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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The “Willie Horton” Ad Of 2004?

Republican group's ad shows Osama, Kerry. It appeals to fear, and twists Kerry's record on defense, intelligence, Iraq.


An ad by the Republican group “Progress for America Voter Fund,” mostly funded by wealthy GOP donors, suggests Kerry can’t defend against terrorists “who want to kill us.” It shows images of Osama bin Laden and the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The ad claims Kerry has “a 30-year record of supporting cuts in defense and intelligence,” misleading charges that we’ve de-bunked before. It also accuses Kerry of “endlessly changing positions on Iraq,” a claim that is without factual basis.

Kerry responded with his own ad, quoting a New York Times editorial calling the Bush campaign’s recent statements about Kerry and terrorism “despicable.”


The ad appeared over the weekend of Sept. 25 in Iowa and Wisconsin, without any formal announcement by its sponsor, the Progress for America Voter Fund.

Progress for America Voter Fund Ad:
“Finish It”

Announcer: These people want to kill us.

(On screen: Images of Osama bin Laden, Mohammed Atta, other terrorists)

Announcer: They kill hundreds of innocent children in Russia and killed 200 innocent commuters in Spain, and 3,000 innocent Americans.

(On screen: Image of World Trade Center site after attack on Sept. 11, 2001)

Announcer: John Kerry has a 30-year record of supporting cuts in defense and intelligence and endlessly changing positions on Iraq. Would you trust Kerry against these fanatic killers?

(On Screen: Image of hooded terrorists)

President Bush didn’t start this war, but he will finish it.

Trust Kerry With Your Life?

The ad is more remarkable for its fearsome imagery, somber background music and the voice-of-doom manner of its announcer than for the words it presents. It suggests that voters can’t trust Kerry to defend against terrorism and take their lives in their hands if they vote for him.

It begins by showing 9/11 plot leader Mohammed Atta, Osama bin Laden and other terrorists while the announcer slowly intones: “These people want to kill us.”

It presents more images of the attack on Russian school children, the attack on a Spanish commuter train, and firemen in the smoking rubble of the World Trade Center after September 11, 2001.

Defense Spending

The announcer claims that Kerry “has a 30-year record of supporting cuts in defense and intelligence.” But as we said in our first article on this subject back in February, “Since 1996, the John Kerry who once opposed the Apache helicopter and wanted to cut Tomahawk cruise-missile funds by 50% has evolved into a steady supporter of military budgets.”

It’s true that Kerry voted against the entire Pentagon appropriations bills in 1990 and 1995, and also voted against the Pentagon authorization bill (which provides authority to spend but not the actual money) in 1996. But in his nearly 20 years in the  Senate Kerry has voted for Pentagon budgets far more often than he’s opposed them, and hasn’t voted against one for the past eight years.

(The ad’s reference to a “30-year record” includes Kerry’s unsuccessful 1972 campaign for the House, when he campaigned against US policy in the Vietnam war. Actually, he’s been a senator only since January, 1985.)

Intelligence Spending

As for cutting intelligence spending, it’s true that Kerry proposed cuts in 1994 and 1995. The 1994 cut was part of an aggressive deficit-reduction package, and would have cut intelligence spending by 3.7% for six years. It was defeated.

The 1995 cut was smaller and would have amounted to a reduction of roughly 1%. This time cuts had bipartisan support, after it was discovered that intelligence officials had secretly hoarded more than $1 billion in unspent funds. A Republican-sponsored cut of $1 billion eventually became law as part of a House-Senate package endorsed by the Republican leadership.

Endlessly Changing Positions?

The charge that Kerry is “endlessly changing positions on Iraq” is without factual support. In fact, Kerry has never wavered from his support for giving Bush authority to use force in Iraq, nor has he changed his position that Bush should not have gone to war without greater international support, and without making greater efforts at diplomacy backed by the threat of force.

Here’s what Kerry said on the Senate floor before voting to give Bush the authority:

Kerry (Oct. 9, 2002) Let there be no doubt or confusion about where we stand on this. I will support a multilateral effort to disarm him (Saddam) by force, if we ever exhaust those other options, as the President has promised, but I will not support a unilateral U.S. war against Iraq unless that threat is imminent and the multilateral effort has not proven possible under any circumstances.

That’s consistent with Kerry’s later criticism of Bush for failing — as Kerry sees it — to secure enough help and support from other countries. And that’s been Kerry’s position ever since.

Kerry did vote against $87 billion in emergency funds for Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003, and was criticized for inconsistency at the time even by Democratic rivals Lieberman and Gephardt. But Kerry has never advocated a quick withdrawal from Iraq as some of his other Democratic rivals did.

When the San Francisco Chronicle combed through 200 of Kerry’s speeches and statements on Iraq, it found instances of “clumsy phrases and tortuously long explanations” that made Kerry’s position difficult to follow. But it also found that “taken as a whole, Kerry has offered the same message ever since talk of attacking Iraq became a national conversation more than two years ago.”

Even the Bush campaign had to edit Kerry’s quotes egregiously out of context to make Kerry look inconsistent in an ad released Sept. 27, which we critiqued that day.

Willie Horton?

The Kerry campaign blames the Osama ad on the “Bush attack machine.”

“It’s the Willie Horton ad of 2004,” Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said Sept. 24, as quoted by The Washington Post. That was a reference to an independent Republican group’s ad in 1988 blaming Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate for President, for releasing a convicted murderer who later held a Maryland couple hostage for 12 hours, stabbing the man and raping the woman. Horton (whose real name is William) is black, and though the ad didn’t mention his race it did show a mug shot. The ad appealed to white fears of being attacked by black males, and many Democrats saw the ad as a contributing cause to Dukakis’s defeat at the hands of George Bush, the current President’s father.

The PFA Voter Fund began operations in the offices of Tony Feather, who was political director of the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign. According to The Washington Post , it has raised $14 million of which more than two-thirds has come from Alex Spanos and Dawn Arnall, who are major Bush and GOP fundraisers from California.

The Kerry campaign rushed out a response ad Sept 26 accusing Bush of “un-American” tactics.

Kerry-Edwards Ad:

Narrator: “Despicable politics.” “An Un-American way to campaign.”

The latest Bush/Cheney attacks against John Kerry.

(Graphic: Headline of New York Times editorial: “An Un-American Way to Campaign”)

Narrator: “George Bush and Dick Cheney are using the ‘appalling’ and ‘divisive’ strategy of playing politics with the war on terror.”

Narrator: A strategy that “undermines the efforts…to combat terrorists in America” and puts George Bush’s ‘own ambition ahead of the national good’.

It’s time to stop dividing America and stop playing politics with the war on terror.

The Kerry ad is made up mostly of phrases quoted and paraphrased from a Sept. 25 New York Times editorial accusing Cheney and other Republicans of “despicable politics” for suggesting that electing Kerry would increase the odds of another terrorist attack, and faulting Bush himself for failing to disassociate himself from that line.

The ad is a fair summary of the much longer Times editorial, which concluded:

New York Times: We think that anyone who attempts to portray sincere critics as dangerous to the safety of the nation is wrong. It reflects badly on the president’s character that in this instance, he’s putting his own ambition ahead of the national good.

The Bush campaign didn’t criticize the PFA Voter Fund ad. Spokesman Brian Jones, quoted by The Associated Press, said that the president has called for all such independent ads to cease, and then added:

Bush Campaign Spokesman Jones: Nevertheless, the Kerry campaign has continually played politics with the war on terror. . . Kerry’s chronic vacillation regarding the war on terror raises serious questions about his character and his ability to lead during these extraordinary times.



Watch Progress for America Voter Fund Ad: “Finish It”


Howard Kurtz, “Ad Invokes Terror Threat to Assail Kerry; Democrat Quick to Respond With Commercial Decrying Pro-Bush Group’s Tactics,” Washington Post, 26 Sep 2004: A9.

David N. Goodman, “Edwards says Bush campaign trying to divide nation on terrorism,” The Associated Press, 26 Sept. 2004.

“An Un-American Way to Campaign,” editorial, New York Times, 25 Sep 2004: A14.

Marc Sandalow, “Flip-flopping charge unsupported by facts; Kerry always pushed global cooperation, war as last resort,” The San Francisco Chronicle , 23 September 2004: A1.