By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
AMITE, LA. — There’s a gleam in David Duke’s eyes, a glint of pure joy.
He’s talking about one of his favorite topics: black people, and the evils he says they do.
And he has an audience here at the Amite Fire Hall: 70 working-class white folk who want blame for their problems put somewhere.
“They’re not like you,” he says, his voice rising. “They’re not of your values! Do you want your children to be in a school where rap music is the top music? We’re losing our right to exist!”
One woman in the audience complains that her child’s kindergarten class is mostly black. Mr. Duke says the worst will be in a few years, in high school.
America’s most famous racist and ex-Klansman is running for Congress, and on this night, in this backwoods town, he isn’t holding anything back. Where he once used code words to hide his racism, such as “welfare” or “crime,” he’s being open now.
“I don’t agree with slavery,” he offers. “It was the worst mistake we ever made – not just for them, but for us, in the long run!” His smile is wide. “They’ve benefited from being in this country! You think things are better back in Africa? They’re a lot better off because we brought them here.”
That sort of openness is a far cry from the Duke of old, the Duke who shed his Klan robes for business suits, who spent thousands on plastic surgery, who stopped calling Jews children of Satan in public.
The old way almost worked. Mr. Duke, 48, came close to becoming Louisiana’s governor and senator. He got the majority of the state’s white voters to back him – twice. He became a phenomenon, a mark of shame for the state.
Now, years later, he’s not pretending anymore.
“He’s made a clear decision to try to change the way white people think instead of trying to get their vote,” said Dr. Lance Hill, an academic who has studied Mr. Duke for about 25 years. “He couldn’t care less about being popular now. He wants to lay the groundwork for a Nazi revolution.”
Dr. Hill, executive director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research in New Orleans, thinks he knows why Mr. Duke is so happy at campaign rallies today.
“There’s got to be a lot of pain in holding back what you really feel for all that time,” he says. “It has to be a huge relief not to have to hide it anymore.”
“The race question”
David Duke grew up in New Orleans and first became involved in race issues as a teenager, when he was assigned to write a school paper on segregation. He became convinced that segregation was the only way, and from that moment, Mr. Duke says, “the race question” became his life.
He started out with Nazi groups, with names such as the National Socialist White People’s Party and the White Youth Alliance. He marched around in stormtrooper outfits and hung swastika flags in his college dorm rooms.
Everyone who dealt with Mr. Duke then said he was a bright man. As a sophomore at Louisiana State University, he ranked first in his ROTC class of 3,000, and his commander wrote that he had “outstanding leadership potential.’
But the Army refused to commission him as an officer because of his Nazi antics.
Eventually, he moved from Nazi groups to the Klan, using his “leadership potential” to become grand wizard. In 1980, he quit the Klan to form the National Association for the Advancement of White People, a group he led until 1992.
In 1989, when a state representative in suburban Metairie left his post for a judgeship, a special election was called. Mr. Duke entered. He ran as a Republican and shock ed the world when he came out on top by 227 votes.
Within months of that win, he had announced for the 1990 U.S. Senate race, in which he scored 44 per cent of the vote against a three-term Democratic incumbent. Louisiana’s 30 per cent black population prevented Mr. Duke from reaching the U.S. Senate.
Mr. Duke didn’t give up. In 1991, he ran for governor and pulled a major upset, besting both the incumbent and the Republican nominee to make it into a runoff against former governor Edwin Edwards.
That was the height of Mr. Duke’s political career. He had just dethroned the incumbent governor and finished just two points behind Mr. Edwards. The world’s media descended on Louisiana to cover one of the century’s most outlandish state races: an ex-Klansman and Nazi, running against a womanizing ex-governor indicted on corruption charges.
Bumper stickers began to appear around the state: “Vote for the Crook; It’s important.” Mr. Edwards won in a landslide.
Mr. Duke leapt back into the political fray when U.S. Rep. Bob Livingston resigned in December after an adultery scandal. Mr. Livingston, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, had been tapped to be the next speaker of the House when Hustler publisher Larry Flynt uncovered tales of adulteries in the congressman’s past.
Mr. Duke made his announcement at a meeting of the National Alliance, which the Anti-Defamation League says is one of the most powerful anti-Semitic groups in the country.
The National Alliance is a group headed by William Pierce, the author of The Turner Diaries, a fictional book which authorities say inspired Timothy McVeigh to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Mr. Pierce’s 1978 novel describes a future racial war in which the terrorists use a truck-bomb to blow up a federal building in a Midwest city. In 1989, Mr. Duke sold copies of the book out of his state legislative office.
Along with Mr. Duke, voters will be able to choose from: a Rhodes Scholar state representative; the owner of New Orleans’s minor league baseball team; a 33-year-old political rookie running on the fact that he’s still a virgin (“That ought to tell you something about my integrity”); a woman named Dr. Monica Monica; a 6-foot-9, 280-pound state representative, and a 70-year-old former governor who hasn’t won a race in 20 years.
Louisiana has always been the closest thing America has to a banana republic. It has always been more willing than other states to elect colorful men or powerful demagogues to power.
Louisiana is the state, after all, that elected as its governor Earl Long, Huey’s younger brother who was institutionalized in a mental hospital while in office, and Jimmie Davis, the country singer who wrote “You Are My Sunshine.”
The poster child for colorful politicians over the last 30 years has been Mr. Edwards, the charming, brilliant Cajun who was elected governor four times despite his open womanizing and numerous federal investigations he has always managed to evade. (He was most recently indicted on Nov. 6 on racketeering and conspiracy charges.)
Never say `indivisible’
Louisiana’s First District is made up mostly of suburban New Orleans. It’s overwhelmingly white and conservative, but it still manages to have some ideological and economic diversity: from the old-money Republicans of Metairie, to the new-money subdivisions of Lake Pontchartrain’s north shore, to the working-class Reagan Democrats of Tangipahoa Parish. Amite, the site of Mr. Duke’s rally, falls squarely in that last group. It’s a perfect site for a Duke rally: population 4,300, half white, half black, and the economy hasn’t been great. As Mr. Duke’s fans – some farmers, some teachers, some oil industry workers still in their work clothes – file into the bingo hall, the speakers pump out the music of George Strait.
A 24-year-old Duke acolyte opens the rally with a prayer: “Thank you so much, God, for David, and for giving us someone willing to face persecution for us, and for the things we believe.”
Then comes the Pledge of Allegiance. One old man in the audi ence, Herb Price, skips a line of it: “I never say `indivisible,’ because it is divisible. I’d pledge allegiance to the Confederate flag too.”
The acolyte at the podium starts preaching about how things used to be. “Some of you were alive when this country was still great,” he says. “We are a silent majority. This is your support group!”
Then comes the rock music, and the acolyte’s voice gets louder as he introduces “your next Congressman … David Duke!”
Mr. Duke strides in to cheers, shaking a few hands, a broad smile on his face. It doesn’t take long for him to start “defending the rights of European-Americans,” talking about “the plague of black crime,” and calling black leaders “immoral examples for our children.”
The crowd is loving it; Mr. Duke’s a charmer. They cheer when he talks about welfare queens, or when he says the dragging death of a black man in Jasper, Tex., got too much media attention. They laugh when he says black people are in position to have political power: “These are the same people who let O.J. Simpson off the hook!”
And their mood turns dark when Mr. Duke talks about New Orleans, which is majority black. “We’re getting outnumbered in this country,” he says. “Do you want this entire district to be like New Orleans?”
In a congressional district composed largely of people who have fled New Orleans, it can be a powerful message.
The next day, Mr. Duke is sitting in his living room, petting his tiny white dog, Torry. Mr. Duke lives in a new, upper middle-class subdivision called Beau Rivage just minutes from the 24-mile-long bridge that crosses Lake Pontchartrain.
In his living room, the shades are drawn. During the interview, Mr. Duke repeats many of his racist themes from the night before. He calls for a resegregation of public schools. He assails blacks and Hispanics for “hurting the heritage of European-Americans.”
At the exact moment Mr. Duke is speaking about the problem of black crime in schools, in Colorado two white teenagers with Nazi leanings are running a rampage through Columbine High School. It is April 20, Hitler’s birthday, a day Mr. Duke celebrated with a big party until at least the mid 1980s.
Throughout the interview, Mr. Duke seems reserved and contained. But as it is about to end, he says he wants to share some of the information he has accumulated on a topic he doesn’t discuss on the campaign trail: Jews.
He says he doesn’t want to be quoted about his statements on Jews because “they’re not an issue in this campaign.” But he gets excited as he starts rattling off facts he says prove that Jews have been behind society’s ills.
He doesn’t have to be quoted, because he lays out his beliefs in his autobiography, My Awakening, just published by a small press in Louisiana. Mr. Duke is proud of the book, with its 717 pages and more than 1,000 footnotes. The book is clear about Mr. Duke’s opinions: The Jews are evil.
It includes listings of Jews in high government positions. It asks, “Are Americans so naive as to believe that this cohesive, ethnocentric people of immense wealth do not share information and network with their brethren for their own benefit?”
He also writes that “Communism and Zionism were born from the same Jewish soul,” and that “Any open-minded reader who reads both Mein Kampf and the Talmud would find the Talmud far more intolerant.”
A return to politics
“There’s a guy by the name of Dave Treen here,” the receptionist drones into the telephone to her boss.
Mr. Treen, the former governor of Louisiana, edging back into politics after nearly two decades on the outside, can’t quite believe the young woman doesn’t recognize his name.
“You see how long it’s been?” he says.
David Connor Treen, at age 70, is attempting to revive a political career many thought dead in 1983, when voters decided not to give him another term as governor. But the man considered the forefather of the state’s Republican Party and a champion of good government is back, hoping to save Louisiana from the embarrassment of a Nazi in Congress.
Mr. Treen was Louisiana’s first GOP congressman and governor this century. In office, he gained a reputation for honesty. “Nobody can say anything bad about Dave Treen,” said Susan Powell, a pollster at the University of New Orleans. “He didn’t play the political game very well, but there’s no question about his integrity.”
In 1983, he ran for re-election as governor and lost badly to Mr. Edwards. He’s been out of politics since then but has remained a highly respected figure.
He refuses to say anything bad about Mr. Duke. “I don’t want to talk against any candidate,” he says. “On issues, we obviously have some disagreements: on race, for example. But I’m not going to say anything bad about him. Why is it up to me?”
The state Republican Party, along with some of the candidates in this race, have faced some criticism for not openly opposing Mr. Duke. Critics say that Republicans need the support of Mr. Duke’s hard-core voters too badly to assail their hero.
At a candidate’s forum on Thursday morning, another Republican candidate, Rob Couhig, lashed out at his opponents. “I sit next to David Duke at every one of these deals, and he talks this racist stuff, and nobody stops him,” he said. “He’s not a conservative. He’s not a Republican. He is a guy who just wants to go out and trash America. I’m sick of it.”
Once a phenomenon
The pundits all say that David Duke’s political career is over. After he made his beliefs crystal clear in My Awakening , the last hope disappeared, says Dr. Hill of the Southern Institute.
“It’s almost as if he’s given up any sort of general appeal,” Ms. Howell, the pollster, says. “He’s only left with his hard-core base, and to keep them, he has to be more open about his beliefs to distinguish himself from the other candidates.”
After he was blown away in the 1991 governor’s race, Mr. Duke lost a lot of his appeal, she says. “He was a phenomenon. But you can only be a phenomenon for so long.”
Indeed, issues that Mr. Duke once had all to himself have either become mainstream in the Republican Party or just don’t work as well any longer. Welfare has been reformed. Affirmative action is facing assaults from all over the political spectrum. Crime is down, and the economy is as strong as it’s been in recent years.
“On talk radio, you hear people ridiculing him, people who probably voted for him a few years ago,” Dr. Hill said. “If you talk to people now, they won’t admit they used to support him. His political career is over, done.”
No independent poll has been released publicly in this race. The closest thing has been a poll done by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which put Mr. Duke’s support at 6 per cent, well behind Mr. Treen and trailing four other candidates.
But polls have been notoriously unkind to Mr. Duke in the past. In past elections, voters have been unwilling to admit their Duke support to pollsters. In the 1990 Senate race, polls just before the election put his support in the low 20s, yet he won 44 per cent of the vote.
The next year, polls showed Mr. Duke with just 11 per cent in the 12-candidate governor’s race. When voters pulled their levers, though, he had 32 per cent and a spot in the runoff.
Pollsters have typically doubled Mr. Duke’s stated support to get an idea what his “shadow” vote might be. Congressional campaign scuttlebutt has it that at least one candidate’s internal poll has put Mr. Duke at 10 per cent. That might mean that 20 per cent is a possibility. And if that is the case, in a nine-candidate field there is a chance he could sneak into a runoff with Mr. Treen.
And if that were to happen, the international media would no doubt descend on New Orleans one more time to write about Louisiana politics.
A different drummer
In 1985, Mr. Duke sat down with avowed Nazi Ed Fields at a California convention of Holocaust revisionists. Both men were being interviewed by a doctoral student writing her dissertation on white supremacist groups.
The voices on the tape outline their differing plans. Mr. Fields wanted to be open about their mutual beliefs, but Mr. Duke advocated a more closeted approach.
DUKE: I’m trying to bring new people in, like a drummer. The difference is, if they can call you a Nazi and make it stick – tough, really hard – it’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt the ability of people to open their minds to what you’re saying. It’s going to hurt your ability to communicate with them. It’s unfortunate it’s like that…
FIELDS: It doesn’t take that many people, though, to start something rolling. Hitler started with seven men.
DUKE: Right, that’s what I’m trying to say to you.
FIELDS: And most people didn’t want to have anything to do with him.
DUKE: Right! And don’t you think it can happen now, if we put the right package together? Don’t you think that there are millions of Americans that are alienated and are looking for something, and the truth is the truth, and give ’em something to believe in?
Mr. Fields said that, if asked, he would never deny being a Nazi, comparing it to being a Christian in the early days of the Roman Empire. Mr. Duke’s response:
“I wheedle out of it, because I’m a pragmatist.”