Americans now remember that George W. Bush's father was elected president in
1988 in one of the most racist campaigns ever staged in the United States.
Now W. seems poised to follow in those tainted footsteps.
But the "issue" this time won't be race, it'll be gay marriage.
Early in the 1988 campaign, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush trailed then-Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis by as much as 15 points in the mainstream polls. Bush was sunk in a scandal-ridden Reagan Administration whose trademark was Iran Contra, the bizarre scam in which the Reaganites had illegally sold arms to Iranian fanatics and slipped the profits to right-wing contra rebels trying to overthrow the duly elected Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Reagan also sold chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction to Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. Reagan's envoy to Saddam was now-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Reagan was always more popular with the media than with the general public. Constantly proclaiming support for a balanced budget amendment, Reagan left the largest deficits in US history (until the coming of George W. Bush).
Bush One's run against Dukakis was hampered by his aloof, upper-crust lack of charisma. Runningmate Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana was noted mainly for his deer-in-headlights demeanor. In a crucial televised debate, Quayle was utterly demolished by Dukakis's running mate, Texas Senator Lloyd Bentson.
But the Bush-Quayle team had a trump card -- racism. Lee Atwater, the Karl Rove of the day, was a hard-driving, below-the-belt dirty trickster. Atwater seized on Willie Horton, a black prisoner who'd been paroled from the Massachusetts penal system and then committed another crime.
Atwater filled the air waves with brutally racist black-and-white ads meant to make Horton and Dukakis seem blood-related. The poisonous stench helped send the Democrats into a tail spin. Atwater later developed a brain tumor, and repented what he had done.
Karl Rove may soon step into Atwater's shoes. Recent decisions by the Supreme Courts of the US and Massachusetts against anti-sodomy laws have thrown the Christian Coalition and its national network of right-wing churches into a self-righteous tizzy.
For Rove, gay marriage is the new Willie Horton, a wedge issue perfectly suited to fire up the corporate-funded right-wing church network while diverting public attention from an ailing economy and a failing war effort.
Ironically, Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter is a lesbian whose personal right he has defended. As documented in David Brock's Blinded by the Right, the GOP has been continually lit up by closeted gays sickened by its vicious homophobia.
Rove, in turn, has not hesitated to attack Brock and anyone else opposing the Republican juggernaut. Bush has already let it be known he's inclined to support a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and the Foxist media is starting to treat it as a major issue.
As governor of Vermont, Howard Dean approved gay civil unions, somewhat different from gay marriage. But the Bush/Rove GOP is unlikely to make such fine distinctions, any more than Bush One belabored the legal intricacies of the Willie Horton parole. Nor will they refrain from smearing other Democrats, whatever their actual stance, with the nastiest possible slant on gay rights.
What Papa Bush and Lee Atwater did to promote racism in American presidential campaigns, George W. and Karl Rove are poised to do for homophobia.
Harvey Wasserman is senior editor of The Free Press (www.freepress.org) and author of The Last Energy War (Seven Stories Press). His newest book is George W. Bush Vs. the Superpower of Peace, co-authored with Bob Fitrakis (Free Press, 2003).
Other Recent Articles by Harvey Wasserman