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Taking On GOP’s Unwanted Wizard : Party’s Minorities Can Exploit What Klansman Symbolizes

<i> Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer. </i>

I always figured that David Duke would make something of himself.

It wasn’t easy. Duke, a former member of the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan, was elected this month to the Louisiana Legislature as a member of the Republican Party. But he had to overcome a Republican opponent endorsed by some GOP heavyweights--including President Bush and former President Reagan--to do it. That’s because Republican leaders are worried that Duke, who has recently been running something called the National Assn. for the Advancement of White People, will taint the GOP with his racist politics. In fact, Republican Chairman Lee Atwater was quick to repudiate Duke after his victory, and convinced the party’s executive committee to “expell” him by barring Duke from receiving financial or any other kind of assistance.

But while Duke insists on calling himself a Republican, the GOP is stuck with the former klansman. They will not find him easy to live with. Despite his loony-sounding affiliations, Duke is not your typical political-fringe dingbat. He’s handsome, glib and knows how to use the media to his advantage.

I found that out in 1977, when Duke first got widespread public attention outside of Louisiana. Duke then billed himself as executive director and grand dragon of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, always being careful to explain that it was one of several Klan groups in the country. I was covering Mexican border issues for The Times, and ran across Duke when the 27-year-old racist hit on the idea of a Klan “border watch.”

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Duke had concluded that illegal immigrants from Mexico had joined blacks, Jews and the other assorted Klan bogymen as threats to white people in the United States. So he announced that Klan members would begin patrolling the border to help the U.S. Border Patrol catch illegal aliens. Despite the fact the Border Patrol said it neither wanted nor needed help from the Klan--indeed, most agents I knew either laughed at the stunt or were offended by it--many of my colleagues in the news media swallowed Duke’s self-promotion hook, line and sinker.

That happened on a sadly comic night in late October--a few days before Halloween, fittingly enough--when Duke rendezvoused with newsmen in rural San Diego County, just north of the small Mexican town of Tecate. He and seven other men showed up in three old sedans that had hand-painted “Klan Border Watch” signs taped on their doors. About 40 newsmen, their TV camera lights setting the dark night ablaze, descended on them to dutifully record Duke’s claims that hundreds of other Klansmen were out that very night, riding their cars along the border and communicating over citizens-band radios, to stem the “brown tide” threatening white America.

He was lying, of course. I spent most of that night monitoring all CB channels and heard nothing except Duke talking to his friends in the two other cars. I reported that. Officers with the Border Patrol and San Diego Sheriff’s Department told me there were more reporters and cameramen in the area that night than either Klansmen or illegal aliens. I reported that, too. But not enough of my colleagues did.

It got even worse when I happened to run across Duke in Texas a few days later. He was returning to Louisiana from California and his plane stopped in San Antonio. I was there on another assignment, but dropped in on the airport press conference he held. There he repeated the same cockamamie story he told in California, and I was more than a little ashamed at how easily the local reporters accepted it.

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We in the news media did not do ourselves proud in dealing with Duke in 1977. By taking him even halfway seriously, we gave him the publicity he wanted. We also stirred up anxiety among Chicano activists, and many became agitated at the thought of Latinos being threatened by the Klan.

The demonstrations that Latinos held against the Klan back then played into Duke’s hands, too, by increasing his notoriety. But as I ponder his recent success, I think there’s a way that Latinos can use Duke to their advantage this time.

Ever since he became GOP chairman, Atwater has been saying all the right things about opening the party to more blacks, Latinos and other minorities. But GOP leaders have been saying such things for years and not always acting on them. In fact, the first Republican to make a special effort to reach Latino voters was Richard Nix-on, the guy who first used the “Southern strategy"--looking for votes among Southern whites unhappy with the Democratic Party’s support for civil rights--to get himself elected. Duke’s victory is the logical extreme of Nixon’s cynical politics. But maybe with an embarrassment like Duke now sitting on their right flank, Republicans like Atwater will be more inclined to act on their good impulses as well as talk about them. It behooves Latino Republicans to put them to the test.

Duke is somebody else’s problem now, but his reemergence has created an opportunity for minorities in the Republican Party. They must exploit what Duke symbolizes--the same way he has eagerly exploited what minorities symbolize to many misguided people.


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