DAVID DUKE, once the leader of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, is running in Louisiana for the Senate seat of J. Bennett Johnston. He claims to have left behind his ''youthful indiscretions'' as a Nazi supporter and Klan leader.
In fact, Mr. Duke says that his confessed indiscretions should no longer be used against him, since he is so open about them: ''I have no further skeletons in my closet. I don't even have a closet. I have lived in a glass house.''
Yet even while he is claiming to have revealed everything about his past, he denies or evades or softens the record when challenged on specific points. In an interview with him, I asked if he had advocated tax policies to discourage birth among the lower classes. He flatly denied it, though I gave him my source -- the lengthy interviews he gave to Patsy Sims for her 1978 book, ''The Klan.'' Here's what he told her:
''I'd say tax credit for kids who are most productive in certain areas [he has made clear he does not mean skill in sports] . . . I think those low on the totem pole IQ-wise, intelligence-wise, ability-wise -- I don't think they should be encouraged to have kids.''
''They would have a tax the other way?''
I also asked about his earlier defenses of racism. He denied that he ever called himself a racist. (He adopted, at some point, his preferred term, ''racialist.'') But he had complained to Ms. Sims that Jews give a bad name to racism:
''I'm a racist, but I define racism kind of differently than they do.''
''How do you define it?''
''The Jews are a racist of a variety that hate. They hate because they see the whole rest of the world as persecuting them. They're paranoid. And when they look at other races around the world -- like white races -- they define us by their own definition. They say we are the haters. We are the ones with hate in our hearts, when we're not that way at all. We are racist because we love our own people. It's as simple as that.''
None of this seems to affect his supporters who feel he is being picked-on for what he did in his youth (youth extending into the 30s in his case). In fact, half of Mr. Duke's supporters refuse to believe that he even wore a Nazi uniform -- though he frequently confesses, now, that he did. Still, 48 percent of his followers told pollsters that story was false. A leader who denies the past is wonderfully helped by followers who deny the present.