who knew to sit by and knew that they shouldn’t say Boo. Timid careerists that they are, they get quite upset when their names are called, and begin insisting that they fought the good fight all along. But careerists and self-serving cowards that they are, all of them knew to keep very quiet as the remorseless borking of Gore rumbled forward. In the process, they made a joke of your White House campaign—and they elected that building’s current occupant.

Readers, is it any wonder that Dissembling Sean simply lied in your face last night? He knew that Alan would stand quietly by—as all but Morton did two years ago. Bradley, of course, knew what Hannity knows—that no one in the press corps would even say Boo if he spun out a false, approved tale.

Where did it all begin in Campaign 2000? Needless to say, it began with Rush. Here he was on March 16, 1999, dissembling hard on Late Edition, as the borking of Gore began—the borking that would give Bush the White House. Gore’s campaigning had begun just that week:

BLITZER: How much of an effective campaigner do you think Al Gore will be if he faces any Republican?

LIMBAUGH: Look, I don’t know, I could only guess. We have some experience, though. We have the ’88 presidential campaign where he sought the nomination, and let’s not forget, Wolf, it was that man who we just saw on videotape—“Vice Perpetrator” Al Gore who brought us Willie Horton. It was he and Mario Cuomo who produced Willie Horton, and it was Al Gore who used Willie Horton in a Democratic primary. So we know that he’ll go low. We’ll know that he—we know that he’ll do what it takes, he’ll go dirty if he has to.

Stupidly, Limbaugh bungled the Cuomo Card too. But here was the campaign’s first expression of what would become a Standard Press Tale. We know Al Gore will get very dirty, Rush said, because he brought us Willie Horton.

By the way, how utterly worthless was Blitzer this day? “Didn’t help him much in ’88, though,” he said in reply to Limbaugh’s misstatement. And Blitzer never corrected the Horton Card for the twenty months of this White House campaign. Say hello to your dysfunctional “press corps.” Say hello to the timid, scripted men who make it possible for—yes—Sean to happen.