The Real David Duke

David Duke knew he had some friends in the audience. He was at the Bellemont Hotel in Baton Rouge last week speaking to the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, one of the few trade groups that haven't endorsed former Democratic governor Edwin Edwards, his opponent in Saturday's gubernatorial runoff. Scrambling to calm fears that his election would isolate the state's already crippled economy, he asked the audience to forget the tiresome references to his past. His real message, he insisted, was low taxes and less government. "If you get away from the rhetoric, the smear tactics," Duke assured them, "you'll find you agree with me."

Few, if any, in the crowd remembered another gathering at the Bellemont in 1971. Michael Connelly will never forget it. He watched Duke, then a student at Louisiana State University, lead a small cadre of students in a Nazi rally. "There they were, wearing brown shirts and armbands. Duke walked out, looking as much like Hitler as he could-the little mustache, hair combed the same way," says Connelly, now a Baton Rouge attorney. "They were singing Nazi songs and doing the salute."

Nightmarish images from the past descended on Connelly and many other Louisianians last week. The reality was that Duke stood a reasonable chance of pulling off an astonishing political transformation: from campus neo-Nazi to Ku Klux Klan grand wizard to Republican governor. Experts called it either man's contest to win. In past campaigns, a significant chunk of Duke's support-perhaps queasy about acknowledging support of a candidate with such a raw resume-has flown under the pollsters' radar. Still, Edwards led in some tracking polls at the weekend as local business leaders launched a frantic stop-Duke campaign (page 28).

Duke is attempting to run from his past by repackaging himself as a populist. His affable, gameshow-host looks and just-folks manner have been insidiously successful in blunting the impact of a past pocked with racism, Jew-hating and revisionisms. For thousands of Louisiana whites angry with hard times and high taxes, his is the ultimate "no bull" campaign. His coded distillations of white economic and racial resentment are by now the most thoroughly decoded in American politics. They include "crime in the streets" (black-on-white crime), "welfare illegitimacy" (black unwed mothers), "affirmative action" (black economic advancement) and "heritage" (whites first).

Duke has cast a huge shadow in the gubernatorial race, but his real breakthrough came in 1990. As a first-term state legislator, he drew a stunning 44 percent of the vote in his race against Democratic Sen. Bennett Johnston. His showing was an early rumble of the voter anger that has since broken out in force. Now he has capitalized on the politics of resentment. Some of his money comes from Klan and other fringe constituencies he has courted for years with sophisticated phone and direct-mail solicitations. Shreveport lawyer and former KKK leader David Touchstone, a Duke organizer in northern Louisiana, has contributed $6,000. Several sizable contributions have come from members of the right-wing Populist Party, which nominated him for president in 1988. But most major donations are from conservatives with no known extremist ties.

Duke's sustained strength tripped dramatic new alarms last week. The Louisiana Democratic Party began airing ads focusing on Duke's neo-Nazi roots ("Vote for Duke. Create a Fuehrer," says one tag line) and the economic consequences of a Duke administration. A dozen members of Congress began raising money for last-minute advertising. George Bush said he would vote for Edwards if he lived in Louisiana. "What's the choice, man?" Bush asked. Louisiana's Jewish leaders issued their own appeal. "Jews in this state will not sleep quietly while he is in the governor's mansion," activist Sheldon Beychok wrote in a fundraising letter. The tide of fear and loathing swept through last Wednesday's televised debate between Duke and Edwards. "I am scared, sir," said Norman Robinson, a black New Orleans anchorman, prefacing a question to Duke.

Duke has repeatedly renounced his racist past. He says his born-again Christianity has helped him find a new tolerance. But many who know him scoff at his professions of change. "David thinks the country would be much better off if it had no Jews and no blacks," says Evelyn Rich, who interviewed Duke for her doctoral thesis on the Klan in the mid-1980s. "I don't believe for a minute that he has had a conversion experience."

David Duke's story is an odyssey across the bleakest fringes of American polities. His hating began early in life. Duke's father, a World War II veteran and Shell Oil Co. engineer, says he's not responsible for his son's passions, "I tried to guide him in the right direction like any father does," says David Hedger Duke, now 79 and living in suburban Maryland. An Eisenhower Republican who taught Methodist Sunday school in New Orleans, he included a place at the dinner table for a black housekeeper, an unusual gesture. But in a recent interview, the elder Duke sounded like his son when he complained about crime in Washington. "It's just too bad about all the black violence," he said. "It's too bad we can't do something about it."

Duke's adolescence was lonely and difficult. His older sister, Dorothy, married as a teenager and left home when Duke was 12. In 1966, when Duke was 16, his father moved out, taking an engineering job with the State Department in Laos. The departures left Duke alone with an alcoholic mother who was shuttled in and out of hospitals. Another housekeeper, Florence Parker, says Maxine Duke's drinking so frustrated him that he once threatened to douse her with hair spray and set her on fire. Duke says the story is not true.

As Duke's home life unraveled, he began to drift into racist politics. While researching a school paper opposing integration, he wandered into the local offices of the segregationist White Citizens Council. Courtesy of the council, Duke got his first exposure to "scientific" theories of black racial inferiority promoted by scholars like Henry Garrett and Carleton Putnam. It was there that he also met James Lindsay, a successful real-estate developer, Klansman and Nazi sympathizer. A shadowy figure also known by the alias Ed White, Lindsay became an early mentor and surrogate father for Duke, introducing him to Klan and Nazi ideology before his unsolved 1975 murder. Duke's new racial compass was soon on display at John F. Kennedy High School, where he graduated in 1968. "In 28 years of teaching he was the only student I was afraid of," recalls one retired instructor. Leola M. Williams, a black social-studies teacher, says Duke threatened her during an argument over seating for a test. "He said, 'I'll put my boys on you'," Williams said. "Completely bogus," says Duke.

Duke's Nazi obsession only deepened when he arrived at LSU in the fall of 1968. On Free Speech Alley, a campus strip where students debated issues of the day, Duke's khaki-shirted rants made him the school joke. "Everyone thought he was a creep and a nerd," says Fran Shurtz, a Baton Rouge schoolteacher who took an English class with him. While other students would drop by teachers' offices to grub for higher grades, Duke would come to argue for Nazism, remembers Beth Courtney, a graduate assistant in his freshman world-history course. "He would argue that history didn't take place the way we were teaching it," she said. She also remembers that he received a D-minus in the class.

After his junior year Duke left school for 18 months, spending part of that time in Vientiane, Laos. His father had set him up with a job teaching basic English to Laotian Army officers. The Laotian sojourn provided a basis for exaggerated claims of military service he made in last year's U.S. Senate campaign. Although Duke had a student deferment from his draft board, he boasted that he often volunteered to travel behind enemy lines in support of anti-communist forces. According to Bill Gibson, the son of a Foreign Service officer in Laos that summer, Duke's missions were occasional "joy rides" that supply pilots gave to visitors. Duke hasn't recently repeated the claim.

When Duke returned from Laos, he made the first strategic decision edging him closer to the political mainstream. He abandoned overt Nazism to concentrate on revitalizing the moribund Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Duke wanted to soften the Klan's violent image by trading its hooded robes for three-piece suits. Young and telegenic, he was a dramatic departure from the grim demeanor of 1950s and 1960s KKK leaders. By 1975, he was grand wizard, appearing on national talk shows. Klan membership flourished. Duke made his first attempts at elective office as a Klansman, losing state senatorial races in 1975 and 1979. While upfront about his KKK ties, the campaigns were dry runs for his 1991 approach: conservative rhetoric peppered with racially loaded language.

Not all of Duke's Klan brethren were comfortable with his ascendancy. His obsessive anti-Semitism dwarfed his hatred of blacks, to the point where it even made some KKK members squirm. "He got enthralled with the [Nazi] idea," says Tom Metzger, a former Klan organizer who eventually split to form the White Aryan Resistance, a violent California skinhead group. It was also clear to other Klansmen that there were two things just as important to Duke as white supremacy: women and money. Metzger says the women were often wives of other Klansmen. "His flagrant womanizing was an embarrassment to the movement," he said. Duke denies any philandering. Others were concerned about his incessant fund raising through Christmas cards wishing recipients a "White Christmas."

Some moneymaking schemes were even more outlandish. Writing under the pseudonym Mohammed X, Duke wrote "African Atto," a street-fighting manual for blacks in urban racial combat. Duke says the mail-order book was designed to collect names of black militants, but former associates say it was a source of quick cash. Several years later he co-wrote "Finders Keepers," a guide offering women advice on how to please men in bed. Duke says he wrote only one innocuous chapter on diet and exercise. He left the Knights of the KKK under a cloud in 1980. Bill Wilkinson, leader of a competing Klan group, arranged to have Duke videotaped trying to sell him the Knights' mailing list for $35,000.

Duke may have exited the Klan, but his links to the racist right remained close. In 1981 he testified before a grand jury investigating the abortive takeover of the Caribbean island Dominica by white supremacist mercenaries allegedly seeking a beachhead for gambling and drug dealing. Nine men were convicted of violating the Neutrality Act. They included Don Black, a close Duke Klan associate now married to Duke's ex-wife. Duke testified before a grand jury, but the government was unable to make a case against him. "We always thought Duke was involved in some way," former U.S. attorney Lindsay Larson told NEWSWEEK. In 1983 Duke called the AP to report his involvement in the plot. He now denies making the statement.

Searching for a new way to help build his political base, Duke founded the National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP). His newsletter, the NAAWP News, was a vehicle for some of his most virulent rhetoric. In an essay on the evils of race mixing, he asserted that children of interracial marriages encounter frequent orthodontal problems and damage to "vital organs."

Duke's NAAWP carried the organizational earmarks of the Liberty Lobby, a right-wing hate group founded by Willis Carto in 1955. Duke used the 100,000-strong mailing list from Carto's own Spotlight newsletter to help fund raising for his 1988 presidential campaign. During this period Duke attended meetings at the Institute for Historical Review, a Carto-funded operation that underwrites scholarship to disprove the Holocaust. In one interview for her doctoral thesis, according to Rich, Duke railed about the "Jewish sicknesses" in novels by Philip Roth, and claimed that the Talmud was "full of things like sex with boys and girls."

Duke says he lived austerely in the 1980s, sometimes making less than $12,000 a year. But Jack Binion, owner of Binion's Horseshoe casino in Las Vegas, says he remembers Duke as a regular at his craps tables in the mid-1980s. Duke also enrolled in EST seminars--he said they helped him learn to "keep commitments"--and had plastic surgery. He says it was to remove chin scars and repair a broken nose. But pictures suggest a farther-reaching change--perhaps one aimed at achieving a semblance of the Aryan perfection Rich says he so admired.

The aggressive fund raising continued. In 1987, Duke and 54 other protesters were arrested for disrupting a 1987 civil-rights march in Forsyth County, Ga. Local pro-white activists started the Forsyth County Defense League to defray legal costs. The group had Post Office Box 684 in Cumming, Ga. Duke started his own organization, the NAAWP/Forsyth County Defense Fund, with a Cumming, Ga., Post Office Box of 884, one digit off. A source familiar with both organizations told NEWSWEEK that Duke, who paid a $55 fine after his arrest, raised approximately $19,000 through the Forsyth Fund; the Forsyth County Defense League never got off the ground. League organizers say Duke has never provided an explanation of what happened to the money. A Duke spokesman says the money was returned to donors unless they elected to make a "personal gift" to Duke.

By 1989, Duke and the Louisiana state Republican Party were a collision waiting to happen. Duke's coded message, refined in three political contests, enjoyed a major boost from the GOP's skillful exploitation of racial fears during the presidential campaign. The regional economy was deteriorating. The state GOP, never powerful, wrote him off until it was too late. "No one took him seriously," says John Treen, who lost a legislative race to Duke.

No one will be underestimating David Duke come Saturday. Which Duke will Louisianians vote for? The career racist or the artfully made-over opportunist? In the end, it's a false choice. They're the same man. "I guarantee you when David Duke sits down and talks to racists, his rhetoric is the same as it was when he was at LSU wearing a Nazi uniform," says Michael Connelly. This week Louisiana voters will decide where Duke's next seat will be: in a room full of fellow haters, or the governor's office.

SORTING OUT THE RECORD As David Duke reaches for mainstream political success, he has worked hard to convince voters that he has repudiated his racist, radical past. The record conveys a different picture. A few words from Duke: Duke says that his Nazi ties were a youthful indiscretion. But in 1989 he was photographed shaking hands with the vice chairman of the American Nazi Party.

"I respect Jewish people," Duke told an interviewer last week. But as recently as the mid-'80s he said, "[Jews] probably deserve to go into the ash bin of history."

During a debate with Edwards last week, Duke renounced his racist past. But as late as 1989 he sold racist music tapes with titles like "Niggers Never Die."

THE MANY FACES OF DAVID DUKE David Duke's story remains an odyssey across the bleakest extremes of politics. Duke's passionate hatred was apparent by high school, when he discovered Klan and Nazi ideology from a shadowy real-estate developer who became his surrogate father. His khaki-shirted rants alienated fellow students at Louisiana State University, but the future KKK grand wizard found his grand genie in Chloe Hardin, whom he married in 1972 (and divorced in 1986). By the late '80s, Duke had severed his KKK links but stayed one of the racist right's key organizers and fund raisers.