Echoes of Horton in Bush’s Ad Blitz

According to Scripture, it would be unseemly to visit the past alleged sins of George Bush the father upon George W. Bush the son. Boy George must answer for all too many of his own political peccadilloes, especially in the final week before the Super Tuesday primaries.

But that “independent” blitz of anti-John-McCain ads, financed by fat-cat Texan friends of the Bush family under the nom de guerre of Republicans for Clean Air, is disturbingly reminiscent of a similar maneuver in 1988. That was when supporters of Daddy Bush, supposedly independent of the official Bush-Quayle organization, produced and aired the infamous, racially polarizing “Willie Horton” commercial.

Like the recent ad that aired in New York, Ohio and California attacking Senator McCain’s record on the environment, the Horton ad was suspected of being an illegal expenditure on behalf of the Bush campaign. Under Federal election law, such an advertising campaign is illegal if the ad’s beneficiary or his representatives in any way encouraged or coordinated with the ad’s authors.

That prohibition may sound like a bureaucratic technicality, but it is central to any effort to limit campaign contributions by the likes of Sam and Charles Wyly, the billionaire brothers behind Republicans for Clean Air. (The fact that the Wylys have benefited from $96 million invested by appointees of Governor Bush at the University of Texas Investment Management Company is a separate but very intriguing issue, examined in more detail in my article in the February 2000 issue of Harper’s Magazine .) The law prohibits the Wylys or any other citizen from donating more than $1,000 each to the Bush treasury during the primaries. But if they can simply set up an “independent committee” to work with the Bush campaign, and then provide $2.5 million to pay for anti-McCain and pro-Bush media, as they just did, then the limit on individual donations would be meaningless.

So the Government, in its wisdom, has tried to narrow this yawning loophole by forbidding outright collusion between independent committees and official campaign organizations. The Wylys have every right under the First Amendment to air their independent ads in support of Mr. Bush, but only on the condition that neither they nor their agents discuss the subject with the candidate or his agents.

Any reasonably bright child could figure out how to game this system. Maybe that’s why Sam Wyly told reporters that his son, a college student, had come up with the idea for the “McCain-is-against-clean-air” commercials. And of course, both Mr. Wyly and Mr. Bush swore that there had been absolutely no communication between them or their people about those ads.

That’s what then-Vice President Bush and his minions said when they were asked about the Willie Horton commercial in 1988, which was attributed to an outfit called Americans for Bush. The official Bush-Quayle spokesmen not only scoffed at the idea that their campaign had been involved, they vociferously denounced the ad and demanded that it run no more. Roger Ailes, the adman who was running the Republican Presidential campaign that year, even threatened to sue anyone who wrote that he had been responsible for the shameful Horton ad.

Many months later, after Mr. Bush had won the election in a landslide, certain facts emerged which implied that there might have been illicit coordination between Americans for Bush and the official Bush-Quayle campaign. A former employee of Ailes Communications had written the ad, and a current Ailes contractor had produced it. A Bush-Quayle 1988 researcher had left the campaign and gone over to the “independent committee” around the time that the Horton ad had aired.

Outraged Democrats filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, which commenced an investigation. But it was quietly buried in 1992, just in time for the next Presidential race, when a Republican F.E.C. commissioner changed his vote to kill the probe. Meanwhile, that mysterious Bush-Quayle researcher had been given a well-paid patronage job in a Cabinet department-which meant she was much too busy to return reporters’ phone calls.

Does all this mean that the Wylys were engaged in unlawful collusion with their good old friend Mr. Bush, as Mr. McCain has charged? Not necessarily; no one has proved, so far, that this latest episode is anything but a series of convenient coincidences.

As of today, it is merely a suggestive set of circumstances about which we may someday learn more. But to Mr. McCain, the $2.5 million intervention of the Wyly brothers represented a blatant attempt to “steal” the Republican primaries in three major states, in a manner that his campaign finance reform legislation was meant to remedy. It is also an object lesson in what the wealthiest backers of Mr. Bush will do to win-and why neither he nor they want this loophole closed.