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Southern Discomfort: A New Kind of Demagogue : Politics: Former Klansman David Duke is running for the U.S. Senate. The press isn't asking tough questions or looking into his past.

June 10, 1990|Jason Berry | Jason Berry is an investigative reporter whose books include "Up From the Cradle of Jazz" (University of Georgia), a history of New Orleans music

NEW ORLEANS — The South has a history of politicians who incite the masses by railing at enemies, real and imagined. In Depression-era Louisiana, Gov. Huey P. Long flailed the oil companies, symbols of wealth in a time of want. A generation later, Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace blasted "big guv'ment" and federal bureaucrats as political elitists allied with blacks.

Today in Louisiana, demagogy is resurgent in a U.S. Senate campaign. State Rep. David Duke, 39, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who became a Republican in 1988, is challenging three-term Democratic incumbent J. Bennett Johnston.

Duke, however, is unlike his demagogic predecessors. He grew up middle-class rather than poor. Plastic surgery in the 1980s gave him a thinner nose and crinkles around the eyes, the latter suggesting a ready smile. His appearance probably facilitates his quest to erase his KKK and neo-Nazi ties. But his message is the same old line in "new" Duke code.

His attacks on the underclass are transparently anti-black. His real enemies, however, are journalists, though in his criticisms he initially sounds redemptive: "I do have a past; I've certainly made mistakes." Then he blasts the media for distorting "what I'm really about."

The most recent poll shows voters roughly 2-1 for Johnston--49% vs. 21%. The official Republican nominee, state Sen. Ben Bagert, lags with 14%. The open primary is Oct. 6; if no candidate wins a majority, a runoff will follow.

In discounting Duke's chances, pundits like to cite a Johnston poll that put Duke's negative rating at 48%, a number that would scare most politicians into retirement. Yet Duke's current standing in the polls is an indication of how far he's come, despite his negatives, since he won election a year ago to the state legislature by a mere 227 votes in a district that is 99% white. One reason is that Duke's is a campaign in perpetuity.

Last year, a state GOP Central Committee member, Elizabeth Rickey, twice offered a resolution censuring Duke because he was selling Nazi books and had argued that the Holocaust was "a myth perpetrated on Christians by Jews." But sensing Duke's blue-collar support, state GOP leaders rejected Rickey's motions, thereby handing the former Klansman a mantle of legitimacy. The Faustian pact backfired when two ex-Nazis and a former Klan activist showed up as Duke delegates to the convention that nominated Bagert, who was a Democrat until 1988.

Now Duke is outpacing his party's own candidate. He is seeking to expand the old Wallace constituency with a nationwide mailing to neo-Nazi sympathizers and white supremacists. He had raised $455,000 by April, according to federal election records.

Duke also enjoys some support on Louisiana's campuses. At three universities, white student unions promoting "Euro-American culture" have been formed. Lance Hill, a doctoral student researching the Duke phenomenon at Tulane, which has such a union, believes that most new recruits to the Nazi movement will come from these unions.

Johnston, with $2.5 million in his campaign war chest, is having no trouble raising money from outraged liberals around the country. But he seems strangely detached. He recently proposed putting a uranium-enrichment plant in a state with 40,000 oil-waste pits, high cancer rates and deepening popular fears about pollution. Drawing crowds of 800 to 1,000, Duke routinely calls for--and gets--a show of hands of those with a friend or relative afflicted with cancer.

As a state representative, Duke has yet to sponsor a bill that became a law. But his anti-media strategy has helped to shift public attention from his long record of promoting Nazi master-race theories. In nearly every speech, he criticizes the state's largest newspaper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which has opted for a "less is better" approach to covering the senatorial campaign. Only its main events are reported, with the paper devoting no space to how Duke built his National Assn. for the Advancement of White People.

The NAAWP News promotes genetic engineering modeled on the Nazi master-race theory. It advocates sterilizing welfare mothers, which Duke translates as "birth-control incentives" in his speeches. The Holocaust-as-myth theory is another tenet of the NAAWP, which for years ran a mail-order service offering such books as "The Hitler We Loved and Why" and "The Holy Book of Adolf Hitler." There has been scant reporting of how these books and videotapes of American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell are distributed.

Religious and civic leaders formed the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism to pressure the media into being more aggressive in its political coverage. To fill the Duke-fact gap, the coalition has become an informational clearinghouse, with Rickey and Hill briefing media across the state.

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