Friday, October 10, 2008

History Lesson


Old Republican playbooks
haunt American politics

Question: What do William R. Horton and Spiro T. Agnew have in common?

Answer: Their political ghosts are riding high in the 2008 presidential election campaign.

Horton was serving life without parole in Massachusetts for the 1974 robbery-murder of a 17-year-old gas station attendant when he was given a weekend furlough, and didn’t bother to return. Ten months later, in 1987, he was arrested after the rape of a Maryland woman and attack on her fiancĂ© that got Horton a double-life term. (He’s still behind bars in Maryland, as far as I know.)

Horton’s prison release was possible because of an inmate furlough program being extended to killers by a court decision. The Massachusetts legislature then passed a bill to prohibit furloughs for killers, only to see it vetoed by Gov. Michael Dukakis.

Yup, that guy – Dukakis, who beat Al Gore and Jessie Jackson, among others, to win the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. (Gary Hart was in that battle, too, until he was caught up in a sex scandal – belatedly prompting a Muckie nod of recognition at the 2008 mess of John Edwards.)

The Republicans and their 1988 nominee, George H.W. Bush, seized on the case, and the specter of “Willie” Horton dominated the campaign. And it didn’t help Dukakis’ chances when he offered a wimpy answer to the famous presidential debate question posed by moderator Bernard Shaw – that if wife Kitty “were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

These days, it’s easier to remember Willie Horton than the name of loser Michael Dukakis. Such is the power of a pounding negative campaign theme.

Agnew was the first-term Republican governor of Maryland whose criticism of black leaders during the 1968 King assassination rioting led to his unlikely selection as running mate in the successful presidential campaign of Richard M. Nixon.

As vice president, Agnew became Nixon’s attack dog, a specialist in delivering scripted negative rhetoric that included the famous description of the press as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” (He was also a crook – and avoided prison in 1973 by resigning the vice presidency and pleading no contest to evading income taxes on the bribes he got as governor. Agnew died in 1996.)

All this history brings us to 2008, and a first-term (Alaska) Republican governor and “hockey mom” unexpectedly named as the running mate of John McCain.

Attack dog? As she so famously (and unoriginally) put it, the difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull is lipstick.

So no surprise, it’s Gov. Sarah Palin hammering in speech after speech about the Willie Horton of 2008 – Barack Obama’s supposed “terrorist pal” William Ayers.

So far, she hasn’t renamed him Willie.

What does this teach us? The Republicans are digging deep into old playbooks, looking for tactics to distract voters from the very real and frightening issues of the day – including a divisive war and a collapsing economy.

No matter that William Ayers’ transgressions played out four decades ago, as a founder of the violent Weather Underground – likely the most dangerous of the many protest groups formed to oppose the Vietnam War – or that his relationship with Obama is relatively minimal. It includes their simultaneous service on the board of an anti-poverty organization in Chicago, where Ayers became a college professor and respected member of the community.

McCain, as noted in an earlier Real Muck blog posting, is still hung up about Vietnam and victory as America seems snared in another winless war.

Bill Ayers? He’s the fall guy.

Some will say that Ayers deserves it.

But Obama doesn’t.

Neither does America.

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