THE RAKE, THE RACIST AND THE NEW-AGE REFORMER : ONLY IN LOUISIANA WOULD ROGUES LIKE THESE SEEK THE GOVERNORSHIP AND, WITH IT, REDEMPTION.
THE LOUISIANA STATE CAPITOL IS EXTRAordinary. It has a governor buried in the front yard.
At the grave stands his statue. He is a contradiction. He stands rock-still, but he seems to be in motion: one foot forward, his arms thrown back, one hand open. He is cold as stone, but he has a slight smile. It is a knowing smile. Odd things are going on in Louisiana. He would understand.
Few politicians achieve such distinction that they are called by just one name, or a nickname, or their initials. Most have been presidents: Ike, for instance, or FDR. But to this day, two score and 16 years after he was fatally shot as he walked down a capitol hallway, everyone here in Louisiana calls this governor by his first name. It is a plain name, almost comical. Huey.
But Huey Pierce Long stands as tall in my mind as he does atop his pedestal. One comes naturally to this man to seek explanations for the oddities of this place. He embodied its unvarnished paradoxes. He was the Kingfish: feared because he was a populist and a demagogue, a rabble-rouser with a dictator’s instincts, a one-gallus Mussolini; but loved--truth is, revered--because he took on Standard Oil and made it pay and pledged to “share our wealth” and to make “every man a king,” and because he delivered on his promises: charity hospitals and free schoolbooks and free hot lunches and paved roads and new bridges.
It made no difference, and it matters nothing now, that his honesty was always suspect, that his enemies indicted him and tried to impeach him, that his brother, Uncle Earl, who also became governor, played the horses and ranted and raved and was locked up in a mental hospital and got himself out by firing the administrator and then took up with a stripper. In fact, these accomplishments help. Each makes it all the more likely that the explanation I seek can be found here in Baton Rouge, where both men walked and talked, where they might have left behind some foggy traces of their fulminations and their moon-dog opalescence.
My question is this: What makes Louisiana the way it is?
Here, today, leading the pack in a campaign for governor in what A. J. Liebling once proclaimed “the Gret Stet of Loosiana” are three men who would never have the ghost of a chance of making the race (much less winning) in, say, Maine--or maybe even California. One is Edwin Washington Edwards. At 64, he is a former governor trying to make a comeback. The state’s only Cajun chief executive during modern times, Edwards has served for three terms: a dozen years in all, longer than anyone in state history. He has been the subject of a dizzying array of accusations. He has been investigated 16 times, by his own count. In 1985, he was indicted. Twice he was put on trial on charges of fraud and racketeering. The jury deadlocked. Then he was acquitted. He is a renowned gambler and an unrepentant rake.
Another candidate is Charles Elson (Buddy) Roemer III. At 48, he is the incumbent. His father was second in command of state government under Edwards and was sent to federal prison along with reputed Mafia boss Carlos Marcello for conspiring to sell influence in the awarding of state contracts. Although the conviction was later reversed, it so traumatized young Buddy Roemer that he revolted. As governor, he waged war against Louisiana politics, which he denounced as corrupt, and fought with such anger and all-consuming intensity to save the state from itself that he tumbled into a midlife crisis. His wife left him; and now he takes how-to-live advice from a theologian/sociologist--some call him the governor’s guru--who conducts attitude-altering retreats. The guru wears a rubber band on his wrist and pops it to cancel negative thoughts.
Still another candidate is David Ernest Duke. At 41, he is a former grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives. He won 44% of the overall vote--and 60% of the white vote--when he tried to unseat Democratic Sen. J. Bennett Johnston in the last election. Research by a coalition against racism shows these things about David Duke, which he variously minimizes or concedes: On one occasion, he wore a Nazi uniform with a swastika armband and picketed William Kunstler, calling him “a communist Jew.” On another, he sold racist books at his legislative office. Until recently, he celebrated Hitler’s birthday every year. Posing as a black, he wrote a book to trick black militants. Posing as a woman, he helped write a book for women on dating and sex.
Election Day is Saturday. If nobody gets more than half the votes, there will be a runoff in November between the two who get the most. Altogether, this is a campaign the likes of which are not to be found anywhere else on Earth. Why here?
Why, in the name of Huey P. Long, who once flew a bartender from New Orleans all the way to New York City to show the folks up there how to mix a Ramos gin fizz--and drank five in a row before satisfying himself that they were the real thing? Why, in the name of Earl K. Long, who once mounted a safari of politicians to descend upon a supermarket and buy 100 pounds of potatoes at a penny off per pound, $300 worth of alarm clocks, 87 dozen goldfish in plastic bags of water and some Mogen David wine?
What is it about this place, the Gret Stet of Loosiana?
TWO HUNDRED TO THREE HUNDRED PEOPLE HAVE DRIVEN TO Baton Rouge from all over, and Edwin Edwards is recruiting them to work in his campaign. He makes his way among them, greeting them and shaking their hands and taking first one and then another aside for a private word. Now he arrives at the front of the room, and he begins to speak.
He looks much younger than 64. He has grown a little paunchy--Roemer people say he looks like “the last days of Elvis.” But that is overstated. When Edwin Edwards fixes you with his eyes, they are clear and quick. His hair is silver, but his face is tan. He wears a blue shirt, a deep red tie, black pants and a silver jacket with gray and black stripes that intersect in large squares. He looks like a card shark. But he sounds like a penitent.
He wants these campaign workers to buy ads in their local newspapers urging people to watch a 30-minute television program. The program is Edwin Edwards sitting in an easy chair. “It is an on-camera frank talk,” he tells the room filled with people. “Something that I felt I wanted to get off my chest and out of my heart. . . . I want to convince the doubters and the naysayers that there’s nothing illegitimate or improper about me. . . . I want an opportunity to right some wrongs. I want an opportunity to correct some mistakes I made . . .”
Indeed, the television program begs forgiveness--not, he says, because he ever did anything illegal, but because he gave his enemies the opportunity to make it look as if he had. Edwards was, in fact, a remarkable governor: Like Huey, he had soaked the oil companies, built roads and bridges and made government responsive to people’s needs. To be sure, even before his two trials, there had been 15 investigations, averaging more than one a year, into accusations that he had sold state jobs, pocketed $20,000 from a Korean lobbyist, taken illegal campaign contributions and cheated on his income taxes. But he had never been indicted. And in his previous election, he had gotten more votes than any other gubernatorial candidate in Louisiana history. Then, however, he sat out a term (the state constitution says a governor can hold office only twice in a row), and he had gotten involved in acquiring state hospital permits and selling them to a hospital corporation. And when he was elected governor again, there was still another investigation; and this time a grand jury returned the fraud and racketeering charges.
Some of the most destructive allegations involved his gambling. Dice is his game. Edwin Edwards once charged 600 supporters $10,000 apiece, used most of the money to pay off campaign loans--then spent the rest to take his benefactors on a grand and extravagant party through Paris and Monte Carlo, where he won $15,000 shooting craps. People cheered. “Fast Eddie,” they called him. But then, during his racketeering trial, the prosecutor introduced evidence that Edwards was more than an occasional gambler; that he kept $800,000 in cash in a safe at home; that he dipped into it to go to Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe and Atlantic City as often as five times a year; that casinos sent couriers to Baton Rouge to fetch suitcases full of money when he crapped out. Still worse, the prosecutor said nothing about his winnings and spoke only of his losses, which had amounted over the years to more than $2 million, including credit slips he had signed for his friends. To bankroll such huge payoffs, the prosecutor had implied, must have been the motive for his crime.
In the end, the prosecutor could not make any of the charges stick. But plenty of damage had been done. Although Edwards, a Democrat, pleaded that this was nothing more than a vendetta by a Republican prosecutor, it was undeniable that he had been placed on trial like a common crook, that the testimony about his gambling had made him look like a reckless fool and that he had been forced to spend a year and a half in a legal fight, much of it in federal court in New Orleans. Louisiana’s economy was already a shambles, and, by the time he finally was able to return to the capitol, it was too late: His reputation was in tatters, and the economy had gone into a free fall. A young congressman named Buddy Roemer had taken him on at the polls--and forced him into a runoff. It looked to Edwin Edwards as if he was headed for his only defeat in 19 campaigns for public office that began with his hometown City Council. He withdrew.
“It gutted him,” says his son Stephen, 37. “Other than something happening to one of his kids, there is nothing that could have hurt him as much as the feeling that people did not trust him.” Stephen Edwards says his father is on a campaign of redemption. And his father’s television program makes it clear that Stephen is right. Looking straight into the camera, Edwin Edwards declares: “I am sorry that I did not do more to retain your confidence. . . . I intend to restore that trust and confidence by my actions.”
Sackcloth and ashes, however, do not wear well on Edwards. He uses more than half of his television presentation to launch a bare-knuckle attack on Buddy Roemer. Among other disparagements, he cites a poll by the South Baton Rouge Journal showing that 78% of Louisiana legislators trust him more than Roemer--and that only 17% trust Roemer more.
“The rest,” Edwards says, with a chuckle, “don’t trust either one of us.”
EDWIN EDWARDS LIVES IN A BATON ROUGE NEIGHBORHOOD OF comfortable two-story brick homes around a small lake. He is in the kitchen, pouring fresh tomato juice into cut-glass goblets. There is something private about him, even shy. “Would you like some?”
We take tomato juice into the living room. He has lived here since his divorce. When he and his wife, Elaine, were still married, they had a million-dollar estate. But politicians are difficult to live with, and none more so than Edwards--especially when it comes to stories about other women: schoolteachers, flight attendants, co-eds, beauty queens, the unusually attractive wives of doctors, lawyers, members of the Legislature. Some of the stories are true. Philandering and hypocritical puritanism are habits usually associated with politicians, but “Edwards never fell into that trap,” says John Maginnis, one of Louisiana’s most respected political reporters. In his book, “The Last Hayride,” about one of Edwards’ gubernatorial campaigns, Maginnis says: “You could say or write what you wanted of his personal life, but you didn’t call him a hypocrite. How could you? His passes have become so well known that women, from waitresses to society matrons, all but came to expect them, were even at times disappointed not to have the chance to say no, or yes.
“Far from trying to dampen the rumors, Edwards fanned them with his own double-entendres and self-incriminating asides. Asked by reporters outside a federal courthouse if he thought his phone was tapped, he said no but added: ‘Except by jealous husbands.’ His image and his resulting immunity were so firmly established by the end of his first term,” Maginnis says, that Edwards could truthfully say that the only personal scandal that could damage him would be to get “caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”
Elaine Edwards, a dark-haired beauty, did her best: She, too, tried to joke about her husband’s amorous adventures--sometimes at his expense. Maginnis tells a story about Elaine Edwards and an accusation that her husband once took five women to his Las Vegas hotel room--one after the other, all on the same night. That, she said, simply could not be true. “Anyone who knows my husband knows he would have been asleep after the first one.”
But it got to be too much. In 1989, they were divorced. And now Edwin Edwards has a new lady. He says that neither he nor she has any desire to marry. As we finish the tomato juice, his new lady walks downstairs. Her name is Candace Picou. Her hair is blond and tied back in a white bow. She wears a blue and white and pink blouse and white shorts that show off her long, tan legs. She has light green eyes. She is 26 and a student nurse at Louisiana State University. Edwards says to me later: “I’m 64 years old, and it is very flattering. Some people say that at 64 years old a man should be looking for a nurse. Others say that he ought to be looking for the best-looking young lady he can find.”
“I’ve combined the two.”
Not only does he have no patience with puritanism and its attendant hypocrisy, but there is also something about Louisiana that makes his attitude politically acceptable, even something to be applauded. Over lunch, he invites me to campaign with him; and at one point we travel to Crowley, his hometown. It is a small county seat, where one might expect to find some chagrin about the way Edwin Edwards behaves. But people accept it openly. People stop him. “Cher!” “Comment ca va?” A handful gather in the office of the clerk of the court to greet him. “Did I tell you the joke I heard about you the other day?” someone asks. “You died and went to heaven.”
“That’s a joke?” Edwards says.
Everybody laughs. “That’s exactly what somebody else said. No. Here’s the joke. So you get up there, and St. Peter says, ‘Well, Edwin, you made it.’ He says, ‘Now then, go to your pillow over there and enjoy yourself.’ So you go over there. And you come back about an hour later, and you say, ‘St. Peter, I need some companionship. Where’s all the women?’ So he says, I’ll send somebody over.’ About an hour later there’s a knock on the door, and there’s Phyllis Diller. And so you run back to St. Peter, and you say, ‘Phyllis Diller! Come on! I did a lot better than that when I was on earth.’ And so St. Peter says, ‘Well, Edwin, you just barely made it in here. You can’t expect too much.’ And then about that time Buddy Roemer walks past, and you look at him, and you say, ‘There goes Buddy Roemer with Michelle Pfeiffer! How in the hell did he get Michelle Pfeiffer?’ And so St. Peter, he says, ‘Well, Edwin, you just don’t understand. Michelle just barely made it in here.’ ”
None of which means that Edwin Edwards is not a serious politician. We go from Crowley to Shreveport. This is Buddy Roemer’s home turf. “Some say it ought to be in Texas,” says Edwards. “Some say it’s another world, that it’s conservative, Protestant, fundamentalist--not like fun-lovin’, free-swingin’ Acadiana. Now I’m not saying I necessarily say it. But some say that.” He chuckles. “Did you hear what I said when I found out David Duke was running for the Senate last time? I said, ‘Well, maybe I oughta run. I’m a wizard under the sheets.’ ”
On his visit to Shreveport, Edwards engages in some no-nonsense politicking. He is Catholic, but as a teen-ager he drifted into the fundamentalist Nazarene church. Later, he returned to the Catholic fold; but he still can preach with the best from the brush arbor. And one of the reasons he has come to Shreveport is to speak to the Louisiana Baptist Convention. It is meeting in its 118th annual session, and in attendance are most of the pre-eminent black ministers in the state--including the president of the National Baptist Convention. The assemblage stirs as Edwards takes the pulpit. He does not speak; he preaches. He gathers these ministers and their aspirations into his arms. He talks of Saul of Tarsus who became Paul the Apostle. He quotes from Revelations. And he pledges aid for the poor and the downtrodden. “Not everybody can raise himself by his bootstraps.”
“Amen,” comes the reply.
“Not everybody can make it on his own.” He will help. They have his word. And it is a word he will never break. “ ‘Be ye not deceived. God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.’ ”
“Amen!” It is louder now.
And soon these ministers are swept up in his words. They listen. They reply with “Amens” and “That’s right!” And at the end, they applaud wholeheartedly.
I am reminded of another story John Maginnis tells. During his 1983 campaign for governor, Edwards had just brought 10,000 believers to their feet on the 4th of July in the United Pentecostal Church campground tabernacle not far from Tioga, and Maginnis had gone backstage to seek an explanation for this overwhelming display of fervor. “How,” he asked the Rev. Clarence Bates, who had come to his vocation after serving as a bodyguard for Earl Long, “can any church intent on holiness and morality support a man like Edwin Edwards, who is known to gamble, chase women . . . and constantly be under investigation for corruption?”
Bates looked at Maginnis for a moment. “Well,” he said, “he doesn’t drink or smoke.”
How can this be? What is it about the Gret Stet that it embraces someone like Edwin Edwards?
What could it be about this place?
I ask Edwin Edwards.
“Well,” he says, “we’re a lot looser here. And more personal. I would say that in California not 2% of the population ever sees the governor. But here, I would bet you that 50% see all the candidates--and 70% probably see one or more of the candidates. It goes back to the French heritage, just a one-on-one sort of thing.”
He says his successful 1983 campaign for governor was a good example. It was famous for two things: One was his remark that his opponent, Gov. David Treen, was “so slow it takes him an hour and a half to watch ’60 Minutes.’ ” The other was an Edwin Edwards caravan that crossed the entire state. He spoke 109 times in seven days, a personal effort that reached hundreds of thousands of voters.
“You can read about it in Maginnis’ book. It’s a very interesting book. It’s unfair in that it depicts Treen as a total dummy and me as a total crook, which is just partly true.”
Which part? I ask.
“Well, he’s dumber than I’m a crook.”
WHEN I ARRIVED IN LOUISIANA, I KNEW ONLY THREE THINGS ABOUT Buddy Roemer. One was that he had vetoed three of the most restrictive anti-abortion bills in the land. The second was that he had bolted the Democratic Party, after years of playing Hamlet about it, and had become a Republican--and that the state Republican Party, like others, had found him hard to like, had refused to endorse him for reelection and had endorsed a congressman for governor instead. The third thing was that he, too, gambled. But his game was poker--and he was a penny-ante player compared to Edwin Edwards.
What I did not know was that Buddy Roemer’s daddy had gone to prison.
Charles Elson Roemer II, known as Budgie, had been big in Louisiana politics: a lobbyist, pollster, political analyst, campaign manager, then commissioner of administration under Gov. Edwards for eight years. There had been skirmishes with the law, investigations into state purchasing practices, his handling of state computer business. Then, on a terrible day in 1980, Buddy Roemer’s father was indicted on federal charges of conspiring to engage in bribery during the contracting of millions of dollars in state insurance. Also indicted was Carlos Marcello, the reputed crime boss of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. Budgie Roemer was convicted. So was Marcello. Buddy Roemer broke down and wept.
The indictment came in the midst of one of Buddy Roemer’s campaigns for Congress. His father maintained--and still does--his innocence. But the entirety of it presented Buddy Roemer with deep and unspeakable problems. One was political. Until he left for prison and after he got out, Budgie Roemer wanted to run his son’s campaigns, just as he had others with undeniable and admirable success. Now, however, he was a political liability. And Buddy Roemer cut him out. The other problem was personal. This was Buddy’s own father; and just as often as he told the voters, “He’s not running; I’m running,” he prefaced it with, “I love my daddy.” He returned often from Washington to visit his congressional district, and he drove or flew on Sundays to the federal prison in Fort Worth, Tex., to visit him.
After 15 months, Budgie Roemer was paroled. Within five years, both convictions--his and that of Marcello’s--were overturned on appeal. By then, Buddy Roemer was governor; and he wept again. But Budgie Roemer was bitter about being excluded from his son’s campaigns. A television reporter told him about his son’s tears, and the reporter recounted afterward that Budgie Roemer had simply laughed and replied dryly: “Buddy was the one person in the family who thought I was guilty.”
What had happened to his father so affected Buddy that he mounted a revolution against it. He squared off against Louisiana politics with his whole mind and his whole soul and every ounce of his energy. In 1987, when Buddy Roemer campaigned for governor against Edwards, he campaigned against a political system that he blamed for his father’s ruin and for his own pain. Certainly, he wanted to help Louisiana. But like Edwards today, Buddy Roemer was campaigning for redemption: his father’s redemption and the redemption of his family name.
He gathered about himself a cadre of young, idealistic true-believers--the Roemeristas, they were called: lieutenants in the Roemer Revolution.
With fire and brimstone, he berated Louisiana for its sins: unemployment, toxic wastes, low teacher pay, school dropouts, illiteracy, per capita debt, bad bond ratings and high rates of out-migration. He set severe limits for himself on campaign contributions and thundered at any candidate who did not. And he attacked Edwin Edwards like the Devil himself. “We must free Louisiana from the grip of political corruption,” he cried. “I want a governor who puts our pocketbook ahead of his!” At his inauguration, he hardly paused for breath. “The war is not over,” he declared. “It has just begun.”
Impatient, brash, angry, driven, he let nothing stop him, not even his own diabetes. He gave himself shots of insulin and worked 18 hours a day. He gathered around him the long-haired and bearded Roemeristas who had gotten him elected, and he made them his top state aides. His chief of staff was called “the keeper of the flame.” In a frenzy of reform, Roemer won new campaign funding laws, secured corporate insurance and liability improvements, obtained teacher pay increases, fought to have teachers tested for competency and toughened environmental enforcement.
At the same time, he danced Louisiana away from its financial crisis--which had the state just days from bankruptcy.
Then he hit a brick wall.
To restore Louisiana’s economy long-term, he attacked head-on one of the holiest of all sacred cows in Louisiana populist politics. It was the homestead tax exemption--which since the days of Huey Long had excused much if not all of the value of Louisiana homes from property taxes. And he wanted other changes, to shift the tax burden generally from corporations onto the people.
The Legislature killed his proposal.
Now Buddy Roemer, whose anger was running high anyway, simply exploded. He submitted a new plan. It left the homestead exemption alone and proposed a lesser change in the tax burden. But he still wanted a shift from businesses to individuals. This time the Legislature put his plan to a vote of the people.
They defeated it, 55% to 45%.
It had been a year to the day since he was elected governor--and now Buddy Roemer collapsed. He had taken a beating, politically, physically, emotionally. He stayed away from his office. He holed up inside the mansion. He saw few people. He curled up inside himself.
There were cruel jokes at the capitol.
Q: “What’s the difference between Elvis Presley and Buddy Roemer?
A: “We know Buddy Roemer is dead.”
His strident campaign had taken an additional toll.
People said it had grown into something ugly; that the Roemeristas had gotten self-righteous to the point of superiority; that it was impossible to approach them: Compromise was corrupt, and whatever they found to be less than ideal was simply evil. As for Roemer, people discovered that he could be snide and sanctimonious and dogmatic. They said he had become a bully. Some said he was arrogant, confrontational and intransigent.
Even some of his followers found him erratic. Some had stopped trusting his word. And now he was uncommunicative altogether.
Never an easygoing man, Roemer already had been divorced once; and his second marriage, to Patti Crocker, a former state fair queen with soft red hair and deep blue eyes, had been difficult at times, under the best of circumstances.
Now it became unbearable. One day at the mansion, Patti took their son, Dakota, who was 10, and walked out.
It broke Roemer’s heart.
“It was probably the first time in the governor’s life that he felt a little bit out of control,” says the man whom people call the governor’s guru. He is Danny Walker, 46, and he carries a three-ring binder decorated with a yellow butterfly and a red heart. He looks a little like a chubby cherub.
He and Buddy Roemer have been friends since high school. When Roemer went off to Harvard, Walker got a master’s degree in theology and then another in sociology from colleges in Texas. He came back to Louisiana and eventually took a state job in Baton Rouge administering federal anti-drug grants. He moved from Shreveport to do it--and stayed at the governor’s mansion for a while. He was there when Roemer finally hit the wall.
The best way, Danny Walker says, to describe the entirety of what happened to Roemer, and “what it did (to him) internally, psychologically, is a cancer--because it just ate him up. He was consumed by it . . .
“One night, I was at the dinner table, and I said: ‘Governor is what you are doing getting the results that you want with the Legislature?’ ” And he replied, “ ‘Well, Walker, you know it’s not!’ I said, ‘All right, is what you’re doing getting you the results right now you want politically?’ ” He said, “ ‘No.’ I said, ‘Is what you’re doing getting the results you want personally?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then, Governor, change something.’ ”
And with that, Danny Walker became the person in charge of Buddy Roemer’s emotional health. With his encouragement, Roemer did everything to win Patti back. He took dance lessons. He read books by Robert Fulghum, who wrote “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” and Og Mandino, who wrote “The Choice,” about self-discovery and the power of decisions.
Along with his staff, Roemer attended a Danny Walker retreat, called “Adventures in Attitudes,” and he invited Patti. At one point during the retreat, Walker urged everyone to place a rubber band around his wrist. “From now on and the rest of the seminar, when somebody says a negative about himself or puts you down, you go, ‘Cancel. Cancel.’ ”
Walker is wearing a rubber band on his right wrist--and with his left hand, he pops it to show me how it is done. Cancel. Cancel.
All of this was too much for Patti. On the second day of the retreat, she left. Word got out.
Popping rubber bands to cancel negative thoughts?
“Who is running state government these days?” demanded a reporter in print. “Shirley MacLaine?”
Buddy Roemer was undaunted. Once a week, he went with Walker to a comedy club. He took his advice about listening more. He heeded his admonition to “honor” people--”lift people up even when they don’t deserve it.”
And he took Walker’s counsel on how to handle the Legislature.
On opening day of the 1990 session, the assembled lawmakers expected to hear Roemer’s new proposals for higher education.
Instead, he talked about his “inflexibility and insensitivity” and his anger.
“Please forgive me, if you can,” he asked.
He talked about “listening” and “honor” and “sharing.” He said: “Let’s say goodby to ‘me’ and hello to ‘we’. . . . Let’s say goodby to the negative and welcome the positive.” Then he invited the Legislature to “light the campfire . . . I think it’s time to gather ‘round, hold hands, laugh, share dreams, find common ground, discover our fellowship, refocus our vision, feel the power of the tribal family . . .”
Buddy Roemer spoke of whittling wooden dogs, selling shoes in Africa, his mother-in-law’s travel plans--and twice about Patti.
One woman television reporter thought she understood. “It was his come-back-to-me-Patti speech.”
Others called it his “campfire speech.”
“What speech?” Rep. Elias (Bo) Ackal asked a reporter. “We’re talking about Chapter 11 (the bankruptcy of Louisiana), and he’s talking about a campfire.”
Last fall, the marriage of Buddy Roemer and Patti Crocker ended in divorce.
Walker has urged Roemer not to run for reelection. “He is a man 47, or 48 now, under tremendous stress. He has diabetes. His timetable physiologically is shorter than mine and yours.”
It would be just fine with the guru if the governor lost.
“If he loses, he wins.”
THE LOUISIANA CAPITOL HAS NO DOME, NO PORTICO. IT IS A 34-story limestone skyscraper, built by Huey Long as a monument to himself. The governor’s office is on the fourth floor--and Buddy Roemer says he wants to keep it for another four years. On his desk are a pack of Winstons, a book about Watergate and a bowl of apples. On the wall is a sign, 18 inches by 24 inches, given to him for Christmas by Walker. It says: “Honor.”
At his desk, the governor is diminutive. He is reading legislation. He weighs only 145 pounds soaking wet. He stands 5-feet-7. His eyes are so intense I cannot tell their color. He is wearing navy blue suit pants, a white shirt with thin, dark stripes and a wide tie with blue and green and red swirls. He looks like a bantam rooster.
I begin gingerly.
From what I have read and heard, would it be correct to say he is trying to change?
“I think trying is the right word.”
There was not much balance to his life?
“Some things are more clear to me, some things are less clear. Call it a midlife section of my life. Call it growing older.”
A midlife crisis?
“Crisis is a word that comes and goes. I’ve had a number of them in my life. I have not been immune to that. . . . I guess every person grows or goes through phases, but all of my growth and phasing was condensed in time and under pressure. And so I guess my changes that I have tried--and I like your word tried --to incorporate are more apparent than they’d be for other people.”
Is this going to make for more votes?
“Potentially, yes. Your word in your question that was the best was the word try . My word in response is potential . I think people are decent. I think people respect a good effort and an honest effort, don’t expect perfection . . . Most people that I know both laugh and cry, have ups and downs.”
What about his relationship with his father?
“Well, my dad’s a good person and a tough person, and he and I differ on some things. We will when we die. But we agree on important things, like love. He’s more of an old-style politician. He’s more practical. He’s also tougher than I am. . . . My goal for my father is for him to be my father, and not to be my adviser or my politician. To be my father.”
Is he helping with the campaign?
“You couldn’t stop him with a switch. I love my daddy, and he sees me every couple of weeks, and he gives me plenty of advice. And when I like the advice, I take it; and when I don’t, I don’t.”
Does his father consider this to be a bit disloyal?
“He has said that on occasion. He has flared on occasion that I don’t listen to his political advice more. And I don’t listen to it as much as he’d like still. I’m me. I’m not him.”
Is it true that his father once said: “Buddy was the one person in the family who thought I was guilty?”
“Well, I’m not going to respond to that. I love him like only a son can love a father, and I thought the political system just cut him in half. And that is part--and my opponents know this--that’s part of my anger at the political system in Louisiana.
“I do not like it at all. The wink and nod . . .”
So this is, indeed, partly about redemption?
“No question about that. You are your experiences, and that was an experience of mine that seared me deep. This is my daddy who was tried . . . found guilty, went to jail . . .”
Clearly, Buddy Roemer is a man who has bled because of Louisiana politics.
Why is it the way it is? What makes Louisiana this way?
“Politics here can be as Byzantine as in Lebanon, which is Mediterranean.”
The thought is not original. Liebling said the same thing when he wrote about Louisiana 40 years ago. The question is why. Why is it that way?
“In part because that is the way people wanted it. It’s in part because those who became political leaders, through accident and chance, believed that. It’s in part because of the strength of a few men who have been governor in the past, like Earl and Huey. It is in part because the advantage of Byzantine Mediterranean politics is divide and conquer.
“I like our Mediterranean flavor, by the way. There’s an emphasis on individualism here. I like that. There’s an emphasis that is Mediterranean about being creative. I like that. There’s a Mediterranean--and I’m thinking Greek and Lebanese and Egyptian and Italian--kind of forgiveness. People forgive you here.
“Wow! What a powerful thing that is.”
IT’S 9 A.M. ON SUNDAY, THE APPOINTED HOUR.
David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, is naked but for some shorts--turquoise with orange trim. They go halfway to his knees. He is standing in the doorway of his house, which also is his legislative office, which also is his campaign office. His hair is tousled. His eyes look bleary.
I apologize for waking him.
“That’s all right,” he replies. He holds the door open with one hand and rubs his face with the other. “I wasn’t asleep--I just haven’t showered yet.” He pauses to squint, cockeyed, at the sunlight. He gives me half a smile. We were scheduled to drive deep into southern Louisiana to campaign at a blessing of the fishing fleet at Delacroix on Bayou Terre aux Boeufs. But the New Orleans paper says Gov. Roemer has “stunned the Legislature by torpedoing a redistricting compromise he had agreed to” a day before.
“I don’t know if I’m going to go to the fleet blessing,” David Duke says. “The Legislature is going to be in session today.” He pauses to think. “Whatever I do, I won’t be leaving until 10 or so.” He pauses again, trying to sort things out. “Come back in 45 minutes.”
I drive around. This is a blue-collar, white-flight suburb, part of Metairie, near New Orleans. Houses have a hard-scrabble look. David Duke’s is a two-story, dirty-white clapboard place with black shutters. It needs paint. He has window boxes, but all the plants are dead. I turn right and drive past a squat building called the Tavern. It has a Busch sign in a window. Another sign pronounces a solemn vow: “Open 24 Hours, Seven Days a Week.” By now it is 9:10 a.m. on Sunday; and, indeed, the front door to the Tavern is open. A Harley-Davidson, blue and aging, stands outside. Another is parked nearby. It is black and muddy.
At 10 a.m., I return to David Duke’s place. The Legislature, he says, will convene at 2 p.m.--but he will go to Delacroix anyway, because he can make it back in time. We climb into a white Ford van.
David Duke is 6-feet-3. He is lean and muscular. His eyes are blue, and they fade to green in the sunlight. He has a light complexion and wavy, dark blond hair. It is still tousled. It seems to be styled that way, in a kind of professional tousle. When some of it tumbles toward his eyes, he brushes it away with self-conscious vanity. He has but one apparent physical flaw--big ears. He is wearing faded blue jeans, white Reeboks and a white polo shirt. He puts on a pair of sun glasses--and lotion to protect his skin.
He gives new meaning to a wink and a nod. To David Duke, they do not necessarily signal the affirmation of a political deal. To him they are a way of communicating with his supporters without embarrassing them in public.
Some are open about it. “I want to shake your hand,” they say. Or “I hope you win.” Or “I’d know your face anywhere; and you’ve got my vote, man. You’ve got it.”
Others, however, move their heads up and down ever so slightly and smile. Sometimes they glance to see if anybody is watching. When he notices this, Duke nods back and gives them a thumbs up--not out at arm’s length, but down alongside his trousers, where it is not so likely to be seen.
“We’re gonna do it,” he tells them, quietly.
Sometimes one or two will reply, just as quietly: “Expect to see you in there.”
He calls this his “hidden vote.” These are the voters, David Duke figures, who will make him governor. When poll-takers ask these voters how they intend to cast their ballots, they lie. And that is why David Duke declares confidently: “I’m in the lead.” He proudly recalls that he won 60% of the white vote when he ran against Bennett Johnston last year. And he says he has done his math in this race for the governorship. He pauses, smiles. “Sixty-six percent of the white vote wins.”
Against that chance, a group called the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism has mounted a pitched battle in opposition to David Duke. The coalition--a group headed by ministers and academics--has dug deeply into his background. It has augmented its research with information from several Louisiana newspapers. And its profile of Duke has met with no credible challenge.
According to the coalition:
* As a sophomore at Louisiana State University, David Duke advocated white supremacy and anti-Semitism. During a local radio program, he argued that blacks should be sent to Africa and Jews exterminated. The LSU student newspaper, Reveille, quoted him as saying: “I’m a National Socialist. You can call me a Nazi if you want to.” Three years later, in 1972, Duke was arrested on charges of making Molotov cocktails. The charge was dropped. One year after that, he joined the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and eventually he became their top leader--or grand wizard.
* Using the pseudonym “Mohammed X,” Duke wrote “African Atto,” a 70-page manual teaching blacks ways to fight whites in the streets. His purpose was to tempt radical blacks to send for it--and thereby provide the Klan with their names and addresses. His writing career took a turn a few years later when he adopted another pseudonym, “Dorothy Vanderbilt,” and co-authored “Finders Keepers,” a book for women with the subtitle: “Finding and Keeping the Man You Want.” It included advice on oral and anal sex and told women how to exercise their vaginas to make intercourse more pleasurable for men.
* In 1976, David Duke organized a meeting in Metairie of a loose confederation of Nazi and Klan groups and was convicted of a charge arising from an assault on a police officer. Four years later, he quit the Klan and founded the National Assn. for the Advancement of White People. In 1989, David Duke became a Republican and won a seat in the state Legislature, from a House district in Metairie. Tulane University researchers discovered him selling Nazi and racist literature from his legislative office.
* In a 1989 interview with a Tulane student, he said blacks in general tend to create crime. He said the top 10% of college graduates should be given special low-interest loans to have more children, while “unproductive” citizens should be encouraged economically to have fewer children.
* Until the mid-1980s, he celebrated Hitler’s birthday every year. And during the 1980s, he gambled in Las Vegas for as much as $10,000 a game.
IN THE VAN TO DELAcroix, it is manifest that David Duke, too, is seeking redemption--more desperately, even, than Edwin Edwards or Buddy Roemer. He needs badly to be saved from his past. David Duke must distance himself from his own history as much as he can--and become respectable.
But that is like dressing hate in a pinstripe suit.
He attacks the coalition opposing him. He calls it a cheap shot to say he promoted and sold Nazi and racist literature from his legislative office.
“We don’t have legislative offices in Louisiana,” he says. Then he says he does have a legislative office. “It is upstairs in the building we just came from.” He says he sold the books downstairs. All he was doing, he says, was keeping an available supply of hard-to-locate books--”a bookstore for controversial subjects.” Besides, he says, he already had stopped selling “controversial books.”
It was just that “a couple of people from Tulane (had) come, and they said, ‘Well, do you still have a couple of these books?’ ”
He denies ever being “a member” of a Nazi organization.
But he cannot deny wearing a Nazi uniform when he picketed William Kunstler. There are photographs of him, swastika armband and all. He says, however, that what he did was just “a stunt.” He says he was only 19 at the time--and that his protest lasted just 15 minutes.
What about the interview in which he said he could be called a Nazi. “No. Never. Never involved in Nazi groups.” But had he not spoken for a neo-Nazi front at LSU? He concedes that he wrote for a group--he does not name it--and says the group “picked some articles for a group called NSLF.” What is that?
“The National Socialist Liberation Front.” Then he acknowledges: “When I was younger, I was flirting with all sorts of different groups.” Including the Nazis? “Yes.”
And so it goes, all the way to Delacroix. The more we talk, the more David Duke tries to disengage from his past--but it is a messy divorce.
The sex book? “Piece of fluff.” The book for radical blacks? He wrote it, but it was meant only “to expose black racism.” His arrest for making a Molotov cocktail? “We were making kerosene lanterns.” His arrest in the assault on a policeman? “A misdemeanor, incitement to riot.” The birthday parties for Hitler? “Total malarkey.” But then: “Somebody may have made fun (of Hitler) one night, or something, at my place--making fun of Hitler or something like that.”
What about breeding intelligence by giving child-bearing loans to top college graduates--and economically penalizing those who do not measure up if they have children?
“An off-the-cuff thing. . . . I don’t think that’s workable.”
What about gambling for $10,000 a throw?
“I’ve played dice before, but I’ve never ever made a bet of anywhere near that size.” However: “A couple of times in my life I’ve been at a table where it’s run up real high during the course of an evening--where it has run up that high.”
What about a doctor’s report that he has had a face lift, a nose job and a chin implant?
“I never got a face lift.” But then: “I had a broken nose repaired and I had some scarring here, which he (the doctor) fixed.” He touches his face. And then: “I had some precancerous conditions that I had worked on a little bit.”
David Duke does not deny having been grand wizard of the Knights of the KKK. But he repudiates his Nazi associations and his Klan membership. He says he is neither a racist nor an extremist--only a strong conservative.
In fact, Duke calls himself a civil-rights leader.
He says he is fighting for white rights, which are under siege. And now he gets to the heart of the matter. The truth is that David Duke is frightened--afraid of the demise of what he calls “white European Christian” culture.
Because of Latinos. “You don’t have to go very deep into the streets of Los Angeles to see that. We’re becoming more and more like a Third World country every day.”
And African-Americans. “When Jesse Jackson goes to Stanford and says, ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho, Western culture has to go,’ that to me is an attack on the very basic foundation of this country.”
To put it bluntly: “The very foundations of the country are being wiped away.”
He is a man on “a mission.”
He wants to:
1) Stop illegal immigration. 2) Make sure everyone in America learns English. 3) Stop redistricting to provide non-whites with more representation. 4) End affirmative action. 5) Stop busing. 6) Refuse people welfare unless they work. 7) Test welfare recipients for drug use and stop their payments if they do not pass. 8) Evict drug offenders who live in public housing. 9) Teach welfare recipients birth control and increase payments for those who go for specified periods without having illegitimate children.
All of these programs, I point out, affect non-whites.
“They really don’t,” he says.
Then he says: “Well, they affect them.” But he says the programs would help minorities as well as whites.
And nothing about this platform is racist?
“No. I don’t see anything. If anything, I think equal rights for all is anti-racist.” What does he say when racists support him?
“I say, ‘You should redirect your anger, not at the minorities per se, but at the government policies which are hurting everyone, black and white.’ Also I tell them, ‘It’s not a question of being against anybody--but it is really a question of trying to be for your values.’ ”
Does he turn such people away?
“Well, you deal with reality, and I don’t think that’s a major factor in terms of votes.” Then he says: “I’m not seeking them.” And then: “The ones who are intolerant, I don’t want.”
The road ends at Delacroix. Beyond are bayous, islands and the sea. The van stops.
The side door opens. A short, tan, slightly potbellied man gives David Duke a big welcome. He is Joe McDonald, 56, a charter captain for fishing boats. He has been here for 11 years, and he knows this part of the world.
“Good to see you!” he says. “You’re in Duke country, son. You ain’t got to worry about it down here.”
“I know,” David Duke says, smiling.
The conversation wanders through fishing and politics.
“You’ll probably carry 90% of this island, easy,” Capt. Joe says, talking about Delacroix itself, which is surrounded by water.
I am astonished. Ninety percent?
“Sure,” Capt. Joe says. In fact, Duke stands to carry the whole parish by 70%.
“They think like he does,” Capt. Joe says. The talk wanders a bit more, and then he adds: “I like it down here, man. . . . No niggers, baby. . . . No niggers down here.”
There is nervous laughter.
I wait for Duke to tell Capt. Joe that he does not want his support--or to give him a talk, maybe, about how it is “not a question of being against anybody. . .”
David Duke looks at me.
He says two words.
The blessing of the fleet is a big success. There is a boat parade. Duke rides on a fishing boat called “Mr. Casey.” From atop the pilothouse, he waves regally at people on other boats and on the edge of the bayou.
“Duke! Duke! Duke! Duke!” people chant.
He marvels: “And we didn’t even organize it.”
Like the others, I ask David Duke my question: What is it about this state?
His mind is on the crowd.
“Oh, I think it’s an interesting cultural thing,” he replies. “We have the French parishes down here in the south. And we have the Anglo-Saxon to the north, and we have the food, and we have--we just have an interesting combination of heritages, and it just kind of makes for a political gumbo.
“And it’s very spicy.”
YES, IT IS. MAYBE THAT IS so because there is no dominant majority here.
Maybe this place is the way it is because it still has more resources than most places ever had--and the state owns many of them. Maybe that gives more people more interest in state government. Maybe it is the patronage--which still flourishes, despite Buddy Roemer. Maybe it is the fact that people here want politics to be entertaining--so it is.
But probably there is more to it even than that. What is it about this place?
At Huey’s tomb, the shadows fade. Clouds begin to build on the far side of the Mississippi River. In the distance, there is a rifle-shot of lightning. Soon, a heavy, gray blanket of rain moves out of the south.
The clouds cross the sun, and a breeze lifts over the capitol grounds.
Thunder rumbles. Big, flat raindrops fall.
And there is silence.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.