With Huckabee, Times Now Feels Free to Make 'Willie Horton' an Issue

The Times never forgave the GOP for using murderer Willie Horton against Mass. Gov. Michael Dukakis. But with Republican Mike Huckabee facing a similar problem over a clemency that ended in tragedy, there's no longer a stigma about invoking Horton's name.

It's evidently no longer racist to bring up Willie Horton, judging by Tuesday's A1 story on the outcry over former Arkansas Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee granting clemency nine years ago to Maurice Clemmons, a man who gunned down four police officers in a coffee shop in Washington State on Sunday.

In "Old Clemency May Be Issue for Huckabee," reporter Kate Zernike didn't even bother explaining who Willie Horton was.

During the 1988 presidential primaries, candidate Al Gore brought up Massachusetts' wacky furlough program up in a debate with Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis during the Democratic primaries. After Dukakis won the primary, the Bush campaign focused on the case of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped and killed while out on a weekend furlough to portray Dukakis as soft on crime.

When Mike Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist minister then serving as governor of Arkansas, granted clemency to Maurice Clemmons nine years ago, he cited his age: Mr. Clemmons was 16 when he began the crime spree for which he was sentenced to more than 100 years in prison.

Now, Mr. Clemmons is being sought as the suspect in the killing of four uniformed police officers, execution-style, on Sunday as they sat in a coffee shop near Tacoma, Wash., writing reports.

Mr. Huckabee, now a Fox News talk-show host, has been leading the pack of possible Republican contenders for president in 2012. But the killings of the police officers is focusing renewed attention on his long-contentious record of pardoning convicts or commuting their sentences.

Zernike's description is overstated. Has Huckabee really been "leading the pack"? Not according to polls taken before the killings.

Zernike simply invoked Horton without explaining his significance:

With Mr. Clemmons, political consultants say Mr. Huckabee may have hit his Willie Horton moment.

"As a front-runner, obviously with circumstances like this, it's out there as a big issue," said Ed Rollins, the manager of Mr. Huckabee's 2008 presidential campaign.

Mr. Huckabee survived a similar moment before, during the Iowa caucuses, when former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts criticized his judgment in the case of Wayne DuMond, a convicted rapist who raped and killed a woman 11 months after being paroled in Arkansas.

Mr. Huckabee said that he had opposed clemency, and that it had been his predecessor, Jim Guy Tucker, who had made Mr. DuMond eligible for parole by reducing his sentence. "If anyone needs to get a Willie Horton out of it, it's Jim Guy Tucker and the Democrat Party and it ain't me," he said to reporters at the time.

Zernike's casual treatment of "Willie Horton" contrasts with a July 18, 2006 story by Adam Nagourney which implied that Republican use of Horton as a campaign tactic was racist, even though the official Bush ad didn't even show a picture of Horton (an ad by an independent group did). Nagourney wrote:

But as Mr. Bush is tentatively scheduled to speak at the N.A.A.C.P. convention in Washington this week - after five years of declining to appear before an organization with which he has had tense relations - it seems fair to say that whatever the motivation, the effort has faltered.

Mr. Mehlman's much-publicized apology to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People seems to have done little to address the resentment that built up over what civil rights leaders view as decades of racial politics practiced or countenanced by Republicans. One example they point to is the first President Bush's use of the escape of Willie Horton, a black convicted murderer, to portray his Democratic opponent in the 1988 election, Michael S. Dukakis, as soft on crime.

That perception of Republicans as insensitive to racial issues was fed again by the opposition mounted by some House conservatives to an extension of the Voting Rights Act
. The House approved the extension last week.