Repeated Horton References, Prison Ad Cited : Bentsen, Jackson Accuse Bush of Using Racism

Times Staff Writer

Democratic leaders Sunday accused Vice President George Bush of using racism in his presidential campaign, with Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and the Rev. Jesse Jackson leveling new attacks against GOP tactics.

The new attacks came as Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis flew west for a campaign swing through California. Upon arrival in Burbank, Dukakis met at an airport rally with 2,000 to 3,000 cheering precinct captains who had been sworn in as Democratic campaign volunteers over the last weekend.

Earlier in the day during a television interview, Bentsen, who was asked whether he believes that Bush’s campaign advertisements contain “an element of Republican racism,” said:


“When you add it up, I think there is, and that’s unfortunate.”

Jackson, who has complained about racially motivated symbolism in the campaign in the past, spoke more strongly.

Bush, he said, has used “blatantly race-conscious signals that have the impact of instilling an environment of fear in whites and alienation from blacks.”

References to Horton

The Bush campaign’s frequent references to Willie Horton, a black prisoner who escaped from a Massachusetts prison while on furlough and then raped a white woman, for example, “is designed to create the most horrible psychosexual fears” on the part of whites, Jackson said.

“We deserve a better campaign for President than that,” he said.

On a day when the vice president stayed off the campaign trail, Bush spokesman Mark Goodin in Washington denied the racism charge with a heated retort directed at Jackson: “How can anyone who embraced (Black Muslim leader) Louis Farrakhan and made disparaging remarks about Jews now raise the issue of racism? Grow up.”

The allegations of racism appear to be part of a concerted, but long-shot, Democratic effort to make GOP campaign tactics a prime focus of the election.

“I think the American people are very dissatisfied with what they’ve been hearing,” Dukakis’ campaign Vice Chairman John Sasso told reporters on the campaign plane Sunday evening. The Republicans, he said, had engaged in “distortion and outright lies . . . . We’re not going to accept that.”

‘Left of Collard Greens’

Sasso cited as “beyond what’s an acceptable level in a political campaign” a comment that Bush’s Southern regional director, Chris Henick, made in September. The GOP, Henick said, intended to convince voters that Dukakis is “to the left of collard greens, black-eyed peas and strip-row cotton,” references that most Southerners would associate with blacks.

The Democratic hope, Dukakis aide James Steinberg said, is that Bush’s lead in the polls will crumble rapidly “if the American people can be convinced they’ve been had” by what the Democrats see as a Republican campaign that has relied on empty posturing to avoid discussion of real issues facing the country.

Focusing on the other side’s tactics has proven effective from time to time in races for offices other than President but is generally considered a difficult strategy to pull off, given the high level of public cynicism about politicians from both parties.

The other part of the Democratic strategy is the unprecedented grass-roots effort that Dukakis and his aides are mounting in major battleground states, including California. Firing up the troops for that effort has been a major part of Dukakis’ campaign itinerary in stops such as the Burbank rally Sunday night. “We’re behind but that’s all right. We are fighting back,” he told the cheering crowd. “You know and I know the Dodgers weren’t supposed to win either.”

And Dukakis repeated his attack on Republican campaign literature, which he has previously labeled “garbage.” Bush, he noted, over the weekend repudiated some of the literature distributed by the Republican Party in Illinois, but that, he said, was not good enough. “When you put garbage out in the street you’ve got a responsibility to clean it up,” he said.

Sunday’s allegations of racially motivated campaign tactics came as Bentsen was interviewed on ABC’s “This Week With David Brinkley.” Jackson spoke to reporters after joining congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Compton) and Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode in a meeting with Dukakis here.

Nominee Flies to Burbank

Dukakis stayed quiet most of the day, preparing for a weeklong campaign swing that will concentrate on the battleground states of California and the Midwest. Sunday evening, he spoke to supporters in Eau Claire, Wis., before flying to a scheduled meeting in Burbank with Southern California precinct captains.

By focusing attention on GOP tactics, the Democrats hope that they can counter the so-far successful Bush effort to convince voters that Dukakis is too liberal.

The new focus on GOP tactics seems to have persuaded the Democrats to abandon a previous squeamishness about attacking Bush on racial issues.

All fall the campaign has vacillated about how to respond to Bush campaign efforts that many see as aimed at the white “backlash” vote in the South and in Northern urban centers.

Just Thursday, for example, Dukakis campaign Chairman Paul P. Brountas, asked if he believed the Bush campaign to be using racist tactics, said: “I would not accuse the campaign of that.”

Vacillation Abandoned

But with polls showing Dukakis not yet solidifying the Democratic base among blacks while probably losing any chance to appeal to most Southern whites, that vacillation now has been abandoned.

The Democrats are emphasizing several elements of the GOP assault that they say are racially coded.

The first is the repeated references to Horton, which, the accusation goes, are designed to play on longstanding stereotypes and fears about black men and rape.

A second is the GOP television advertisement attacking Dukakis’ crime record. The advertisement shows prisoners, at least some of whom are noticeably black or Latino, passing through a revolving door.

A third item that has drawn Democratic fire is the GOP’s repeated attempts to suggest that Jackson is part of a three-part Democratic ticket with Dukakis and Bentsen.

Republicans have defended their tactics, saying that Jackson is a target because of his views, not his race, and that the crime advertisements are accurate reflections of Dukakis’ record.

Hope for ‘Second Look’

As Dukakis enters the last two weeks of the presidential campaign, he and his strategists continue to believe that they can win over the voters they need if they can get people to pay attention to them, to “take a second look,” in the words of the campaign’s deputy issues director, Thomas Herman.

In the absence of any more campaign debates or similar forums that automatically grab a large audience, they are concentrating their efforts on trying to create events that might bring them that sort of attention.

Today, for example, Dukakis will hold a televised “town meeting” in San Francisco that will feature him taking questions for 90 minutes without a preset script. And Tuesday, he will fly to Denver for a 90-minute live interview on ABC’s “Nightline” program with Ted Koppel.

The Democrats also have purchased time for several five-minute broadcasts by Dukakis, the first of which aired Saturday evening on ABC. A second will air Tuesday night on NBC and more are planned, Sasso said.

Staff writer John Balzar in Washington contributed to this story.