Duke's loss no reason for relief

Anthony Lewis

November 19, 1991|By Anthony Lewis

Boston A SIGH of relief: That is the first reaction to the result in Louisiana.

David Duke lost, and we can put aside our worst fears. America is not so susceptible to the virus of racism.

But it is not really an occasion for relief when a man who as recently as two years ago openly peddled Nazi propaganda wins nearly 40 percent of the vote in an American state. It is not an occasion for relief when a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan can master the techniques of modern politics so well that for hundreds of thousands of voters he is a hero, the voice of their frustration.

And it is not an occasion for relief when it takes weeks of effort, local and national, focused on a single election, to defeat such a man. If this had been just one of many significant races around the country, would the attention and the money have been there to fight David Duke?

"America, be on guard!" Edwin Edwards told a New Orleans crowd celebrating his victory. He said Louisiana had "rejected the demagogue," but the country could face "another assault of bigotry" in the presidential campaign.

Yes it could.

Duke got campaign contributions from 46 states. A finance report he filed at the end of October said that 47 percent of the $1,370,667 he had then received in contributions came from people outside Louisiana.

Newspapers found some of the out-of-state contributors and asked why they liked David Duke. The answers tell us a good deal about public feelings these days.

Gerard Nadeau, 74, a retired engineer in Adams, Mass., contributed $50. He told Chris Black of the Boston Globe:

"The Republicans take care of the rich, the Democrats take care of the blacks and David Duke takes care of the whites. No one else is for the whites. I think civil rights have ruined this country. Black people don't want to work. They are taking over all the housing projects. This country is ruined . . ."

John E. Carlson, 61, of Marstons Mills, Mass., retired from the Air Force, said: "This country is becoming a third-rate nation. What kind of country is this when Bush pushes a free-trade bill that takes all the businesses out of the United States?"

Michael DeBeck of New York, who said he was a teacher, told Dennis Hevesi of the New York Times that Duke was saying "that there is something basically wrong with our system of government, that taxes are getting out of hand, that the laws we have are definitely discriminating. He is willing to address the mounting welfare thing."

DeBeck objected most vigorously to affirmative action. "White people are not being given a fair shake these days," he said.

The comments show how effectively Duke touched people's feelings -- feelings that often have little to do with the facts. For example, President Bush is of course not proposing a trade bill to move all businesses out of the United States.

Welfare is another area where resentful emotion overwhelms truth. Duke was cheered for saying that high welfare payments encourage babies. In Louisiana welfare pays an additional $11 a week per child.

The racial and nativist feelings come through most strikingly. Again, facts are irrelevant. Affirmative action for women and dTC minorities has virtually nothing to do with unemployment or other economic stress felt by white males. But there must be someone blame for the misery that millions are suffering.

Duke was only following in the footsteps of respectable politicians. Ronald Reagan told and retold his tale of a "welfare queen." George Bush waved the bloody shirt of "quotas."

But there is something special, something incredible about Americans voting in large numbers for an admirer of Adolf Hitler. Less than 50 years ago Americans died fighting the unmitigated evil of Nazism. To know that many today would overlook a politician's attachment to that evil, or would believe his thin claims to have found redemption, is to know something is deeply wrong in this country.

"We've been sending a message," Duke said as he conceded defeat in Louisiana. "Next year, you'll have the message being expanded all over the nation."

Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

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