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 to Paris to settle the $4.2 million campaign debt from his 1983 campaign. The trip included a banquet at Versailles and a side trip to Monte Carlo, where Edwards won $13,000 playing black-jack. Members of the party sported fourteen-carat-gold lapel pins etched with a profile of Edwards above the moniker “The Sun King.”
What had been entertaining four years earlier no longer played well. Edwards got beaten so badly by his nemesis Buddy Roemer that he withdrew from the runoff rather than lose the first race of a thirty-five-year career. In the 1991 campaign against Duke, Edwards’s bumper stickers bore the message, “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important!” and exit polls conducted by the New Orleans Times-Picayune showed it was no joke, six out of ten voters in fact believed Edwards to be “a crook.” Yet against Duke, he had become the great mediator, the protector of justice and freedom who, despite everything else, managed to pull together one of the most disparate and powerful coalitions in Louisiana history to defeat the man he called the “Merchant of Hate.”
The Merchant’s legislative term was up in January; he would be unemployed. He seemed to have been so badly defeated by Edwards that John Breaux, a US senator up for reelection next year with Duke as a possible opponent, held a sort of victory press conference of his own. But Duke’s media career evidently did not suffer such a serious blow. While Breaux stood in the conference room at the Fairmont Hotel and told the assembled press that David Duke “is not interested in solving problems, he’s interested in feeding them,” Duke himself sat in the studio of the New Orleans ABC affiliate and told David Brinkley that “the people of this state and the people of this nation believe what I believe in.” Brinkley and his colleagues regarded their guest with the utmost seriousness.
The incredible had happened. Duke had acquired—and retained—“credibility” not simply by getting a majority of white votes, but largely by virtue of the number of times he had appeared before the network cameras. Here was a man who had no job, who had won a single election against a singularly weak opponent out of the six elections in which he had run since 1975. He had introduced two bills that did not pass during a legislative term otherwise remarkable only for his sale of Nazi literature out of his legislative office. His campaign manager had been fired from the police force for stealing lumber from a construction site, Duke himself had been convicted for incitement to riot and arrested on charges ranging from making firebombs out of Coke bottles to conspiring to invade the Caribbean island of Dominica. All his life he had excelled at only one thing, raising money and gaining exposure through blatant racist appeals, yet by the end of 1991 he had higher name recognition than any of the Democratic candidates for president and, according to a poll by the Wirthlin Group, 58 percent of all Americans felt they knew enough about him to have an opinion of him.
Those figures didn’t help him much by Super Tuesday, since the credibility that comes from something as tenuous as a television camera can be taken away as easily as it can be bestowed. On the eve of the election, Duke was “the most galvanizing Louisiana politician since Huey Long.” When he declared his presidency on December 4, political analysts announced that he would do to George Bush in the South what George Wallace had done to Hubert Humphrey. But by the time Duke actually took his campaign across the South, the cameras had been distracted by Pat Buchanan and the details of Bill Clinton’s interesting life. When Duke arrived in South Carolina he was accompanied by a guy with some signs and a hangup bag. The supreme moment of Duke’s life, primary night in Louisiana, standing victorious before the jammed bank of microphones, was replaced on Super Tuesday by a few people loitering around his Metairie office. CNN stopped by, but to record his obituary. Duke’s best showing in the presidential primaries had been 11 percent.
On November 17, 1991, however, the cameras were still tantalized. About five minutes after CBS’s Bob Schieffer became the first to declare Edwards the winner, an aide approached Edwards in his suite at New Orleans’s Monteleone Hotel: David Brinkley would like to have him on his show the next day. Sure, Edwards said. The aide came back: Edwards would have to go on with Duke. Edwards said no: “I’ve seen that son-of-a-bitch enough.” Earlier in the day, Edwards had savored certain victory by repeating some of his favorite Duke lines, the ones that always got laughs on the trail. “You ask David Duke what the weather’s like and he says, ‘I don’t know, if we could get all those welfare recipients out of the way, I could see it better.’ You know,” he said, “I never have to hear that stuff again.” Edwards, a man who is rarely astonished, was wrong, and he was stunned.
Edwin Edwards is a brilliant politician and an extraordinarily proud man who had come back from what the press had called “political history” and “southern lore” four years earlier to win not only an unprecedented fourth term but a shot at redemption. He was certainly a more interesting subject than Duke and he had better lines. During his race against Treen in 1983 he became famous for saying the only thing that could get him in trouble with the voters was being found in bed with a dead girl or a live boy. More important, as he felt compelled to point out election night in his suite, “Hell, I won.”
Edwards had known he would win while the pollsters were still calling the race even. He had played on voters’ economic fears (pointing to, among other things, the millions of dollars in convention revenue Arizona had lost since its legislature had failed to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday), going easy on Duke personally until the last few days (“That’s how you do it darling, you set ’em up for the kill”), and he was, for obvious reasons, guaranteed an enormous black vote. But Edwards’s record on civil rights did not need to be compared to Duke’s to look good. As a congressman he’d been one of the few Southerners to vote for the Voting Rights Act, and as governor he had appointed the first black postmasters and the first black state troopers. In his speeches to black audiences he never failed to remind them that he had picked cotton as a child, that he understood their needs better than anyone else, that “as governor, I worked with your elected officials to get you out of the dust and heat and cold.” Of the Louisiana population of some 4.6 million people, nearly 31 percent are black, and the black vote put him over the top in his first, close gubernatorial election. He has won it ever since, but this time he needed every black vote he could muster to create a truly impressive margin of victory, and he had tapped into his network of black elected officials and ministers around the state well before the primary to help him in an enormous effort to get out the vote.
When Edwards began saying publicly a full week before the election that he had the race in the bag, the pros from the national press who had been camping out in Louisiana were appalled. The old Edwards was back, they moaned, his legendary cockiness was going to upset the carefully orchestrated atmosphere of fear. And if not fear, what would drive the voters to the polls? Edwards already knew: drivers. They’d been hired for months. In the end the campaign spent $773,000 in election day street money to transport the voters. Black organizations and Democratic PACs contributed an additional $1 million. This is the state in which Jesse Jackson won the 1988 Democratic primary with 35 percent of the vote over Al Gore (28 percent) and Dukakis (15 percent). Thirty percent of the 75 percent voter turnout was black, a higher percentage than in any other election in Louisiana history.
Edwards also knew something else, that David Duke was way out of his league. On Sunday, November 10, six days before the election, when David Duke and Edwin Edwards faced each other for the last time on Meet the Press, Duke was unable to name the state’s three top employers, protesting that he didn’t carry around an almanac. “An almanac? An almanac?” Edwards hooted about fifty times that day. “Hell, an almanac tells you how full the moon is gonna be, an almanac tells you when the tide’s coming in.” But that wasn’t all: “Do you know what David Duke was eating at 7:30 this morning?” I did not. “A Baby Ruth and a Coca-Cola.”
David Duke has been courting the cameras since his freshman year at Louisiana State University. His racist diatribes at the school’s “Free Speech Alley” were so frequent that the place was nicknamed the “David Duke Show.” He got himself on the radio as a representative of George Lincoln Rockwell’s Nationalist Socialist Liberation Front and was quoted in the November 1969 LSU Reveille saying, “I am a National Socialist. You can call me a Nazi if you want to.” The Reveille covered Duke’s activities in such detail that the paper was accused of promoting Duke to increase circulation and his name was never mentioned again. Duke promptly started his own newspaper, The Racialist, directed at “the white student who believes in the greatness of his race and who wants to be protected against his enemies.” In the spring of 1970 when William Kunstler lectured at Tulane University in New Orleans, Duke showed up in Nazi uniform, wearing a swastika armband and carrying a sign that read “Gas the Chicago 7” and “Kunstler is a Communist Jew.” Though he now refers to the incident as “a childish prank,” it taught him a valuable lesson. He made the front page of the Times-Picayune.
Since then Duke has made the most of any event that could get him attention and money. When a white marine was murdered by a black marine at Camp Pendleton, Duke was there. He went to Boston during the busing standoff, and organized a Mexican Border Watch to chase down immigrants, an enterprise that lasted about three days but earned him considerable exposure. He burned crosses in England, hid from Scotland Yard (the Klan is outlawed in Great Britain), did an interview with ABC’s bureau chief in London, Peter Jennings, and finally got deported. He appealed, which kept him in the headlines for another full week.
By the time he became the youngest grand wizard in Klan history, in 1976 when he was twenty-six, he was a public relations pro. When Duke joined the Klan, James Lindsay had been grand wizard. He used an alias, and meetings were held in utmost secrecy. Duke sent out thousands of press releases announcing his ascension to TV outlets across the country, and advertised rallies in newspapers. One of his first events was held at a renowned country-and-western music hall outside Baton Rouge. Men in sheets and pointed hats diverted traffic off the highway to the fields surrounding the hall, and booths were set up to sell Klan paraphernalia. Duke also began a national Klan newspaper called The Crusader, which featured articles asserting that “it is doubted that the Rhodesian negroid even belongs to homo sapiens stock” and ads for such items as Klan robes and calling cards (“Racial Purity is America’s Security”), an album by Odis Cochran and the Three Bigots called “Ship Those Blacks Back,” and 8×10 photographs of Duke himself for $4.
In January 1974, after he had taken the helm of the Klan’s Louisiana chapter, he appeared on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow Show and the Klan’s duespaying membership increased nationally by five thousand. He paraded in New Orleans during the 1976 World Nationalist Congress (an event described by The Crusader as the “good comradeship of white people enjoying the company of other white people dedicated to the international struggle against Jewish-Communism”), was arrested for inciting to riot, and set up a defense fund for himself—through the increasingly pivotal Crusader—that raised thousands of dollars almost overnight.
To a boy whose summer jobs had included selling vacuum cleaners and painting houses this was easy money. It was the desire for money and not his conscience, as he would later claim, that ended his relationship with the Klan in 1979. He was caught selling his group’s membership list to a rival Klan leader who happened to be an FBI informant. His enemies in the group, who, among other things, objected to the amount of Duke’s personal publicity, threw him out. He immediately formed the National Association for the Advancement of White People, whose newsletter would serve much the same purpose as The Crusader. He sold hate books (The Hitler We Loved and Why, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: Did Six Million Really Die?) through the newsletter, and raised money for his campaigns. He was arrested for parading without a permit in Forsyth County, Georgia, establishing a “Forsyth County Defense Fund,” and raised almost $20,000 through the NAAWP News. His fine was $55.
With each campaign, and with each appearance on a national news show, his mailing list expanded. During his 1988 run for the presidency he raised $524,000; the 1990 Senate campaign netted him $2.7 million. For the campaign against Edwards he raised $2.1 million from 26,000 contributors, much of which came through the mail in cash, and more than half of which came from out of state. His campaign reported a surplus of $288,435, which Duke got to pocket. No one will ever know how much unreported cash was taken in. He closed each rally with a self-righteous speech about how Edwards was the candidate of big money and Duke was the candidate of the working man. But before he completed the sentence, “We won’t be passing any buckets tonight,” the buckets were making their way down the aisles. Campaign workers in his 1990 Senate campaign say garbage bags of money were carried away from rallies, uncounted and unrecorded, and during the governor’s campaign, former campaign worker Bob Hawks reported that “every once in a while he’d put some [of the money] in his pants pocket.” At an event in Rayville a female fan tried to give Duke her diamond ring.
Duke’s appeal to his fans was based not only on his racist message. His Arrow Shirt-man exterior and his lack of real substance allowed his fans—just as it had allowed the press—to endow him with whatever qualities they chose. Duke’s political coming of age coincided with the collapse of oil prices, which virtually paralyzed the state government and its generous public sector. The severance tax on oil flows directly into the state treasury, and while oil boomed, the revenue paid for up to a third of the state’s expenditures. Income and property taxes were negligible, the middle class had been bought off, and the lower classes enjoyed lavish state services.
Sure, there had always been racism among many of the state’s citizens, but the kind of racial violence that had scarred the other Deep South states had not occurred in Louisiana because there had been little economic tension between poor whites and blacks. With the notable exception of political boss Leander Perez, whose influence was confined to Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana had not bred racist demagogues along the lines of Theodore Bilbo or Pitchfork Ben Tillman or Ross Barnett or even George Wallace. When Earl Long left office for the last time—five years before the Voting Rights Act was passed—more than 100,000 blacks had been added to the rolls. Earl built trade schools for blacks and more than one hundred public schools, hired more than two thousand black schoolteachers and paid them as much money as white schoolteachers. It was a legacy that the next three-term governor, Edwin Edwards, continued. It would likely have continued indefinitely had the collapse of oil prices not been so devastating, and if Edwards had not tried to prevent financial collapse through raising taxes.
Louisianans aren’t used to paying taxes and Duke played up to their resentments, stirring up racist sentiments that had long been buried, or in some cases creating them. Unlike his predecessor, Perez, who was fond of telling audiences that “three Congolese are raping your daughters,” Duke told his audiences that blacks were raping their bank accounts, living high on the hog off their tax money. If it weren’t for blacks, he said over and over, housing costs and health care would be lower, the unemployed would have jobs. He told the story of a couple who couldn’t afford to pay for the open heart surgery their son needed so desperately because “of the welfare benefits their taxes paid for,” while blacks get free emergency room service for “ingrowned [sic] toenails.”
When Duke repeated this spiel at rallies his fans responded as if they were at a rock concert—the women held lighters in the air and the men stood on their seats to capture the moment on videotape. During the campaign Duke’s appearances were always preceded by a slide show featuring fifteen minutes of pictures of himself, and a band playing the country hit “What This World Needs is a Little More Rednecks,” substituting “David Duke” for “rednecks.” By the time Duke, not a redneck but the child of middle-class suburban America, showed up in his linen blazer and splashy floral tie, the crowd was hysterical. His fans repeatedly referred to his “charisma” but what they really saw were the props—the music, the slide show, the dyed blond glamour boy hair, the remade Tab Hunter face. His appeal got him on TV, and his TV exposure earned him more appeal, television being the magnet that it is. At an election week rally in Livingston Parish, Robert Novak, the columnist and host of CNN’s The Capital Gang, who was there to cover the event, attracted almost as much attention as Duke. One by one, fans thrust their Duke placards toward him to autograph, although most had no idea of his name. “Aren’t you on TV? Can I have your autograph?”
Duke thrived on the adoring masses. As much as he likes money, and as much as he is devoted to the cause of white supremacy, he mostly craves attention. When I was interviewing him during the governor’s race he begged me to ride with him from rally to rally: “You need to see me in Bunkie [a Duke stronghold named for a wealthy landowner’s pet monkey], they love me in Bunkie,” or “Did you see the crowd in Morgan City? Unbelievable, huh? They were mine.” Last summer, after he’d completed the script for his half-hour TV commercial, he called to tell me he’d written it without any help and read me long passages: “Isn’t it great? Isn’t it great?” When I asked for a copy of another half-hour spot, the one he used in 1990 for the Senate race he lost to Bennett Johnson, he insisted that I watch it with him and his two teen-age daughters, Erika and Kristen, who mouthed every word of it as he spoke.
Even when Duke did not appear to be a threat, the press was primed for a good story. This was Louisiana after all, the place where, according to almost every voice-over, those colorful citizens like their politics as spicy as their gumbo. The scenario seemed pretty simple. Duke would stir things up and give everybody plenty to write about, but he would come in third in the 1991 open primary for governor, a free-for-all in which candidates from both parties run and which usually leads to a run-off between the top two candidates if neither has gotten a clear majority of the vote. Those two candidates were sure to be Edwards, invariably described as a rogue, rapscallion, playboy, or gambler, and Buddy Roemer, the self-styled reformer who had long been the press’s favorite, much to Edwards’s supreme disgust. But Edwards had toned down his act, and devoted himself to exposing the incumbent’s considerable weaknesses.
Buddy gave him more help in this endeavor than Edwards could ever have hoped. Buddy was the reformer who had gone to Harvard, not necessarily a plus in Louisiana politics, but voters who were still reeling from the economic effects of the oil bust and who were fed up with Edwards seemed happy in 1988 to have a new face. He promised to clean up Louisiana politics, keep taxes down, and present a brand-new streamlined budget, but as governor he was incapable of working with the legislature and essentially packed up his toys and went home.
He switched to the Republican Party in March 1991 after publicly denigrating Dan Quayle and saying in a speech that he loved the Democratic Party as much as he loved America. He became a follower of Robert Fulghum (All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten) and “canceled” negative thoughts by popping rubber bands on his wrist. Most detrimental to his political future, however, he refused to campaign, and talked instead of the 1996 Republican presidential primaries (“I’m going all the way to California,” he told a reporter just days before the primary he would lose). His absence was so glaring that Edwards, in a parody of the missing children campaign, had a thousand milk cartons printed bearing Buddy’s photograph and the message “Have you seen this man? Please dial 1-800-BUDDY.” Duke came in with 491,000 primary votes to Buddy’s 410,000.
Edwards won with 523,000, and the story, which had been the Rogue and the Reformer, became the Rogue and the Klansman. Duke was ready. He tried to paint Edwards’s high-rolling past as one as bad as his own, or worse, and he received help from John Sununu, who told the press that Louisiana had “two bad choices” and suggested that voters write in Roemer, whose party switch he had engineered. Duke’s mantra became “I’ve changed,” and in one of his more bizarre columns William F. Buckley agreed that it was indeed possible that Duke had, reminding his readers that Soviet citizens had given Gorbachev the benefit of the doubt. The day after the primary Duke held a positively presidential press conference. Accompanied by his two daughters, with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” playing in the background, he announced he’d found Jesus and had seen the error of his ways.
Then it was discovered that his church, the “Evangelical Baptist,” did not exist, and his pastor, one Jim Rongstadt, had left the ministry fifteen years earlier to run a photography business. Five evangelical preachers met with Duke for a litmus test, which, they announced at a press conference of their own, he had flunked. News of this latest sham, as well as detailed reports of his very recent past, were all responsibly reported in the papers, but Duke was the candidate of television.
“The rising welfare underclass is the biggest issue facing Americans,” he would say again and again. In print, at least, this statement was occasionally accompanied by the information that welfare payments constituted only 2 percent of Louisiana’s budget, that the state makes some of the lowest welfare payments in the country, and that the average welfare mother spends less than twenty-two months on the dole, her fertility rate matches that of the rest of the population, and nationally the “underclass” consists of 1.5 percent of the population. On television Duke was never challenged. When he offered his plan to cut welfare costs by paying more to mothers who agreed to be implanted with the Norplant birth control device, it took Edwards to point out that payments per additional child were only eleven dollars more a week in the first place. “Eleven dollars,” said Edwards, “is hardly incentive to have a baby.” Duke told Larry King that “when you take a test for the post office in the country right now and you’re white, you’re very likely to have your test score dropped fifteen to twenty points, and I think when you take a test for a job or a promotion or a scholarship you should get what you score on that test.” King, who simply nodded grimly, neglected to tell Duke and his 1.2 million viewers that unless you are a veteran, black or white, you do get exactly what you score on the test. (Veterans are awarded five extra points, disabled veterans receive ten.)
Again and again Duke’s rhetoric was left unchallenged; he was allowed to perfect what the veteran Louisiana journalist Jason Berry calls “The Big Lie—you say something until it becomes truth.” The only reporter who ever challenged him on camera, with hard facts in hand, was CNN’s Art Harris, and Duke threatened, on camera, to walk out of the interview. When not rattled, however, the televised Duke, with his navy suits and blow-dried and dyed hair, appeared in control, powerful, and, staggeringly, he actually wielded power. When Nightline wanted him on the Friday night before the run-off election, he agreed only if he had veto power over every other guest. Nightline caved in. It must have been Duke’s own private apex. It is one thing to grow up and manipulate the downtrodden poor of Louisiana, but he had achieved the American Dream—he was manipulating network big shots, Ted Koppel for heaven’s sake.
On TV Duke did not slip and say that blacks only excelled at one thing, running fast, or that “evil Jews” were out to get him. On TV he said he thought Clarence Thomas would make a fine Supreme Court Justice because he opposed affirmative action; he did not say how much he disapproved of Thomas’s mixed marriage, that it was “a bad thing for society” because it diluted the white gene pool with inferior black genes, thereby “lessening opportunity.” The cameras caught the carefully rehearsed language of his TV commercial. They weren’t on hand to hear him tell a packed crowd in Livingston, “Who will endorse Edwin next? Mikhail Gorbachev? Or maybe…Magic Johnson.” On TV he didn’t sound forceful or even mean, just tentative and adolescent, as he did when he accused Edwards of luring voters to register with the promise of “free fried chicken.” Reporters who came down to see the new George Wallace in action were sorely disappointed. His oratory, wrote Andrew Ferguson during the 1990 Senate campaign, was a little like hearing Pat Sajak recite “Horatius at the Bridge.”
David Ernest Duke was so named because his father David Hedger Duke did not want his son to have the “stigma” of being a junior. His name was the first thing his father withheld from him. The younger Duke was born in Oklahoma and spent part of his early childhood in the Netherlands, where the elder, a former army major who maintained his commission, was an engineer for Royal Dutch Shell. When Duke was five, the family moved to an all-white, middle-class neighborhood in New Orleans and attended the Methodist Church. His father, whom Duke’s older sister Dotti describes as “more conservative than Ronald Reagan,” taught Sunday school, but life was hardly Leave It to Beaver. Family photos include one of the five-year-old Duke on Halloween dressed as a mammy, and on Christmas he was forced to eat breakfast and read for two hours before being allowed to open his presents. His father, who traveled extensively, rarely spent time with his son—Duke describes his most memorable time with him growing up as an afternoon when they went to eat oysters, “just the two of us.” Duke’s mother, thirty-seven when he was born, was an alcoholic whom, according to the family maid, Duke once tried to set on fire. Dotti moved out of the house when Duke was twelve, leaving him to ramble alone through the upstairs of the house, where he raised snakes, toads, birds, and rats in cages. He said later that it had been breeding the rats that first taught him that “genes make a profound difference.”
In 1966, when Duke was fifteen, Duke’s father left the family for good, taking a job with USAID in Laos “to fight communism.” Duke was now without any parental supervision or affection, and he had no close friends. While researching a paper on integration, he wandered into the local White Citizens Council office. People paid attention to him there, they gave him books like Race and Reason—A Yankee View; they encouraged him to spend time with them, and he did. A school friend noticed his new interests and took him to a Klan rally. Two things happened: he joined on the spot, becoming a member of the local den of about thirty-five in what he later described as a “fantastic experience,” and he met James Lindsay, who would become his Klan mentor and the first and most important of several father figures in Duke’s life.
Under Lindsay’s tutelage, Duke developed his white supremacist view; it wasn’t until the next year, when he was a freshman at LSU and fell under the influence of Father Lawrence Toups, that he learned to hate Jews as well. Toups turned him on to the rantings of George Lincoln Rockwell and Gerald L.K. Smith’s newsletter, The Cross and the Flag, which blamed Jews for the liberal and amoral slant of Hollywood, the media, not to mention the spread of international communism. Toups also showed Duke inaccurate translations of the Talmud including a line that said if Christ returned he would be “seized and boiled in semen,” and another saying “the best of Christians deserve death.”
Despite his newfound friends, he still wanted desperately to please his father. He joined the ROTC, was a model soldier, and would have been a prime candidate for the officer corps but for the fact that his Free Speech Alley sideline and the giant swastika hanging in his dorm room made the commanding officer nervous. “He had fine leadership qualities,” reports Colonel James May. “But his affiliation with Nazism precluded his getting a commission in the military. Hell, we couldn’t tolerate such a thing.”
After his rejection, he had nothing left to lose. His father was deeply disappointed, disapproved of the Nazi stuff, and wrote him so from Laos. The army was closed to him, and he deepened his involvement with Lindsay and the Klan, first forming the White Youth Alliance at LSU, then the National Party, a youth arm of the Klan. At twenty-three he became the grand dragon of the Louisiana chapter of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as the national information officer. Three years later he was the grand wizard.
Along the way he also found a surrogate mother, Babs Minhinnette, a softspoken, middle-aged housewife from Baton Rouge, whom he met at a speech on campus given by a member of the John Birch Society. Duke commandeered the program and Babs was transfixed—she’d found a new project. “We were all impressed that David knew more about conservative issues than the lady from the John Birch Society.” She had already started Females Opposed to Equality to fight the equal rights amendment, the Concerned Parents Association, which fought against sex education in schools, the Taxpayers Education Association, opposing any new taxes for schools, and Citizens for Pure Water, which successfully prevented the city of Baton Rouge from fluoridating the public water supply because she thought it was “a large conspiracy by the federal government.” Babs and her husband, Virgil, gave Duke almost every meal and took him to their private club to swim. More important, Babs taught him how to spread the word. She had money and a xerox machine; she gave him a base of operations and a built-in following. Duke’s support expanded from a couple of dozen college students to the three hundred-odd members of Babs’s various organizations. It was with her financial help and with dues from the Concerned Parents Association that he published The Racialist.
Not much in Duke’s life has changed since his early days. He has the same message and the same friends (James Lindsay was murdered, but Babs Minhinnette is still a strong influence. On a recent Phil Donahue show Babs felt compelled to congratulate Phil for being such an “attractive white man.”) The only difference is that in his bid for wider acceptance he quit burning crosses and joined a political party. And as his pursuits became more lucrative, Duke became more interested in status. “David came from the wrong side of the political tracks and had as much success there as he could,” said his lawyer and close adviser Jim McPherson. “The socially acceptable world is fun. It’s where we all belong.” McPherson, a “former Kennedy Democrat,” whose clients have included Jimmy Hoffa associate Grady Partin and Timothy Leary, counseled Duke to make his rhetoric more mainstream, but he also taught him how to play racquetball, and got him into suede bucks and the occasional natural-fiber jacket. During the campaign for governor the pair often traveled in McPherson’s red Mercedes so that McPherson, who is in his late fifties and single, could admire the progress of his pupil. “David behaves as most men would who find themselves pursued by hordes of goodlooking young girls who are after him because they see him as a rock star. Men love to talk about their conquests. It’s a word game we play, a macho thing. David gets to live that fantasy.”
There are some things, of course, even McPherson can’t help Duke with. When he tried recently to differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable Hispanics, he said the golfer Seve Ballesteros was OK because he’s “dolichocephalic, very caucasoid.” He meant, of course, that Ballesteros was of European ancestry, which would actually make him mesocephalic. When the explorer Richard Burton was in the mood to insult blacks—which was frequent—he would call them dolichocephalic, a word that denotes a headshape characteristic of kaffirs and aborigines. Burton, unlike Duke, rarely confused his terms.
But lines like that weren’t aimed at Duke’s supporters, they were aimed at the press to show what a smart guy he is. Duke’s strongest base of support comes from whites with an annual income of between $15,000 and $30,000 and with a high school education or less. These are the people who attend Duke rallies wearing blue and white Duke caps and clutching Budweisers in blue and white Duke beerhuggers. They subscribe to Duke’s race-based view of the world, defending his past to reporters by pointing out that “he wasn’t a bad klansman” or “he never killed a nigger.” They’ve never heard the word dolichocephalic, they only want to hear one thing. It’s the same message Duke rehearsed in Babs Minhinnette’s living room for that first appearance on the Tomorrow show: “The most important things are the great White Western Civilization and the ideals which subscribe to that. We want a society…where men and women can walk the streets without fear.”
While Duke’s middle-class, better-educated supporters tend to couch their support in economic terms, both sets offer the same reason for their vote: “He says what the others are scared to say.” And what he says is not the racist pitch of old, that the “niggers” are going to rape your wives and your daughters, but that they are going to cheat you out of your jobs and take your tax money to support their legions of illegitimate children. “Down deep the whites like the message,” a political observer in Shreveport told Anthony Lewis. “Finally after thirty years somebody’s going to put the niggers down.” Duke made it not just OK but an act of bravery to say what had been verboten to say for at least two decades. When John Sununu said that if Duke won the governor’s race “it will be by appearing not to run as a racist,” he got it exactly wrong. But in the end, there were too many blacks and not enough racists to put him over the top in Louisiana.
Duke never counted on winning. But he did think that by getting a majority of whites he had positioned himself well for a run against Bush in the Republican primaries in the South. He’d been rehearsing for some time, deriding Bush as early as 1990 for reneging on his promise to raise taxes, for his “shift away from traditional GOP conservatism.” Now he had name recognition and Bush had signed a “quota bill.” He predicted he would raise $5 to $8 million from supporters and double the amount with federal matching funds. Two things happened he had not counted on: he was kept off the Republican ballot in Georgia and Florida, and Pat Buchanan stole his message and his limelight.
Buchanan is everything Duke is but less. He is also a candidate who will say “what the others are scared to say,” but he has never been the grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. In the Louisiana race, Duke might well have gotten more than 56 percent were it not for status anxieties among the upper middle class and the college-educated, his two weakest voting blocks. Voting for David Duke was perceived as a low-class, redneck thing to do. The members of the Mardi Gras Carnival Crew Momus withdrew from the festivities this year after a city council ordinance required the crewes to open their doors to blacks and women. But those same uptown New Orleanians who insisted that the very fabric of their (white, Christian, upper-class) society was being ripped apart at the seams just could not bring themselves to vote for David Duke last fall, much as they may have privately agreed with him. This is a guy, after all, who eats Baby Ruths for breakfast. “What does a Duke supporter call an hors d’oeuvre?” Edwards would ask during the run-off campaign. “Potted meat on a cracker.” Or: “How can you tell a Duke supporter? He’s got more appliances on his front porch than inside his house.”
Buchanan did not come on as the candidate of the rusted refrigerator set. He went to Georgetown, drives a Mercedes, he had been a real TV star. Duke told a reporter on a radio show last month that he had saved his Klan robe “to show his grandchildren”; Buchanan doesn’t have such souvenirs in his attic. He eliminated the class hangup while still sounding exactly like Duke. At a Sunday School in Georgia he said he wouldn’t talk politics “out of respect and affection for Christians.”
The issues were the same. Like Duke he railed against Bush’s record of raising taxes and signing a “quota bill.” And like Duke he positioned himself as the conservative standardbearer in a party gone awry, while preaching such nonconservative positions as isolationism. “Buchanan,” said Louisiana State Representative Charles Lancaster, Jr., “gave Duke’s platform right down the line.” Even his supporters sounded the same: “I believe criminals should be punished for their crimes,” Ronnie Jones, a carpet yarn salesman from Dalton, Georgia, told The Washington Post. “And welfare? I think we’ve got to do something about fifteen-year-old girls in Harlem, the Bronx, and Brooklyn who have children to get on the welfare.” But Buchanan also picked up supporters that Duke could never get. While Billy Nungesser, chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party, consistently refused to denounce Duke, referred to Duke’s list of hot buttons as “a good Republican platform,” and allowed him to speak at the party’s state convention last year over protests from members of the party’s central committee, he announced early in the presidential race that he supported Buchanan.
Both Duke and Buchanan appealed to those people whom The Washington Post’s Tom Edsall calls the “orphans of the primary process,” not only extreme right-wing Republicans but conservative Democrats and angry independents who typically sit out the primaries. In most southern states (although not in Louisiana) Democrats are allowed to vote in the Republican presidential primaries. In Tennessee, which is a crossover state, Buchanan got 22 percent to Duke’s 3 percent. Buchanan not only usurped Duke’s message, he took over his airtime, and airtime is Duke’s oxygen. Without the cameras on him he ceased to exist. At a pre-Super Tuesday rally in Jackson, Mississippi, Duke attracted a crowd of 135. Just a few months earlier, he had been speaking in Louisiana before crowds of up to two and three thousand.
In the end, Duke was beaten at his own game by a guy from the big leagues, but even Buchanan didn’t live up to his press. He did not do to George Bush what George Wallace did to Hubert Humphrey; he outniggered Duke, and got his votes. Almost twenty-five years ago Roy Harris, a crony of Herman Talmadge and a president of the White Citizens Council, said, “Some people think the nigger is beneath their dignity. They talk Constitution but they look at the nigger. They talk states’ rights but they mean nigger. This will never be a dead issue. Some issues never die.”
—March 12, 1992
April 9, 1992
In Louisiana, all candidates from all parties run in one primary and the candidate who gets more than half of the votes is elected; but if no one gets more than half, the two candidates with the most votes, whatever their party, take part in a runoff. ↩