David Duke's backward march

Anna Quindlen

November 14, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

Some people wonder why so much has been made of David Duke's plastic surgery. The answer is simple. David Duke's new face is a symbol of what he seeks to do: turn back the clock and pretend to be something he is not.

For every avowal in the Louisiana gubernatorial race that he is a changed man, there is a revelation about his recent past that gives it the lie. Well into the 1980s he still had the standard racist/anti-Semite spiel: race mixing is ruining America, segregation is the ideal, the Holocaust didn't happen. Even the views of the new improved Duke are more of the same, couched in politicospeak with a nudge and a wink at his right radical supporters.

If you don't speak white supremacist, here's a handy guide: "the liberal social welfare system which encourages the rising illegitimate welfare birthrate" means "poor black people are having babies on your tax dollars." Duke has been confronted repeatedly with the fact that the average welfare family in Louisiana consists of only two children, and that the increased allotment for an additional child is a whopping $11 a week, just enough to afford a steady diet of cold cereal. But the rhetoric works better without the facts.

All over this country, among a substantial group of its citizens, there is longing, sometimes even organized support, for an era ++ gone by. It was an era that saw the biggest, most pervasive, most extensive racial preference program in this nation's history, during which one group was routinely given preferred access to jobs, status, even votes.

That group was white men.

Things are in a mess in America right now: social problems that seem to have no simple solutions, economic problems that seem governed by nothing so much as the vagaries of fortune. And when things are tough there is always a temptation to go back: to go back to the days of illegal abortion as though that will make women stop trying to end pregnancies, to go back to the days of limited options as though that will soothe people overwhelmed by choices. Opponents of affirmative action say they want a return to a meritocracy. The meritocracy they evoke is the one in which, somehow, only white guys made the cut.

Ronald Reagan was the standard-bearer of the backward march; it was inevitable that someone, somewhere, would take Reagan's neglect of the poor and the disenfranchised and turn it into active hostility. No thoughtful conservative stepped up to the plate to talk about real inadequacies in the social welfare system; into the vacuum stepped a man who can have his face refashioned a dozen times and still have prejudice written all over him.

If this backwards ethos swept the United States, it would be a disaster. But it cannot. The most influential public figures in this country over the last month have all three been black, as though someone was trying to send a cosmic message to the David Dukes of the world, to counter them with Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill and Magic Johnson.

If the Duke ethos prevails in Louisiana, the state will suffer.

Everyone has noted that millions of dollars in convention business will go elsewhere; in fact if David Duke loses, it will not be because he is a bigot but because he inspires fear that the Super Bowl will shun the Superdome. And perhaps some taxpayers will compute the cost of inept and inexperienced government. Duke's highest executive position has been as Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and his most intensive management training appears to have been at Est seminars. Demagogues make good dictators, but poor managers. Tax cuts are notoriously easy to promise and difficult to deliver.

People are angry in his state, as they are throughout this country, and it may relieve the pain for a short time simply to have someone personify their anger in rank prejudice. After that, people want results. They will want to know whether the man can run his state as well as his mouth, and I bet the answer is no.

Duke cannot change the face of this country, or even of a part of it; it's not enough to take us back to the 19th century when what most of us seek is a road map for the 21st. It's not enough to foment simplistic hatreds when what we really need is some way to coexist in an increasingly complex world.

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