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Republican hatchet men set their sights on Gore

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 3, 2000


WASHINGTON -- Willie Horton is back in the news.

You may remember that Willie Horton was the convicted murderer who committed rape and robbery in Maryland while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison. In 1988, Republicans used the story of Horton's misdeeds to demonstrate that the Democratic presidential nominee, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, was soft on crime.

The story of Willie Horton has been revived in a new 176-page paperback book, Prince Albert: The Life and Lies of Al Gore, by David N. Bossie and Floyd G. Brown. Bossie and Brown are the GOP "bad boys" who produced a highly controversial television ad about Willie Horton and the Massachusetts prison furlough program.

"Dukakis' prison furlough policy did more than anything else to win the 1988 election for George Bush," Bossie and Brown boast in their book.

But their purpose in bringing up the subject of Willie Horton again is not necessarily for them to relive one of their glory moments. Instead, Bossie and Brown are writing about it because they insist it was Gore, in their words, "who handed the issue to the Republicans."

While running against Dukakis for the Democratic nomination in 1988, Gore was the first person to use the Willie Horton story in political debate. As Bossie and Brown tell it:

"Gore brought up these prison furlough bombshells during the last New York Democratic primary debate. Gore mentioned the Willie Horton incident without actually naming the convicted murderer who committed a rape-robbery in Maryland while on furlough. Gore then asked Gov. Dukakis: "If you were elected president, would you allow a similar program for federal penitentiaries?'

"Dukakis replied with dogmatic arrogance, making Gore seem humble, "Al, the difference between you and me is that I have to run a criminal justice system. You never have.' Gore insisted Dukakis stop ducking the issue and answer. Dukakis changed the subject and the debate turned to other topics."

What's funny about this passage is that Bossie and Brown are criticizing Gore for doing something that they themselves were criticized for at the time. They seem to be saying, "If you think we were guilty of taking a cheap shot at Dukakis, you should blame Gore -- not us."

During the past eight years, Bossie and Brown have spent most of their time investigating the life of President Clinton. They were deeply involved in encouraging the news media to look into the Whitewater scandal.

Brown also wrote a book attacking Clinton, Slick Willie: Why America Cannot Trust Bill Clinton. And Bossie served for a time as the chief investigator for the House Government Reform Committee headed by Rep. Dan Burton, D-Ind., as it investigated the illegal contributions made to the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign by Asian donors.

Although the Willie Horton passage in their new book is mildly amusing, the real significance of Prince Albert has little to do with that old story. More important, their book marks a dramatic change in focus for these two ambitious young men. Instead of investigating Clinton, they are now investigating Gore.

When I heard that Bossie and Brown were focusing their attention on Gore, I began to wonder: Does this mean Republicans are letting go of their obsession with Clinton?

Certainly, Bossie and Brown were not entirely responsible for generating the hatred that many Republicans feel toward our current president. But they have been among the biggest cheerleaders for those sentiments.

It's hard to believe that Republicans who have thrived for eight years upon their resentment of Clinton could possibly be moving on, but the publication of this book suggests that is true.

If you decide to read the book, don't expect balance or fairness. These guys clearly do not like Al Gore. To prove my point, I will quote from the final paragraph of the book:

"Al Gore as president will be more arrogant and zealous than he is as vice president. He will also work much harder to remake the country to his technocratic specifications than lazy, frivolous Bill Clinton. . . . President Al Gore will exercise little humility, and will blame the country, not himself, when things go wrong. We hope the voters refuse to allow him the chance to make us all victims of his arrogance."

What Bossie and Brown do in this book and in their earlier endeavors is highly controversial, but it is not illegal or even unethical. American history is filled with men like these who wield the hatchet against the opponents of a political party while maintaining some respectable distance between themselves and party leaders.

But we have seen in the recent past how government can be brought to a standstill when these kinds of attacks are pursued long after the target of them has been elected and sworn in as president. In many ways, Bossie and Brown served as the early catalyst for the scandal that eventually developed into the Clinton impeachment trial.

There is little doubt that Bossie and Brown are hoping to play a similar role in the life of Al Gore, should he be elected president next November.

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