The night before the Louisiana gubernatorial election, Edwin W. Edwards went to church. Greater St. Stephen Baptist in central city New Orleans received him as if he were a visiting prince. Edwards knelt near the altar. He was blessed by the black minister. After two years of enduring David Duke's racist bile, a swelling congregation cheered the man whose 1971 working-class populist coalition launched Louisiana's post-civil-rights era.
Edwards' sins--corruption trials that damaged him, despite acquittal; Las Vegas high-rolling, and cynical environmental policies--were all forgiven. He was now the great liberator.
Blacks constitute one-third of Louisiana's registered voters. The next day, a record 80% of them went to the polls to help Edwards crush Duke, 61%-39%. Edwards also cut into Duke's base, attracting nearly half the white vote, most of it upper income. But it was the overwhelming black turnout that dramatically helped to change the outcome of what was thought to be a close contest. Duke's racial foil got mad--and even.
To be sure, Duke's defeat was the result of other factors. He was blasted by the editorial writers of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the state's largest newspaper, for threatening convention business. The commander of the Louisiana National Guard took a shot at him. And his neo-Nazi and KKK past, despite being largely ignored by such video lions as Larry King, Phil Donahue and Ted Kopple, caught up with him.
Blacks resented the TV coverage that gave Duke a forum for his transparent bigotry. "The election was a very strong message from a majority of people in this state, not just the black community, that we are not going to allow anyone to use half-truths and vicious, malicious attacks . . . to promote his own personal agenda," said Jon Johnson, a black state senator.
Yet from Duke's 1989 election to the state legislature to his primary victory over Gov. Buddy Roemer last month, black leaders had mounted no strong protest. Only when blacks realized that Duke could become governor did they mobilize. The catalyst was a televised debate between Duke and Edwards.
Duke's adversarial persona relies on a stream of distortions and interruptive tactics. When asked about his racist history, for example, Duke's stock response during the campaign was to apologize for "my past intolerance" and then proclaim himself a born-again Christian. But during a second televised debate, Duke was trapped by his own words.
Norman Robinson, anchorman of WDSU here, first read some of Duke's past comments: "Jews belong in the ash bin of history" and "horses contributed more to the building of American civilization than blacks."
"As a minority, I am scared, sir," Robinson continued. He asked Duke to "convince" him that minorities would be safe should he win.
As Duke tepidly apologized, Robinson interrupted him. "We're talking about political genocide," said Robinson. "Are you, as a new-found Christian, willing to apologize to minorities . . . whom you have so dastardly insulted, sir?"
Duke lamely asked forgiveness, then denounced reverse racism.
"As well as against black people?" Robinson asked, again interrupting Duke.
"I don't think you're really being fair to me, sir," Duke said.
"I don't think you're really being honest, sir," replied Robinson.
It was startling TV.
The following morning, the station's switchboard was flooded with angry callers complaining about the anchorman's treatment of Duke. But by afternoon, calls praising Robinson were pouring in.
"I think Norman's questioning was a turning point for blacks," recalled State Sen.-elect Marc Morial, a black. "Before that, there was a fear of questioning him in some quarters. Too many people in Nazi Germany made (that) mistake."
In Mississippi, a little-known Republican, Kirk Fordice, pushed Duke's issue buttons--opposition to set-asides and affirmative action, welfare abuse--to upset the incumbent governor, Ray Mabus. As a result, some pundits have argued that Duke's message could successfully spread if peddled by other conservatives who are not burdened with Duke's history.
Morial disagrees. "Fordice won because of apathy--a 40% black turnout. Duke scared blacks, and lost big."
As Duke tries to take his politics national, he leaves behind a state Republican Party that lost its incumbent governor and lieutenant governor while suffering the return of the Democrat Establishment, including a record 31 black legislators.
How Duke fares in presidential primaries, should he run, depends in large part on how the media in other states uses the record that wrecked him and his party in Louisiana. In primary states with fewer blacks than Louisiana, the danger is that he'll continue to get free air time instead of hard reporting about the Nazi beliefs that form his moral core.