November 8 is a day that will live in irony.
Regardless of who wins nine days from now, the outcome will be influenced not only by the atrocious actions of FBI Director James Comey, but also by a presidential election that occurred twenty-eight years to the day earlier. The bitter legacy of that particular election is still with us…and it may never leave.
On November 8, 1988, then-Vice President George H. W. Bush defeated Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in an Electoral College landslide. Bush’s victory constituted both a three-peat for the Republican Party in Presidential elections–and the official commencement of race-baiting on steroids in modern US political campaigns.
As MSNBC.com observed in 2013:
Bush found himself defending his campaign against accusations of “racial overtones” because of a television commercial produced by an outside political action committee. The ad labeled Bush’s opponent, Michael Dukakis, as soft on crime for his support of a weekend furlough program that allowed Willie Horton–an African-American convict–to slip through the hands of prison officials and eventually rape and murder new victims.
Critics ripped the ad for prominently featuring Horton’s mugshot and playing upon the fears of black crime. Horton’s story became fodder during the presidential debates as well. GOP campaign strategist Lee Atwater said, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.”
Dukakis at one point led Bush by a 17-point margin. The ad didn’t, on its own, cost the Massachusetts governor the election (he lost by eight points), but it clearly had an impact on the campaign.
As the 2008 documentary Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story noted, the Bush campaign officially ran another ad which engaged in sick racial stereotyping:
It has become fashionable in recent years to regard George H. W. Bush as one of the “good” Republicans, but the man had a very, very dark side. In that campaign, Bush didn’t hesitate to promote the idea that nonwhites were notorious for murder and mayhem. Doesn’t that sort of campaigning sound familiar?
Like his party’s 2016 presidential nominee, Bush also made dubious claims about media bias, smearing then-CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather in the process.
Two decades after his ignoble victory, Bush absurdly suggested that MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and her then-colleague, Keith Olbermann, were just as responsible for promoting political discord as the conservative-entertainment complex. Olbermann, disgusted by the mainstream media’s sanitization of Bush’s record, condemned his hypocrisy:
It‘s easy to miss the irony here. What he‘s complaining about–in terms of personalized complaint about other politicians, this current era of it, [and] name-calling–he‘s the father of it, and I don‘t mean he‘s the father of George W. Bush. I mean, he‘s the father of the process that took us to the place we are now.
He is the man who employed Roger Ailes. He and Roger Ailes are the men who ran the Willie Horton ad against Mike Dukakis. He and Roger Ailes are the people who played the scam on Dan Rather.
So it‘s very ironic to hear George H.W. Bush from this lofty perch, and with real, I thought I heard, anger in his voice against you and me and mispronouncing [Maddow’s] name, which adds to his credibility. You know, just sort of ignoring the fact, “Hey, you don‘t like this, buddy? It‘s your responsibility. You fix it. You started it.”
George H. W. Bush begat Donald Trump. His 1988 campaign made it politically permissible to demonize nonwhites as the epitome of danger, to lie about alleged liberal media bias, to win by any and all means necessary. Does he feel any guilt or shame or remorse about the role his actions 28 years ago played in bringing us to the threat of Trump? Bush may be old, but he is not mute. He would demonstrate honor and humility if he formally apologized for the tenor of that 1988 campaign. Will he do so before he passes on?