His Brilliant Career

On the morning of Sunday, November 17, 1991, David Duke was the featured guest on NBC’s Sunday Today, CNN’s Newsmaker Sunday, and ABC’s This Week with David Brinkley. In itself, this was no big deal. Since October 1990, when he announced he would seek Louisiana’s highest office, and possibly the presidency, the television viewers of America had grown accustomed to David Duke’s surgically enhanced face. They had seen it on Good Morning America, Nightwatch, Nightline, Meet the Press, and Donahue. They had seen it for a solid hour on Larry King Live, during which he repeated his address on the air, and they had seen it on Crossfire, during which he suggested that co-host Michael Kinsley resembled a worm.

But that had been when Duke was, indeed, news. That had been when it was possible that Duke, the forty-one-year-old Nazi, state representative, and former grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who had already won 44 percent of the vote when he ran for the Senate in 1990, could become the next governor of Louisiana. His thinly veiled message of racial hatred had already won him enough votes to beat the Republican incumbent governor, Buddy Roemer, in the October primary. The fear, in those tense weeks between the primary and the runoff, was that the message would work again. It did, for 56 percent of the white voters of the state. But on November 17, Edwin Edwards, not David Duke, was elected Louisiana’s next governor. Yet it was David Duke, not Edwin Edwards, who was on network TV the next morning. This time he was positioning himself for his next run, in the Republican presidential primaries.

The victory of three-term governor Edwards, with 61 percent of the vote to Duke’s 39, was the second biggest landslide in Louisiana history (the first had been Edwards’s against another Republican, Dave Treen, in 1983), in which more black voters turned out than ever before. During the week after Duke won a spot in the runoff, more than 20,000 black voters registered in New Orleans alone, enough for the city council districts to have to be redrawn. Edwards’s third term in office had been marred by two corruption trials (the first ended in mistrial, in the second he was found innocent) and fourteen grand jury investigations. He had admitted that hospitals had paid him $2 million to get certificates of approval from state officials, but he said he had only taken the money while out of office. In the first trial there had been testimony that Edwards had repaid a Las Vegas gambling debt with a suitcase full of cash, an item which had no particular bearing on the case but which gave the press a chance to replay some of Edwards’s more high-rolling exploits at the same time the state was suffering through a crippling depression. Among the more vivid recollections was the $10,000 per person fund-raising trip …

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