During the 1988 presidential election, a group backing George H.W. Bush launched an attack ad holding you responsible for the crimes of a Massachusetts inmate named Willie Horton who committed rape and assault after fleeing from a weekend prison furlough. When that ad hit, what were the conversations like between you and your staff?
We didn’t have them. I made a decision we weren’t going to respond. That was it. About two months later I woke up and realized I was getting killed with this stuff.
Why didn’t you respond right away?
Frankly it was my own damn fault. I’m not sure I can explain it to you at this point. Maybe I thought, Hey, this is the presidency, maybe we can avoid this kind of stuff. I thought the country was tired of the kind of polarization we’d had under Reagan. So I made the decision that I was not going to respond to the attacks, which turned out to be the biggest mistake of my political career. Earlier in the campaign, Mario Cuomo said to me, “Don’t pay attention to that stuff. Nobody’s going to believe it. Keep it positive.” We were campaigning together in Queens four days before the election, and he said, “That’s the worst advice I ever gave you.”
What advice do you wish you’d gotten?
You’ve got to be ready for the attacks, and you’ve got to have a carefully thought-up strategy to deal with them. In ’92, Clinton had a group of ten people that called themselves “the Defense Department.” All they did was deal with the Bush attack campaign, which if anything was tougher on Clinton than it was on me. But you didn’t have the impression that it was because the Clinton campaign was all over the attacks within seconds after they appeared.
What should you have done about the Horton ad after it aired?
Point of fact is that the most liberal furlough program in America in 1988 was the Reagan-Bush furlough program in the federal prison system. I don’t think Bush even knew it. And one of their furloughees went out and murdered a young pregnant mother in the Southwest. I don’t have to explain to you what we could have done with that kind of situation. Subsequently we tried to do some stuff, but the damage had been done.
So it sounds like you were against negative ads in 1988, but now you’re very much in favor of them?
During the primary, I did my best to keep it very positive, but Dick Gephardt started running negative stuff on me. I like him a lot and have a lot of respect for him—but there it was. Dick had a reputation for being a bit of a flip-flopper on some of the key issues, so we found a gymnast who looked kind of like Dick and put him on a trampoline and had him doing flips back and forth in a suit. Not surprisingly, the networks liked it so much they began running it as part of their regular news coverage. We got $50 million worth of free publicity. It hurt Dick.
If you were working for President Obama, how would you go after Mitt Romney?
In Massachusetts, we saw him in action. Under Romney, we were 47th out of 50 on job creation. And when he left the state, our infrastructure was an absolute wreck. Rusting bridges, potholed roads. I mean, whatever he was doing at Bain, we certainly didn’t see great performance out of him in the governor’s office. Anything but. It was just pathetic.
So what would you say to people like Cory Booker who have denounced the president’s attack ads?
I admire Booker, but I just think he’s wrong. We know this is going to be a brutal campaign. Romney’s primary was nothing but attack ads with his so-called super-pac financing it.
Look, when Clinton ran for reelection, he was hammering Bob Dole early. You may or may not like that, but that’s what he did. And with all due respect to the folks of the Beltway, you’ve got to anticipate these attacks—and that includes the president of the United States. Obama’s got to make sure he doesn’t let happen to him what happened to me.