Inside the towering State Capitol building at Baton Rouge, the Louisiana legislature had gotten down to the business of raising taxes.
In the House chamber, more than 100 members, plus assorted staff and lobbyists, milled around noisily as speech-making continued from the podium. Huddling in the aisles between their crowded two-by-two desks, legislators clad in Sears and Sans-a-belt slapped backs, slurped colas and munched on peanuts.
Off in the far right corner of the chamber, assigned to one of only two single desks, sat Republican David Duke, newly arrived after a special election in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. Virtually hidden behind a wall of letters from constituents and others as far away as Australia and South Africa, Duke sat quietly, listening intently to the proceedings. From time to time he got up to check a point with the Republican floor leader.
Finally, he rose to speak. The chair acknowledged him with sardonic inflection. Activity in the chamber ceased. Legislators turned their attention to the rostrum. Dozens of reporters from all over the country flipped open their notebooks. TV cameras, silent until now, came to life en masse.
Center of Attention
Duke took the podium and in a light but not unpleasant voice demanded that the proposed tax increase be labeled as such when it goes on the ballot in April. He sat down. Normal activity resumed.
Meet David Ernest Duke. He’s thirtysomething, tall and gray-eyed handsome, a university graduate and a church-going Methodist. He cares passionately about the environment, drives a silver sports car, plays golf and piano, skis, and loves homemade mashed potatoes.
So why is David Duke the most notorious freshman legislator in America? Why is everyone from George Bush to the Jewish Defense Organization up in arms about a 38-year-old yuppie?
Because this is no ordinary young professional. Although Duke’s charismatic personality helped elect him in February to the District 81 seat in the Louisiana State House of Representatives--and there is already talk of a run for Congress in 1990--he carries some of the most amazing political baggage in American history.
Until 10 years ago, he was Grand Wizard and most visible spokesman for the Louisiana-based Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1979 he left the Klan to found the National Assn. for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP), an avowedly “racialist” organization that he still heads.
The way Duke sees it, “race is the most critical factor in the well-being of America” and maintaining the white majority is essential. As he wrote recently in NAAWP News, " . . . the racial makeup of America is vital to her well-being; our genetic and cultural heritage must be preserved . . .” Duke founded the NAAWP, he says, to advance these views.
Promoting such views is nothing new for David Duke. In 1970, during his student days at Louisiana State University, he came to national attention for picketing a New Orleans appearance of radical lawyer William Kunstler while wearing a Nazi uniform and carrying a sign that said: “Kunstler is a Communist Jew.”
(Duke, who now calls that incident “youthful folly” and “a spoof” of Kunstler, says he is not now and has never been a member of the Nazi party.)
On campus he regularly appeared at Free Speech Alley, an area reserved for impromptu advocacy, and passed out pro-white and pro-Nazi literature. “But,” says James Reddoch, LSU Vice Chancellor for Administrative Services, who was then Vice President for Student Affairs, “even when his statements about the Germans and Hitler and the Nazis didn’t set too well on this campus, he persisted. Hecklers are part of the Free Speech Alley tradition and he handled them well. He was always well-spoken and polite.”
Like Julius Caesar’s Gaul, Metairie--where David Duke grew up--is divided into three parts: Old Metairie, an enclave of gracious old homes, huge trees, doctors and lawyers; a middle, transitional zone that includes some light industry; and Bucktown, a neighborhood of small middle-class homes, working-class apartments and families going back generations. District 81 encompasses chunks of all three. According to election statistics, Metairie is 99.6% white.
It used to be a minor suburb. But it “is now the largest incorporated municipality in the New Orleans area,” according to Mark T. Carleton, who teaches state history at LSU and attributes Metairie’s swell to “white flight.” Before the Civil Rights movement, many of the residents used to live in New Orleans, he says, “but when their blocks were busted (black families moved in), they moved across the line into Metairie.”
Then in the ‘80s a second wave of immigrants, this time affluent yuppies bent on gentrification, pushed the area’s working-class whites even further into a psychic corner. One particularly heated issue is a proposed marina that would displace local fishermen.
‘Mad as Hell’
Says Ronnie Blanchard, a retired Duke supporter from Bucktown, “We were mad as hell and we didn’t want to take it anymore. Some of our families have been living here for 145 years, ever since this was a fishing village, and now the politicians want to run ‘em out to make marina slips for the rich. David went to meetings of the fishermen’s organizations. We finally got somebody to speak up for us.”
Duke was elected by a slim majority of Metairie’s voters, many of whom kept their intentions quiet. Not Blanchard; he spent the weeks leading up to the election putting up blue-and-white, 4x8 “Duke Country” signs around the neighborhood. “Along come Tulane University ‘volunteers’ and spray painted every one of ‘em out,” he recalls. “If they didn’t get ‘em, then the garbage men took ‘em every Monday and Thursday.
“But,” chuckles Blanchard, “next day I’d just put up more.”
Duke signs appeared next to statues of the Virgin in Metairie’s neat little front yards and were propped against the bass boats on trailers in the driveways. They decorated the cash registers at Martine’s restaurant and Fulco’s bar.
Not many materialized on the rolling green lawns of Old Metairie. But, despite personal messages from ex-President Reagan and President Bush and campaign help from the President’s son, Texan George W. Bush, Duke’s opponent John Treen, brother of a former Louisiana governor, mustered only 8,232 votes in the runoff election; not enough to beat Duke’s 8,456.
As expected, Bucktown went solidly for Duke. In a poll conducted for the New Orleans Times-Picayune just after the election, Duke voters said they saw his candidacy “as a rare opportunity to help their own social class.” According to the poll, the big issues in District 81 included opposition to increased taxes, fear of crime and a distaste for “affirmative-action programs, minority set-asides, racial quotas and other efforts on behalf of blacks” that many of the voters polled said “have tilted the system against” the white majority.
“This issue more than any other elected me,” Duke says of the set-asides that were originally designed to reserve one-quarter of all state contracts for black-owned firms. “I believe in equal rights for whites,” Duke says. “Contract letting should be color blind. They should be given out on the basis of merit.”
Meritocracy and Honor
Meritocracy is a major theme with Duke. That and honor. He talks about them constantly.
“We were good kids in grade school but with a high code of honor,” Duke says. To get a few minutes of quiet during a recent interview, he is sitting in a cluttered storage room adjoining the offices of the NAAWP, which are located in what seems once to have been the garage of a two-story white frame house at 3603 Cypress St. in Metairie. According to the Registrar of Voters records, until just before the District 81 election, this address was Duke’s official domicile. But it’s just over the district line. In his filing papers, Duke listed his official residence as an apartment a few blocks away.
The NAAWP office, now also Duke’s district headquarters, is paneled in knotty pine and chock-a-block with battered metal desks. The phones ring constantly. A steady parade of people adds to the noise level. On one wall is a bookcase piled with the NAAWP hats and T-shirts which are offered for sale through the NAAWP News.
Clearing a seat for his visitor, Duke leans back in a battered office chair and reminisces. “We were like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn,” he says of his childhood. “We built rafts and dug tunnels near the drainage canal; we played war and cowboys and Indians. My friend . . . and I played chicken on our bicycles in 4th grade. Neither one of us wanted to back off. We had so much sense of honor. It was in our blood.”
Duke pushes his slipping sunglasses back up on top of his head. He wears a white polo shirt, gray slacks, and a vintage brown leather bomber jacket. He speaks quietly, rarely gesturing.
“I love to fish and hunt,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I’m so concerned about the wetlands. I can see what industrialization and pollution are doing to them. I write a lot about ecology and the environment--but because of my situation, I have to do it under a pseudonym.”
Duke’s situation is at least in part a result of his previous writings. These have included everything from “The Racialist,” a 1971 publication in which he wrote that “terror has become the stark reality of the integrated school,” to a 1989 issue of the NAAWP News in which he wrote that “There are plenty of ways to intelligently slow down the non-white birth rate (by stopping the welfare subsidization of it, for instance).”
Over and over Duke states his position. It begins to sound like a mantra. “I am working for the civil rights of white people. I am not anti-black. I am pro-white.”
In 1979, when he officially broke with the Klan, turning over leadership of his faction to Don Black, who is now married to Duke’s ex-wife Chloe, Duke said in his letter of resignation: “I came to the belief that the Klan wasn’t the best path to victory. Under those circumstances, the only honorable course of action I can take is to step aside in my leadership role. On a personal level I remain committed as ever to the white cause, and I will continue fighting with what I believe to be the best approach.”
Duke’s best approach has varied somewhat since his Klan days. He ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the Louisiana State Senate in 1975 and 1979, in a district that included a good chunk of District 81, and ran for President in 1988 as a member of the Populist Party--a party whose ranks include founder Willis A. Carto, the man whose Institute for Historical Review once offered a $50,000 reward for proof that the Holocaust actually happened. In fact, Duke spoke this month at the Populist Party’s national committee meeting in Chicago--after he was elected to the Louisiana State House as a Republican.
“The speaking engagement was a commitment I’d made before the election,” Duke says now. “I had to honor it.”
On the surface, David Hedger Duke and his wife, the former Maxine Crick, with their two children Dotti and David Ernest, looked like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.
As the younger David now remembers it, he had " . . . a Beaver Cleaver childhood. We rode bicycles,” he says, “and we played baseball on the grounds of the Baptist Seminary near my house. I even chipped my front tooth playing football in the street.”
David had a number of pets including several snakes, 100 white rats he kept in the garage, and a favorite dog named Frisky. He talks about how much he enjoyed his chemistry set, his World War II model kits and listening to the Beatles.
Some who knew the family remember that Maxine Duke was often absent from school and church activities. “I don’t ever remember seeing her,” says Wayne Arnold, who attended church with the Duke family and was one of David’s teachers at Clifton Ganus, the private Christian school David attended in 8th and 9th grades.
Dotti Duke Wilkerson, David’s sister who was five years older than her brother, left home for college when David was 12, and married in 1962. After she left, says Wilkerson, 44, her brother and mother were often alone.
Era of Vietnam
It was the height of the Vietnam War and her father, a civil engineer by trade, was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Southeast Asia.
Her father lived in Cambodia for 11 years, Wilkerson says, starting when David was 14 or 15. “His job was to rebuild the bridges the Viet Cong knocked out.
“My father was conservative to the max,” says Wilkerson, who lives in Sherwood, Ore., and is a regional coordinator for the Pacific-American Institute, which brings Japanese students to the U.S. on exchange programs. “Much, much more conservative than what you would now call a Reagan Republican. He had served with Eisenhower and was very close to him. He was very much into studying. If we had no homework, he’d give us three hours’ worth of reading to do. We had to read summers and before we could watch TV on Saturdays. My brother David was very intense, very studious, a bookworm. He took after my dad in that he was very politically minded.
“Our father was very patriotic. He was never a member of the Klan. He never expressed racist views, quite the opposite in fact. My father and mother insisted that our black nannie, Pinkie, eat her meals at the table with us. This was highly unusual in those days but my brother and I both loved her. When she died, David and my mother were the only white people at her funeral.
“When David got mixed up with the Klan my father was in Cambodia,” says Wilkerson.
David’s version of how he came to his “racialist” views begins as a freshman in high school. “In those days I held liberal views because that’s the pabulum that’s fed to you,” he says now. “Then one day a teacher assigned me to take the anti-integration argument in a report because she knew I was for it, and I finally found books like ‘Race and Reason’ by Carlton Putnam, and that book had a big influence on me.
‘Searching and Looking’
“I was serious and at that age you want something to believe in and you want purpose and reason in life. I was in the process of searching and looking.”
The staff at Clifton Ganus School, where Duke was given the assignment he now sees as an epiphany, has been doing a lot of soul searching ever since Duke began to tell this story. They seem bewildered by the possibility that he could have acquired his views while under their care. Ganus was not one of the white flight academies that sprang up after desegregation. It has always encouraged minority enrollment.
“He was a good student,” says Wayne Arnold. “He never expressed racist views here at Ganus. He was a normal kid. I coached him when he played basketball for the Eagles.”
But Arnold remembers something else. At Sunday School when he was about 13, normally quiet David Duke unexpectedly and forcefully argued that the Nazis had been right about the Jews, a stand that stunned his teacher. “And he would not be swayed,” says Arnold.
Clearly, David’s path seemed to be diverging from the mainstream. After attending Ganus, he transferred to hulking, red brick Warren Easton senior high in New Orleans. He spent only one year at this, the same school attended by presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
For his junior year, David was sent to Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Ga. In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Riverside is, in the words of present principal Col. Jack Hall, “designed for kids who’re not achieving what their parents think they could.”
Hall says that interest in either Nazi or Klan beliefs is rare among Riverside students. “The vast majority of them would find the idea of running around in a sheet ridiculous and there are no jackboots allowed.”
Already in Klan
Nevertheless, by the time David finished his senior year at John F. Kennedy, an academically high-powered integrated public high school in New Orleans, he was already a member of the Klan. “I joined the Klan at 17,” Duke says.
In an era of political theater, did Duke, anxious to oppose the hippies and anti-war activists he saw as a threat to his own father, find an outlet in the precepts of the Nazis and the Klan?
Says Duke’s sister, “I suppose David saw the Klan as the only vehicle he had to oppose all the people who were opposed to the war. I know he didn’t believe all the media coverage of the KKK.
“When he found out, my father and the rest of us opposed David’s involvement with the Klan. We all knew that he had an incredibly high IQ and we were afraid that he would wreck his life.”
LSU Prof. Carleton--in whose state history class Duke was “a good student"--simply believes Duke had found his first leadership role. “In the land of the blind,” says Carleton, “the one-eyed man is king. And David was much, much brighter than the average rural kid who becomes a Klansman.
“I believe that there is a growing constituency nationally among lower-income groups who believe that the unemployed or the marginally employed are the enemy,” says Carleton. “They believe that expensive government is taking their money and giving it to (those) who don’t work. I believe Duke senses that groundswell and that he’s found a home in the Republican party because, by courting the bigots in the last few elections, the Republicans have brought this thing on themselves.”
A Louisiana Republican Central Committee member, who asked not to be identified, and who campaigned for Duke’s opponent John Treen, angrily concurs. “I think it’s a disgrace to the Republican party that there were such appeals to bigotry. There should be no place for that in this party. We’ve been set back years in our hope to appeal to minorities. Duke is taking advantage.”
At Tulane University, Duke’s campaign literature has been added to the school’s impressive collection of “political ephemera.” There it is filed along with various Nazi and Klan publications--some so vicious, violent and racist, says the committee member, as to qualify as pornography. Some, she says, contain articles praising David Duke and boasting that his is only the first of their causes’ many coming electoral victories.
And those electoral victories seem increasingly less improbable. Listen to one of Duke’s supporters, a hard-working middle-aged white man. Angry, he emphasizes that he’s been paying taxes all his life.
“The Democrats got the (blacks) and the poor. The Republicans got the rich. The middle-class, we got nobody. That’s why David got elected. Finally there’s somebody for us.”