The ghost of Willie Horton has haunted every major political campaign since 1988. No candidate wants to be accused of running in slime, as George Bush was with his odorous Horton TV ad.
But most candidates also have a bigger fear--that of losing the election, as Michael S. Dukakis did to Bush. So the determined and the desperate will play their cards--using lies, bigotry, fear, demagoguery--and worry about the consequences after the people vote.
Political commercials basically come in three types: Positive, negative and ugly.
One example of a positive ad was Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, in a checkered flannel shirt, happily "working for California." A negative ad was Treasurer Kathleen Brown's stark footage of forlorn men as she blamed Gov. Pete Wilson for the loss of 550,000 jobs.
The Horton ad set the modern standard for ugliness. It showed rotating mug shots of Massachusetts Gov. Dukakis and the bushy-bearded Horton, a furloughed African American murderer who raped a pregnant white woman and tortured her husband. The ad clearly appealed to racial prejudice.
Now, there are two ugly political ads running on TV screens in California. One is by Republican Wilson. The other is by Democrat Phil Angelides, an underdog candidate for state treasurer. The ads are distinctively different, but both odorous.
Until Friday the 13th of last week, Wilson was not bashing immigrants. He was bashing a system that allowed and encouraged 100,000 foreigners to illegally enter California each year, increasing pressure on public education, health care and prisons.
At least that's the way I saw it and said so in a column.
Then last Friday, the governor began airing a new commercial that tends to arouse the dark side of human nature and further polarize an inflammatory issue. And in this ad, he is bashing illegal immigrants.
Whereas his previous public statements attacking illegal immigration invariably included praise for the courage and tenacity of people seeking a better life, Wilson's commercial contains none of this.
"They keep coming," a narrator intones. "The federal government won't stop them at the border. . . . Gov. Pete Wilson sent the National Guard to help. . . ." The governor then says, in part, "I'm working to deny state services. . . . Enough is enough."
It's not the text that is especially nasty, but the pictures and the tone. Played in dramatic black and white and accompanied by a rhythmic bass beat suitable for a horror film, the ad shows Latinos racing across the border at San Ysidro, dodging cars. Some might see it as an invasion of brown hordes.
Campaign consultants use black and white film to evoke emotion and often to subliminally connote good and evil. The Wilson camp says its border footage originally was in color, then was changed into black and white. That's because the color was of poor quality, it says.
I figure there are two main reasons for the ugly ad at this time. One is to depress Kathleen Brown's vote in the Democratic primary and reduce her anticipated momentum going into the general election. A new version of the ad concludes by attacking Brown on immigration.
The other reason is to draw right-wing Republicans away from maverick Ron Unz and keep the governor's little-known primary opponent from embarrassing him with, say, 20% of the vote. A new Field Poll puts Unz at 30%.
The Angelides ad is one of the sleaziest in years. He attempts to link in voters' minds his opponent--Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys)--with the 1993 murder of a doctor at a Florida abortion clinic.
Angelides, a developer and former state Democratic chairman, does this by running film of violence outside a clinic while a female narrator says: "A doctor murdered. But L.A. Sen. David Roberti refuses to vote to protect clinics." The flimsy link is that Roberti abstained on a meaningless legislative resolution calling upon Congress to pass a bill protecting abortion clinics. Roberti says he never saw the bill.
The ad continues by stating that Roberti "writes a constitutional ban on abortion." This is a distortion; 17 years ago, he was co-author of another meaningless resolution urging federal adoption of an anti-abortion amendment.
Roberti is a Catholic who opposes abortion on religious grounds, but has never made that part off his legislative agenda. Nevertheless, he's potentially vulnerable on the issue in a Democratic primary.
Abortion has little to do with being state treasurer, but that's a whole other issue.
Candidates won't stop running the ugly ads until they no longer influence voters. And in recent years they have.