SHREVEPORT, LOUISANA. — Shreveport, Louisana -- It would be comforting to think that the people who voted for David Duke Saturday were an illiterate pack of yahoos. Do not be comforted.
It was ''nice'' people who put the former klansman into the runoff for governor in Louisiana: the kind of people who drive late-model cars, own lake cabins and send their kids to college; the kind of people who brag about what their mamas and daddies taught them. Not everyone who voted for Mr. Duke was comfortably middle class, but it was those folks who gave him a margin of more than 70,000 votes over Buddy Roemer, the yuppified incumbent Republican.
The big blue Duke road signs that dot this state were a telling indicator. During the campaign, Mr. Duke appealed to people who owned ''significant pieces of property'' to allow the signs to be put up on their land. Last weekend, you could drive the highway from Krotz Springs to Bunkie, from Cheneyville to LeCompte, and see plenty of blue signs sitting on big spreads of good farmland.
These may not be the most enlightened voters, but they do not fit the easy stereotype of blue-collar whites, worried about losing their jobs to blacks. These are people of substance, people whose wills have been made.
Precinct breakdowns tell the same story. Mr. Duke ran even with or ahead of Governor Roemer in white-collar, heavily Republican Jefferson Parish and suburban Shreveport, places where the governor piled up big margins four years ago.
''There's a lot of anger and anxiety in America,'' Mr. Roemer said Saturday night after conceding. ''It's something that has to be dealt with.''
Notice that he said America, not Louisiana. This particular election may have been a special case, but the issues Mr. Duke ran on -- affirmative action, welfare, taxes -- aren't special.
Still, you have to ask yourself how people who would never dream of putting on a sheet or a storm trooper uniform could choose David Duke as the vehicle for their protest. How can they believe him when he says he has repudiated his extremist past, when, as the Republican National Committee's chief of staff, Mary Matalin, said, ''every right-thinking person in the interplanetary system'' sees him for what he is?
The answer, sadly, is that American voters have become so conditioned to phoniness and mendacity that transparent deception doesn't make much of an impression anymore.
Every little lie paves the way for the Big Lie. So what if Mr. Duke wrote a sex manual and a martial-arts book for militants under pseudonyms? Nowadays he talks about his deep commitment to Christ and brings his two daughters up on stage. So what if he once talked of how a Hitler-style takeover was possible in America? Now he says he's a Republican.
Is it really much harder to believe David Duke than it is to believe that Ted Kennedy is sensitive to the concerns of women, or that Clarence Thomas never voiced his opinions about abortion? In Louisiana on Saturday, 480,000 people didn't think so.
Tom Baxter's column appears in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.