Klan-Linked Duke Attracts Voters
State's latest anti-hero runs hard, could force incumbent Democrat Johnston into a runoff. LOUISIANA: SENATE CAMPAIGN
BOSSIER CITY, LA. — `DAN, the Man,'' as he called himself, was wearing a bright-blue David Duke T-shirt and David Duke hat. Waiting for a political rally to begin, he explained why so many Louisianans are excited about David Duke, candidate for the United States Senate and former grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. ``He's for the workingman,'' Dan explains. ``Duke's going to get these loafers off welfare. If you get a paycheck, you're going to earn it,'' says Dan, a communications worker.
``I'm a baby-boomer,'' Dan continues. ``Baby-boomers are interested in things happening for us. A workingman can stand just so much. Government is just take, take, take, with nothing coming back. We're drained.''
State Representative Duke, Louisiana's newest political antihero, has touched a chord with thousands of voters here. He is shaking the Bayou State's political establishment, and threatening incumbent Democratic Sen. J. Bennett Johnston.
Politicians who once ignored Duke are now throwing thousands of dollars into TV spots in an effort to stop him.
It's quite a performance by a man who once paraded in a Nazi uniform, who expressed intolerance for blacks in his Klan days, and who still heads the National Association for the Advancement of White People, which he founded.
Duke, who has been ``excommunicated'' by top Republican officials, but who still insists on wearing a Republican hat, arouses passions on all sides as this race rushes to the finish line on Oct. 6.
Polls show Duke second, behind Mr. Johnston, in a seven-way race. If Johnston falls short of 50 percent, he could be thrown into a run-off with Duke next month.
The prospect of a Duke-Johnston shootout frightens some Louisianans, but it thrills others.
``I don't think there's anybody in the United States that could adequately debate him,'' says Duke critic Fletcher Thorne-Thomsen, chairman of M. L. Bath Company Ltd. Duke is a consummate liar, and there's no way to beat that, Mr. Thorne-Thomsen says.
But L. C. Schmidt, an Air Force retiree in Shreveport, says Duke is a savior. ``I'm proud to say I'm for Duke,'' he confides. ``I'm for America. We've got to change things.''
Tom Brown, another Duke supporter, says that ``the message is conservative.'' Mr. Brown concedes that ``Duke's past is troubling to many of his supporters ... but Senator Johnston also had his days of segregation.''
Lance Hill, director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, founded to oppose Duke, calls Duke's campaign a Trojan horse for intolerance. He charges that Duke, unlike previous Dixie leaders such as George Wallace, isn't truly Southern, but springs out of Nazi ideology.
Thorne-Thomsen says: ``Duke is very, very, very dangerous. He can incite people to a point where they make threats. ... It is very much parallel to what happened in Germany before World War II.''
Ironically, both sides feel periled. At a rally this week, Duke good-naturedly chided more than 700 supporters because few had Duke bumper stickers on their cars. Were they afraid?
``I know. I know,'' Duke said sympathetically. ``You still have your windshields, right? OK, OK, it's not all that bad.''
Duke's supporters speak of death threats against their candidate; they point out the remains of swastikas painted by vandals on Duke's Shreveport headquarters; they talk of enemies flattening the tires of cars with Duke stickers.
On the other side, KTAL-TV, Channel 6 in Shreveport, this week pulled an anti-Duke commercial off the air after receiving a bomb threat. Thorne-Thomsen also tells of mail handlers who refused to process 7,000 letters being sent to Louisiana religious leaders to alert them about Duke. The mailing was canceled.
The Duke phenomenon has reached all the way to Washington, D.C., where national GOP leaders are trying to distance the party from the former Klansman. The officially endorsed Republican candidate here is state Sen. Ben Bagert, who is a weak third, but gaining.
All this commotion is being stirred up by a man whose speaking style lacks the fire of George Wallace (though Duke appeals to many of the same racial prejudices), or the inspiration of Martin Luther King Jr. (though Duke sprinkles Biblical references throughout his speeches). Even so, Duke has hit this Gulf state like an autumn hurricane.
One reason is hot-button issues like flag-burning and welfare. Another is just plain hard work. This week, during one 72-hour period, Duke got only six hours sleep between airplane flights, stump speeches, and the all-night filming of a lengthy television commercial. Despite his weariness, which made him snap impatiently at aides, he stayed for nearly an hour after his speech here to shake hands, scribble autographs, and trade stories with hundreds of supporters.
Men and women alike consider Duke handsome and charismatic. In the receiving line, many women, gushing about his good looks, insist on posing for photographs. Men say Duke is finally voicing thoughts that other politicians will only confide in private.
On his way to a rally here, Duke was interviewed while squeezed uncomfortably into the back seat of a compact sedan. His political appeal, based on that interview, is both obvious and subtle.
It is obvious because, like many politicians this year, Duke rails against higher taxes, liberalism, the huge budget deficit, the failures of education, political-action committees, and big-money interests.
It is subtle because Duke also takes swipes at targets like illegitimate births, affirmative action, and minority set-asides that could have racial motives.
On education: ``I would say improving education in this country would be my top priority. I would repeal the most damaging program in public education over the past 30 years in America, which is forced busing.''
On welfare: ``I would fundamentally change the social-welfare system and encourage work, productivity, to get the shirkers off the welfare rolls. I would get drugs out of welfare and out of public housing, and reverse the welfare birthrate to start diminishing the underclass, rather than increasing it.''
On his Klan past: ``I've learned that you don't have to put down other races to preserve your own heritage, or to match your own way of life. When you're young, you're pretty strident. ... But you get a little older and you realize that we're in a game in this country where we're all going to win. And the truth is, we're not going to be able to solve the problems in the white community unless we solve the problems in the black community. ... And you don't solve those problems by hatred, but you also don't solve them by running away from the truth, either.''
On America today: ``We're a wonderful country that's fallen. We're losing our schools. We're losing our streets. We've gone from the best educational system in the world to the point where we're in last place among Western nations in math and science. ... To get back what we once had is going to take us relearning those fundamental principles we once had that made America great ... and that's rewarding excellence ... and getting a climate of achievement ... not a climate of the modern welfare state.''