Now recall what the Republicans did with Horton's story: An "independent expenditure" group aired an ad for Bush showing a picture of Horton. A Republican fund-raising letter in Maryland showed pictures of Dukakis and Horton alongside the following text: "Is this your pro-family team for 1988?" Horton told Playboy magazine in 1989 that a woman who identified herself as working for "an organization affiliated with the Bush campaign" phoned him and wrote letters to him up in prison trying to get him to endorse Dukakis. The official Bush campaign, of course, kept its distance from such efforts, and claimed to use Horton only in race-neutral ways. But there is plenty of evidence that it was heartily appreciative of the racial subtext. In his book about the 1988 campaign, Pledging Allegiance, Blumenthal quotes an anonymous member of the Bush campaign team as saying, "Willie Horton has star quality. Willie's going to be politically furloughed to terrorize again. It's a wonderful mix of liberalism and a big black rapist." Although Bush's campaign manager, Lee Atwater, always insisted publicly that for the Bush campaign Horton was never a racial symbol, Atwater slipped in a speech he gave to southern Republicans right before that year's Democratic convention:
There is a story about a fellow named Willie Horton who for all I know may end up to be Dukakis' running mate. Dukakis is making Hamlet look like the rock of Gibraltar in the way he's acted on this. [This was a reference to Dukakis' search for a vice-presidential candidate.] The guy was on TV about a month ago and he said you'll never see me standing in the driveway of my house talking to these candidates. And guess what, on Monday, I saw in the driveway of his house? Jesse Jackson. So anyway, maybe he'll put this Willie Horton guy on the ticket after all is said and done.
As was noted at the time by Thomas Edsall of the Washington Post and others, Atwater was pretty clearly equating Jesse Jackson with Willie Horton because both happened to be black. Gore never did that. He never did anything close to that.