WASHINGTON — Washington. - The wretched contest for governor of Louisiana is over, but the American nightmare has only begun.
I see astigmatic rejoicing that the voters gave David Duke ''a thumping,'' as though the 61-to-39 percent victory of Edwin W. Edwards was an electoral exorcism of the racist demons, the Ku Klux Klan mentality, from American politics.
Yes, an extraordinary -- and very temporary -- alliance of white business people, Jews, blacks, the media and others brought about the rejection of former Klan leader and Nazi-sympathizer Duke. But who can ignore the fact that 55 percent of Louisiana whites still voted for Mr. Duke? Louisiana will be burdened for years by the claim of Duke supporters that Mr. Edwards is ''not the governor of white people,'' but a tool of the black bloc.
Neither President Bush nor any other Republican can fail to worry that hatemonger David Duke got 56 percent of Republican votes. If Mr. Duke now carries his brand of the politics of hate and fear to the national arena, and if Mr. Bush also is challenged in New Hampshire by columnist Patrick Buchanan, who has said that ''Duke hasn't said anything with which a true conservative can disagree,'' we will see an ugly transformation of politics.
If Mr. Bush found it necessary to stoop to demagoguery about Willie Horton and black criminals in 1988, how can he take a higher road in 1992 with Messrs. Duke and Buchanan spewing forth venom designed to rip away from him the support of much of the South and the rightwing of the GOP? Could Mr. Bush refuse to try to out-demagogue the demagogues when his reelection is at stake in a year of angry discontent among economically battered white middle-class voters?
No. Mr. Bush is one of the ''responsible'' Republican politicians who have for a decade pumped poison into this country's political and social bloodstream, and he and the rest of America will remain ''sick'' for at least a generation.
We are entering a presidential campaign in which the rhetoric will be uglier than what we have heard in Louisiana. That is because in these hard times of vanishing jobs and paychecks, of dwindling hopes and dreams, millions of Americans want someone to blame.
''Blame the blacks!'' Mr. Duke shouted, and he was believed not only by a majority of Louisiana whites, but by white workers across the nation who have swallowed the argument that the country is in a mess primarily because blacks have too many illegitimate babies, live on welfare and food stamps and have, through ''reverse discrimination'' and ''unfair preferences,'' gotten the jobs, promotions, college scholarships and other benefits that should have gone to whites.
George Bush far more than David Duke has fanned these flames of white paranoia with his rantings against ''quotas'' and affirmative action. Mr. Bush created the climate in which Mr. Duke became ''acceptable,'' and in 1992 this president may find this monster to whom he gave legitimacy standing in the way of his reelection.
The president now surely sees that once the poison is put into the political bloodstream, the sicknesses pop up in the least expected ways. ''Blame it on the blacks'' too quickly becomes a cry of ''blame it on the Jews.''
So you think the nation is hurting now, economically, racially, morally? You've haven't seen the magnitude of possible American self-destruction until you see what will happen if we get a 1992 presidential campaign based on which candidate can outdo the other in appeals to bigotry, selfishness, fear.
We have a situation where only the man with the bully pulpit of the presidency can lead America away from suicidal politics. But it may be too late for Mr. Bush to walk out of the ''Willie Horton-quotas-unfair preferences'' gutter and lead us to a moral high ground.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.