Fred Karger’s Claim to Infamy: His Generally Forgotten Role in the Willie Horton Ads

1. Loving Fred Karger

The OC Weekly, by which in this instance I mean R. Scott Moxley (and, when forced to have Moxley’s back, a seemingly vague and diffident but still blustery and snotty Gustavo Arellano), has developed a deep and profound political crush on Laguna Beach’s Fred Karger.

For the most part, there’s nothing wrong with that: Karger has been doing some excellent work in opposition to the National Organization for Marriage (a creature of former Chapman University Law School Dean and U.S. Senate Candidate John Eastman) and it makes sense to celebrate it. What doesn’t make sense is to sweep his history under the rug in doing so.

Karger is not the only formerly closeted gay man who has emerged into the light doing some admirable work after a career as a character assassin.  Back in the mid-90s, David Brock was one of the main instigators of the strained, absurd, yet still impressively destructive impeachment effort against Bill Clinton as well as a top character assassin employed to go after Anita Hill.  Since then, Brock has apologized and repudiated his efforts and went on to found the watchdog group Media Matters for America.  I don’t think that it’s necessary to recount Brock’s past sins every time he’s mentioned; if expiation for them is possible, he’s earned it.

Now, compare Brock with Fred Karger.

Karger, like Brock, did some really bad things back in the day.  Unlike Brock, though, he’s not ashamed of them one bit.  Whether setting up front groups to help the Philip Morris Corporation fend off smoking regulations in California or … the thing he did in 1988, discussed below … he thinks that it was all fine.  He may be miffed that he couldn’t be openly gay until both he retired from his lucrative practice and his parents died, but he was able to be gay in private (where it mattered more) even before then.  He is unlike Brooks in that, while he too was a cog in, among other things, a repressive, gay-baiting, AIDS-denying conservative political machine, he doesn’t appear to regret it at all.

That’s his choice — but it means that he doesn’t get a pass regarding his previous activities.  Specifically, he doesn’t get to erase them from history.  His Wikipedia page does not (for now) mention “the thing he did in 1988.”  If you search {“Fred Karger” and “ad”} — it involved television ads — you won’t find it easily either; that’s mostly about the ads he used in his failed (using Moxley’s standards; personally, I don’t consider it to have been a failure) Presidential campaign.  No, if you want to find out what Fred Karger did in 1988 you have to know another key search term.

That search term is “Willie Horton.”  This is an image that anyone who was aware of the 1988 Presidential campaign at the time would probably remember.

Fred Karger's "revolving door" ad against Michael Dukakis

The ad campaign developed by Fred Karger, which included an independent expenditure to whip up a frenzy using the imagine of Black criminal Willie Horton and then deftly pivoted to a broader attack on softness on crime, was voted one of the “”10 most racist moments in TV history” — yet Karger’s role in it now it seems largely forgotten.

The Willie Horton ads are often associated with Floyd Brown, who produced the first of the pair, but it was Fred Karger, within the George H. W. Bush campaign, who developed the idea for the ad campaign and who procured them.  And somehow, people don’t know that.  It has been mostly erased from history.  It was certainly erased (while being glossed over) from the OC Weekly’s simpering encomium for Karger when it named him OC’s “Best Politician” in 2011.  Here’s the whole thing — I’ve put what was apparently intended as the bad stuff in blue and the good stuff in red to help you form your own impression of it:

Calling someone the best politician can be the same as equating that person with a slimy reptile. Indeed, look around OC, and you’ll find plenty of snakes in elected office. But this year, we’re happy to give the nod to Fred Karger. Okay, sure, he was once lower than a snake when he worked as a cutthroat, secretly gay Republican political operative for the likes of Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. But nowadays, Karger, who has never held elective office, has found not just the courage to come out of the closet, but the personable Laguna Beach resident is also an unapologetic fiscal conservative who is vocally pressing his political party to stop employing shameless anti-gay tactics. He’s also pro-choice and, unlike George W. Bush, anti-stupid wars. Oh, and Karger’s running to win the Republican nomination to take on President Barack Obama in November 2012. Does he have a chance? No, but sometimes there have to be folks willing to sacrifice themselves to make a good point, and Fred’s that kind of noble man.

This is a whitewash of “noble” Fred Karger’s history.  Yes, I know — you’ll have to be convinced.  We’re getting to that.

In a generally good article a couple of weeks ago on the battles between Karger and Eastman, Scott Moxley described Karger this way: “a persistently optimistic gay man who enjoyed a distinguished career as a senior adviser to several winning presidential campaigns.”  It was at that point that I decided that we needed a contest to see who actually did know even the basics about Karger’s odious and racist actions.

2. Who Knew Fred Karger’s Secret Past?

This past Monday, I announced an Orange Juice Blog contest.  (The prize will, I think, be free ad space, but I forgot to clear that with Vern when I saw him later that day.)  The question was: “FOR WHAT INFAMOUS TELEVISION AD WAS FRED KARGER MOST WELL-KNOWN PRIOR TO HIS RETIREMENT FROM POLITICAL ADVISING?”  I received three entries, all of them correct, and prizes will be awarded in due course.  The two winners that I know are (like me, like Vern — and, for that matter, like Moxley) on the “middle-aged or older” side.

Well, you might ask (especially if you’re younger than this cohort): So What?  Good question; glad you asked.

3. So What Was So Bad about the Willie Horton Ad?

Well, for one thing, it’s “ads.”  There were two of them: the first (which showed Horton) was an “independent expenditure” against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, blaming him for violence committed by African-American convict William Horton (he didn’t go by “Willie”) while out on a work parole.  The second one featured an arresting image of a long line of apparent convicts walking towards a prison gate, going through a revolving turnstile, and coming right back out again.  This ad — by the Bush campaign itself — started almost as soon as the previous ad had ended.  They were not supposed to be coordinated, of course, but Karger seems to be credited with the entire campaign.  Illegal, but — well, people tend to get away with it.  (Republicans do, anyway.)

Here’s the first ad with the scary picture of “Willie” Horton:

And here’s the “revolving door” ad by the campaign itself:

And here’s a clip that discusses them both:

4. Un-Whitewashing Fred Karger’s Past

I’m just going to present a series of articles here to provide citation for some of the above.  I don’t have much more to say except that — as admirable as Karger’s fights against NOM are — they don’t justify whitewashing.  (Note that I’m not even getting into the Philip Morris material in any depth.)

[1] from the LA Times

In California, Karger parlayed a series of volunteer campaign jobs into a position with the Dolphin Group, a top political strategy firm. His clients included former Gov. George Deukmejian and campaigns for President Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush. When Bush ran for president, Karger helped demolish Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis by famously publicizing the case of Willie Horton, a murderer who raped a woman while on weekend furlough.

Karger makes no apologies for the effort, which some called racist (Horton was black, his victim white), or the subterfuge he sometimes employed on behalf of the tobacco industry (forming phony advocacy groups).

“I’m very proud of my work with them,” he says, spearing a jumbo prawn in the red leather booth at Musso & Frank. “They’re wonderful people and they always hired the best and brightest.”

The whole time Karger was living a double life: “Dating” women, living with “roommates” — one for 11 years — who would disappear with all traces whenever family came to town. He laughed at gay jokes and “actually, in a sick way, kind of enjoyed them,” he says with a wan smile, “because it told me I was safe with my secret.”

Karger finally came out to his parents in 1991, after nursing a friend who died of AIDS. They accepted him, Karger says, but never seemed entirely comfortable. So he kept closeted, which was also better for business. Although he told his business partners — “it wasn’t a surprise, and didn’t change who or what he was,” says one, Lee Stitzenberger — maintaining his secret kept Karger’s sexuality from becoming a campaign issue.

When his parents died and he retired, Karger finally came out publicly. It was 2006 and he was 56 years old.

[2] From the New York Times

[Karger is] an openly gay Republican who’s never held elective office, using money he amassed as a conservative consultant who helped torpedo Michael Dukakis with the Willie Horton ads in 1988 and worked for the tobacco industry to stave off smoking bans in California in the ’90s.

[3] From

[Karger] developed the “Willie Horton” ad campaign that many believe defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988.

[4] From

Fred Karger, the man who gave America the infamously racist anti-Dukakis “Willie Horton” attack ads during the 1988 presidential campaign, is back in politics. With a vengeance.

[5] (a letter to the editor, LA Times)

A cautionary tale

Re “No illusions, just a message for gays,” Column One, Aug. 10

GOP presidential hopeful Fred Karger has no message for gays. But his life does serve as a cautionary tale.

As a therapist who often works with men and women coming out of the closet, one of the first lessons in building self-respect is the importance of having people around you who value you as you are. Karger, a longtime Republican operative, surrounded himself with people who actively worked against people like him.

A second lesson might be to do things you can be proud of. Karger’s biggest achievements seem to be his ability to lie about himself to everyone around him, his divisive political campaign featuring Willie Horton and his ability to convince people to hurt themselves by smoking cigarettes.

Finally, a lesson for Karger: Whether you are gay or straight is not that important to most people. Whether you are honest, fair and caring is.

Greg Gearn

Maybe Scott Moxley didn’t know any of the above history — though I doubt it.  Maybe Gustavo Arellano didn’t know about it either — and I suspect that that might well be so.  Regardless, when the OC Weekly celebrates Fred Karger in the future, let’s bear in mind — at least until the unlikely event of his apologizing and recanting this past — that thing he did in 1988.

Karger threw the most vicious punch at the African-American community (because the “Willie Horton” ad was not even primarily about William Horton) in recent political history — and it helped him become very wealthy, and he’s not sorry about it one bit.  That’s worth remembering — and it’s therefore worth repeating.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)