An embarrassed White House chief of staff was at pains yesterday to read David Duke, erstwhile Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and Nazi sympathizer, out of the Republican Party. He is not a Republican, said John Sununu, and the White House will give him no support in his campaign against a twice-indicted (but twice-acquitted) Democrat in the November election.
But Sununu's statements aside, Duke is in fact the denouement of Republican policy dating back for 23 years. The rise of Duke, or someone like him, began in 1968 when Richard Nixon fashioned the "Southern strategy" to offset the influence of George Wallace, who at that time was the embarrassment to Democrats that David Duke is today to the Republicans.
That strategy, in a nutshell, was a plan to neutralize Wallace by enunciating the overtly racist Wallace message in more polite terms -- terms that white Southern voters understood but which were not patently offensive to non-Southern voters.
The strategy has worked amazingly well, if you look only at the poll results. It resulted in Nixon's election twice. The one time the "Southern strategy" was abandoned, in 1976, the Republican presidential candidate lost.
Knowing this, Ronald Reagan returned to the winning formula in 1980. From the day he opened his campaign -- in Philadelphia, Miss., the scene of an infamous lynching in the 1960s -- Reagan played the "Southern strategy" like a violin. George Bush did so again in 1988 by running against Willie Horton, and he has continued to do so with code words like "quota bills" ever since.
Against this background, how can we escape the conclusion that what the Bush White House objects to about David Duke is vTC not his message, but only his past? After all, Duke's message is virtually identical to the message used last year by Sen. Jesse Helms. Bush went to North Carolina to speak on Helms' behalf. Is there any reason to believe he wouldn't have gone to Louisiana to speak on Duke's behalf if Duke hadn't, in his indiscreet youthful days, gotten mixed up with the Klan and the Nazis?
The late A.J. Liebling once called Louisiana "the westernmost of the Arab states." Louisiana is an oddity, but a principal reason for the emergence of Duke is the economic distress which has prevailed there for over a decade. Duke embodies the ugly forces which erupt in politics when economic hardship looms.
As long as those forces are pretty much confined to one state, the nation will survive. The danger, however, lies in the fact that the economic malaise in which the whole nation now wallows will inevitably bring the same dark forces to the national scene.
Remember, it was just 50 years ago that another politician arose from the bayous of Louisiana to challenge a sitting president of his own party. And some historians believe that Huey Long might have been successful had he not been assassinated.
If David Duke is elected governor of Louisiana, it should surprise no one to find him challenging George Bush for president in 1992. If it should happen, it would be a textbook case of reaping the whirlwind which had been sown in the wind of "the Southern strategy" when David Duke was still a teen-ager.