The spectacular failure of incumbent Alaska Sen. Mark Begich to use a "Willie Horton-style ad" (it's being called that) would almost be amusing for this veteran of the real Willie Horton ad were it not so pitiful on so many levels.
For those who don't remember, Horton was the Massachusetts murderer who raped a woman while out on a furlough program when then-Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis was governor. There were actually two ads: the one done by the late Sen. Jesse Helms' political committee, which garishly featured just about the scariest picture you could find of a black man (Horton), and the far more tasteful (and much whiter) shots of prisoners going through a revolving door, done by the official George H.W. Bush campaign.
The ads — along with a host of other factors, including the fact that Dukakis defended the furlough program, refused to meet with the victim's family, refused to go negative himself and opposed the death penalty — worked, and a generation of politicians tripped over themselves to be seen as tougher on crime than the next guy, leading to a host of ill-conceived mandatory-sentence laws that keep nonviolent criminals behind bars and let violent ones out too early.
In the case of Begich's "Willie Horton," it was a clerical error that allowed a criminal to be released after serving only four years for sexual assault. He is now being prosecuted for murdering an elderly couple and abusing their grandchild. Even though the clerical error took place when Begich's opponent, Dan Sullivan, was still in the Marines, and the actual release took place after Sullivan left the attorney general's office, Begich decided to run a Willie Horton ad (of the Helms variety) to take down his Republican opponent.
The Begich ad was full of mistakes. The other guy wasn't responsible. And it was, frankly, too much. The ad showed the apartment building where the crime took place — it literally had the address on screen. It specifically mentioned the sexual abuse of the granddaughter. I cringed the first time I saw it. Had the family, the victims' family, approved of this?
Back in the real Willie Horton days, when the Dukakis campaign belatedly responded with an ad blaming Republicans for a horrible murder by a federal parolee, I had the unenviable job of calling the victim's family to make sure they were comfortable with our efforts to call attention to the death of their daughter. Not a fun call. Of course, they knew we were trying to use it for political goals, but at least we had the decency to call. Who wouldn't? It simply never would have occurred to any of us that we didn't owe the family a call.
Clearly, no one called the family in Alaska. The case is awaiting trial. Among other things, the family's lawyer said they were concerned that the jury pool could be tainted. When that didn't move the Begich campaign, he sent a cease-and-desist letter.
"The family directly and without question has told your campaign they want no part of this. You are tearing this family apart to the point that your ad was so shocking to them they now want to permanently leave the state as quickly as possible. Again, to be perfectly clear, it was your ad that shocked them."
The ad is off. Begich, who had been leading consistently in the polls, is now trailing. Democrats point out that unlike Willie Horton, the Begich ad didn't touch race, but that doesn't address the propriety of taking a cheap shot at the expense of real victims. They also point out that Sullivan had his own ad, which mentioned the name of the defendant. I'm not sure why mentioning the name of the defendant in an ad that is answering an attack ad is so bad, unless the Begich folks were worried about the jury pool, which they very clearly were not.
This is what is so damning. Begich and his team weren't concerned about justice here, however it's defined. This was a cheap political trick — blaming your opponent for something he had nothing to do with — that happened to involve murder and sexual abuse. That there are real victims, people who would be "shocked" to turn on their television and see the murder scene, clearly did not bother the campaign enough to pick up the phone and reach out to them.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.