Lessons from Louisiana

November 19, 1991|By New York Times

DAVID Duke's defeat in the Louisiana governor's race brings both a sense of relief and fresh alarm about where American politics seems to be headed.

Relief, because electing a former Nazi and Ku Klux Klansman governor would have been an appalling endorsement of bigotry. Alarm, because Duke's rapid rise in politics makes clear that racism has a large constituency.

Nearly 40 percent of voters in Duke's state thought him suitable to serve. Tens of thousands from around the nation rallied to his support or contributed to his campaign.

These results are disturbing when judged against the fact that Duke was widely condemned in newspapers and business circles, and repudiated by politicians from George Bush on down.

That Duke still got 40 percent of the vote suggests that a candidate with a less odious past -- and the same message -- might have been elected.

To be sure, Duke had more than hatred working for him in the contest against the former three-term Democratic governor, Edwin Edwards. Edwards was twice tried and acquitted on federal racketeering charges.

Top aides were jailed. And Edwards sealed his shady reputation by bragging to the press about his gambling escapades.

But Edwards' past became less an issue when local business leaders warned that Duke's election would drive investment from the state. The choice between Edwards and the former grand wizard of the Klan was summed up in a bumper sticker: "Better the lizard than the wizard."

Voters did not vote for Edwin Edwards; they voted against David Duke.

Edwards received 61 percent of the vote, Duke 39. Many observers who expected a tighter race cite this margin as a source of comfort. They had presumed that many Duke supporters refused to reveal themselves in the polls. As it turned out, the hidden vote did not exist. But the worrisome thing is that virtually all of Duke's supporters felt no shame in proclaiming their allegiance to him.

Nor is there any comfort in an extreme polarization along racial lines: 96 percent of blacks voted for Edwards. But 55 percent of whites voted for Duke, as did 56 percent of Republicans.

The Republicans have tried to disown Duke. The disavowals came too late. Duke is inescapably a product of the racial appeals the Republicans have used for more than a decade.

It makes no difference that Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Sen. Jesse Helms delivered their appeals in political "code" rather than in expressly racist terms. The code has gradually made racism more respectable.

David Duke, but for his past, has become indistinguishable from a host of mainstream Republicans.

Louisiana has denied David Duke the platform he sought. Now it is up to Republicans to renounce the racialist strategy that helped create him.

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