Duke is a threat because his words are so like Bush's

MICHAEL OLESKER

December 10, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The Republicans of Maryland are feeling a little edgy today. David Duke says he's coming here in March, and everybody around George Bush wants to make one thing clear: This guy has nothing to do with us.

''David Duke's a phony,'' Richard Taylor, Republican National Committeeman for Maryland, said yesterday. ''He's a charlatan. He's a fascist and a racist.''

Is that clear enough?

''Duke's an opportunist and a charlatan,'' said Kevin Igoe, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. ''And he's a racist bigot.''

Is that clear enough?

''This,'' said Joyce L. Terhes, Maryland Republican Party chairwoman, ''is what makes America so great, that anybody can run for president.''

If that is not clear enough, Terhes was joking. Like everyone in authority in Maryland's Republican Party, she wishes David Duke would go away.

And stop telling people he's a Republican.

On Saturday, state GOP leaders met in Annapolis and unanimously passed a resolution calling Duke a bigot and telling him to stay in Louisiana and not enter this state's March 3 presidential primary. And, having issued this brave statement, the Republicans are uttering every phrase they know to distance themselves from Duke and his anti-Semitic and racist views.

And never mind any of that old business about Willie Horton.

Oops.

Did somebody say Willie Horton?

Can we not be coy about this? Nobody's nervous about David Duke because they think he can win. The country's got too big a heart and too good a memory for that. But he make us edgy because he reminds us of America's darkest instincts, of some people's capacity for hate and others' inattention to the subtleties of language.

For Marylanders, Duke brings us memories of George Wallace, who came here twice to run for president. Once, he won the Maryland primary and once he ran pretty well while losing.

Wallace never used racial epithets, but he didn't have to. He was the man who'd stood in the schoolhouse door in Alabama, who'd declared segregation now and forever. By the time he arrived here, he could talk in code words and everybody knew exactly what he meant.

David Duke, same thing. Everybody knows his background with the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. Now he can cloak himself in the language of semi-respectability and disclaim, with off-camera winks to the faithful, his old bigotry.

These Bush Republicans know all about code words and symbolism. They remember Willie Horton, who was used with such malevolent intent by the Bush forces three years ago.

The Republicans point out, rightly, that Horton was a convicted murderer who was incorrectly let loose, where he could commit more crimes. They can point out, correctly, that he was used in the '88 campaign as a symbol of America's need to get tough on crime.

But some of them are still trying to say, quite incorrectly, that Willie Horton wasn't also used to exploit racial divisiveness. Nobody's that naive in this country, not any more. And this is where the Republicans begin to get especially nervous about David Duke.

What George Bush did with Willie Horton, David Duke wants to do with his own history. He wants to say one thing and mean another. He wants to exploit Americans' uneasiness about race, and then claim he was talking about something else when it starts to get sticky.

Because, if you look at some of the things Duke is saying and then you look at some of the things George Bush is saying -- about liberals, about crime, about affirmative action, about welfare reform -- it's not always so easy to distinguish one man from the other.

''The difference,'' says Joyce Terhes, ''is in the background. Duke is deceitful enough to take Republican issues and make them his own -- less government, lower taxes, strong on crime. He's using them for his own purpose, that's all.''

''It's important to differentiate the message from the messenger,'' adds Kevin Igoe. ''Duke has stolen the themes of legitimate messages, but the difference is in the beliefs and the principles and the history of the messenger.''

Igoe's point is well taken, but it's also a pretty dangerous one. It says: Pay less attention to what we say than to who we are. But if we pay little attention to the words, if we acknowledge that the language of politicians is mere code, then how are we to judge these people?

This was always the danger of the Willie Horton appeal. Which is the real George Bush, the man with a politically reasonable, moderate public history, or the one who unleashed the Horton ads and then pretended not to notice? The man who talks of finding the best qualified people for government, or the one who gave us the likes of Dan Quayle and Clarence Thomas?

David Duke says he's put his hatred behind him. He says his days of Jew-baiting and his nights of donning white sheets are all done now. He's learned to speak in the generic code words of a mainstreamer, of a reasonable man.

If you're not paying attention, you might even hear him talking like George Bush. And that's the danger of the political language of modern America: When everybody's using code words, how do we ever judge exactly who means what?

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