Former Klan Wizard Claims He is Kinder and Gentler But Doubts Remain With AM-Duke-Thumbnail
NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ David Duke’s race for the Republican presidential nomination is being splashed across the news on a scale that goes far beyond the one-time Ku Klux Klan leader’s accomplishments.
Much of the 41-year-old presidential hopeful’s career has been spent in the bubbling cauldron of fringe-group politics, fueled by hatred of minorities. His one term in the Louisiana House tells little of the story.
Instead, speeches, interviews and clippings trace the Duke record from the Nazi slogans of college days to the softer rhetoric and appeal for middle- class acceptance that mark his latest campaigns.
″I’ve had intolerant moments,″ Duke says. ″I regret any sort of intolerance that I’ve ever had.″
The assuring words contrast sharply with the Duke of old, who baited minorities in crude fashion. In 1976, he sauntered into the Louisiana House chamber leading a white companion in blackface on a leash to disrupt a ceremony honoring a Reconstruction-era black governor.
Such episodes assured him of publicity even as his victory in a 1989 state legislative race showed his viability as a candidate. The combination propelled him to credible if unsuccessful showings for the U.S. Senate in 1990 and governor of Louisiana last fall.
In both races, he portrayed himself as the only true champion of the conservative masses and a crusader for welfare reform. Gone were the brazen gestures of yesterday.
And yet the theme of racial antagonism lingers in subtler fashion. The Democratic Party is ″the party of Jesse Jackson and Ron Brown,″ says Duke.
President Bush, he declares, ″sold out the Republican Party″ in compromising with Democrats to produce a civil rights bill to combat discrimination against women and minorities in the workplace.
The romantic notion of America as a melting pot obviously leaves him cold and he warns of illegal immigration as a threat to his vision for the future. ″I think blacks can live with it, but our civilization is overwhelmingly European and Christian,″ he says.
Duke insists that his views on race have changed as he has found religion. ″Over the last three years I’ve gotten closer to Christ than ever before in my life,″ he says.
A sharp reversal. His ties to white supremacy and anti-Semitic groups go back to his teen-age years in New Orleans as the son of a petroleum engineer who traveled frequently and an alcoholic mother, according to a biography by Michael Zatarain, ″David Duke: Evolution of a Klansman.″
Duke first attracted attention as a student in 1969, proclaiming himself a Nazi and espousing racist views in speeches at Louisiana State University’s Free Speech Alley.
He was arrested twice in 1972 - once for allegedly making a Molotov cocktail and once for fraudulent fund raising - according to the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism. Charges were dropped both times.
Leadership of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan faction followed. He became a Grand Wizard in 1975.
In 1976, Duke was arrested for inciting a riot after he urged a group of Klan members to harass a policeman by surrounding his squad car and chanting ″White power 3/8″ He was convicted in 1979.
Duke left the Klan in 1980. He said there was no way to overcome its negative image. Critics said he left after being accused of trying to sell a secret Klan membership list to a rival faction’s leader. That same year, he founded the National Association for the Advancement of White People.
When critics accuse him of never having held a real job, Duke points to his nine-year management of the group. He stepped down to run for governor, but the organization still operates out of his suburban New Orleans office.
Duke was fined $50 in Forsyth County, Ga., in 1987 for attempting to block a civil rights march. The following year he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Shunned by the Democrats, he ran as the candidate of the Populist Party, whose members included Klansmen, neo-Nazis and Skinheads.
As a Louisiana legislator, Duke introduced bills that, among other things, would have denied welfare to mothers convicted of drug offenses, ended race- based affirmative action and provided financial incentives to welfare mothers to use long-term birth control devices.
Each bill suffered a similar fate - diluted by the House, killed by the state Senate. The only bill he got through the Legislature was a non- controversial measure concerning jury conduct.
In fact, Duke’s arrest record is longer than the list of bills he got through the Legislature. But he dismisses questions about his periodic problems with the police.
″I think every civil rights leader - and that’s exactly what I’ve been - they’ve all had run-ins,″ he says.
As a candidate, Duke has gotten considerable flak for his lack of a military record. He portrayed himself in speeches as a Vietnam War hero. In fact, he held a State Department job as an English teacher in Laos.
But Duke was at no time in the Army. In fact, he was refused an ROTC commission at Louisiana State. Former Louisiana Gov. Dave Treen and other have described Duke as a draft dodger, noting selective service records that show he kept a student deferment long after he left LSU.
Duke claimed that he was refused entry into the service. ″I was refused because of what they called my racism,″ he said.
Are those prejudices a thing of the past as he now claims? Suspicions linger. While he pays homage to equal rights for all race, Duke acknowledges that he is opposed to interracial marriage.
And published and taped interviews unearthed by reporters and the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism showed he was still espousing anti-Semitic and racist views well into the 1980s.
Just before last November’s election for governor, his state coordinator, Bob Hawks, resigned. Hawks said Duke was lying about his newfound Christian fervor and more tolerant attitude toward minorities.
And Ros Davidson, a California-based reporter for a newspaper in Scotland, recounted a 1990 interview with Duke in which the candidate asked that the tape recorder be turned off. He then launched into a lengthy monologue blaming the Jews for the world’s problems, according to Davidson.
Duke denies Davidson’s account and accuses his opponents of planting Hawks in his campaign.