In this excerpt from Boogie Man, Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis, legendary newsman Sam Donaldson, journalist Joe Conason, Senior Palin Advisor Tucker Eskew and others discuss Lee Atwater, Willie Horton, racial politics, negative campaigning, and the use of fear tactics by the Bush ’88 campaign and their surrogates.

Below, we’ll address some major misconceptions about these ads and the 1988 Presidential campaign.

1. Many people think that the “Willie Horton” ad was an official Bush ’88 ad. This is not true. There were, in fact, two major GOP ads about crime which are often mistakenly conflated: the official George H.W. Bush campaign ad “Revolving Door” (not “Revolving Doors”, as it tends to be called) and the ‘independent’ “Willie Horton” ad.

2. The Bush campaign’s “Revolving Door” ad is usually said to lack racist content. As proof, many point to the fact that there’s only one African-American in a long line of convicts.

However, noted TV journalist Sam Donaldson and media critic Ishmael Reed explain that the African-American is the only one who looks at the camera. This is one of the most egregious examples of subliminal racist messaging, often referred to as race-baiting or dog-whistle politics.

3. Republicans often blame Al Gore for first mentioning Willie Horton. Is this fair, or a smokescreen? It’s important to note that Gore only mentioned Horton once in a debate – not alluding to race – and certainly didn’t make it the focal point of his ’88 primary campaign against Dukakis. Timothy Noah examines this debate here.

4. Lee Atwater always claimed that his laser-like focus on Horton had nothing to do with race. When timidly asked by a reporter “I just wonder whether there isn’t a tinge of racism”, Atwater responds “I don’t think many people in the South even know what race Willie Horton is”. This line usually gets a big laugh at Boogie Man screenings, especially in the South.

Even Atwater’s own colleague and protégé Tucker Eskew (2008 Senior Advisor to Sarah Palin) calls this defense into question when he says “Race is a powder keg…and Lee got close to that powder keg and, you know, was setting off sparks nearby.”

(Atwater apparently instructed his campaign staff never to mention Horton’s race. Yet according to several contemporary accounts, his aide Mark Goodin kept a big photo of Horton on the wall during meetings with reporters to ever-so-subtly remind them of Horton’s appearance.)

5. History seems to have largely absolved the ’88 Bush campaign of responsibility for the ‘independent’ Horton ad (the one which showed Horton’s face). Yet in Boogie Man, Governor Dukakis says “Anyone who believes that, believes in the tooth fairy.”

And longtime Republican operative Roger Stone charges that Atwater, working for the Bush ’88 campaign, funnelled millions of dollars into the “Willie Horton” ad, in clear violation of campaign finance laws.

Yet to date the film has not sparked any official inquiries, fines, or sanctions of any kind. In fact, despite Boogie Man playing theatrically in 40 US cities and airing on television around the world, few journalists even treated this revelation as news.)

6. Some defend the ads as valid indictments of Democrats as soft on crime because Dukakis did furlough Willie Horton, who went on to commit more crimes. But it’s rarely pointed out, as Sam Donaldson does in Boogie Man, that Dukakis inherited the furlough program from a Republican predecessor and was the one who ended it.

And it’s even less frequently pointed out that a popular Republican governor, rarely considered soft on crime, had two of his furloughees commit murder. That governor’s name? Ronald Reagan.

7. People sometimes claim that in ‘politically correct’ America, you can’t talk honestly about race and crime without being accused of racism. But those people are rarely willing to speak honestly about how the image of the terrifying black male criminal has been used to justify violence against African-American communities, prevent alliances between working-class whites and African-Americans, and, of course, sell newspapers.

As we all know, Willie Horton evoked long-programmed white American fears of the hypersexualized, aggressive black rapist who attacks white women, a yawn-inducing yet ever-effective trope whose cinematic roots go back past Birth Of A Nation to a brute caricature that served transparent political purposes of justifying oppression.

During the Radical Reconstruction period (1867-1877), many White writers argued that without slavery — which supposedly suppressed their animalistic tendencies — Blacks were reverting to criminal savagery. The belief that the newly-emancipated Blacks were a “black peril” continued into the early 1900s…

The “terrible crime” most often mentioned in connection with the Black brute was rape, more specifically, the rape of a White woman. At the beginning of the twentieth century, much of the virulent, anti-Black propaganda that found its way into scientific journals, local newspapers, and best-selling novels focused on the stereotype of the Black rapist. The claim that Black brutes were, in epidemic numbers, raping White women became the public rationalization for the lynching of Blacks.

Of course, this ‘fear’ is especially ironic given that the vast majority of interracial rape in American history was committed, of course, by white men, often slaveowners.

Scene From Birth Of A Nation

On the Boogie Man Director’s Cut DVD bonus materials, Ishmael Reed explains the American media’s historic role in fostering these stereotypes and the concomitant violence against black communities they provoked. While the offensive – and patently ridiculous ’88 focus on Willie Horton is shameful, isn’t it a bit of a cop-out to place all the blame for this on Lee Atwater?

When introducing Boogie Man at the 2008 Republican Convention, Roger Stone said: “Atwater was utterly amoral. He just did what worked. If Marxism was the way to win in ’88, Atwater would have done that.” Stone has a point: isn’t the success of Willie Horton really an indictment of America?

Reed says we all need to take responsibility for our susceptibility to fear, as there’s something in human beings that’s attracted to it. For instance, many of us love horror films. And America always loves a gangster. These sorts of lurid anti-hero characterizations always seem to be money-making propositions, from Howard Hawks’ Scarface to Brian DePalma’s Scarface to the rapper Scarface. And these depictions of African-American men don’t exactly seem to be going away, do they?

As a keen-eyed observer of American culture, a longstanding devotée of kitsch like Dolomite, Shaft, and zombie films, and a Southerner with a bone-deep understanding of American fears and resentments, Lee Atwater understood all this.

And as film critic Elvis Mitchell pointed out to me in this conversation, Atwater basically reimagined the 30 second political TV ad as an exploitation film, and American politics has never been the same.