Duke and the media

Tom Wicker

December 10, 1991|By Tom Wicker

DAVID DUKE, a Louisiana state representative, announced the other day that he will be a presidential candidate. This effrontery caused the Washington Post to give him a two-column headline on page one, with a photo inside. The New York Times ran his picture on the front page and again within the paper. The Baltimore Sun's front-page story was accompanied by a picture.

Thus, this con man who exists only to run for office continues to be a made-by-media star. He has been, and will be again, prominent on national television, gets ample space in news magazines, and can get a headline anytime by repeating one of the racist or reactionary slogans to which the press responds like a mule eating briars.

A cheap political huckster who even claimed a religious conversion to attract attention and votes, Wizard Duke first lost a U.S. Senate race in Louisiana; then he was defeated last month for governor of that state, 60 percent to 40 percent, by a former governor whose character and record in office are not regarded as spotless.

Outside Louisiana, the ex-Nazi's appeal at the polls is problematic since he has no electoral track record except on his home turf. He probably won't enter the presidential contests in Iowa or New Hampshire, knowing full well his evanescent political bubble would be exploded in either.

Judging by his experience in Louisiana, where even 55 percent of the white vote couldn't get him more than 40 percent of the total, he won't do much better in other Southern states, in which blacks now vote and most whites are too decent to parade around in bedsheets.

If George Bush and his advisers understand the uses of White House political power, as they certainly do, the president's renomination is in no way threatened. And if the erstwhile gauleiter cannot make a serious challenge in the Republican primaries or at the party's national convention in Houston, on what grounds save gall would he be able to carry out his bluster about running as an "independent" in the fall election?

Only by dint of the media attention he attracts so easily by being so outrageous; and only for the campaign contributions so many Americans are gullible enough to send him, and which seem to provide his main means of livelihood.

The fiction that his extensive Klan and Nazi activities were merely "youthful excesses" is surpassed only by the fantasy that this reptilian wizard could be elected to any serious position -- and if he ever were, he'd probably demand a recount. He only wants to run, make headlines, get TV exposure and rake in contributions.

Why does he get those headlines and that exposure, which lead to the contributions? He says he's a presidential candidate -- but so have lots of strange characters who never made the front pages or appeared on "Nightline."

They did not generally have sheets and swastikas in their background, however; nor were they as youthful and innocent as plastic surgery has helped the wizard falsely to appear; and none had his occult presence on television, his flair for self-aggrandizement, or his capacity to make the scurrilous sound and seem momentarily acceptable.

What causes newspapers and television to pay so much attention to David Duke is that he is sensational -- a certified extremist who claims to have moved to the mainstream, a celebrated night rider who insists he's going straight at last, a racist bigot who confounds history by pleading he is not and never has been. He gets space and time because he's a man biting a dog; and because he gets space and time he keeps biting the dog, which brings him more space and time -- hence contributions.

Paul Tsongas -- a former U.S. senator from Massachusetts who has a reasonable chance to win the New Hampshire primary -- is a far more plausible presidential candidate; but he receives much less media attention than does the cross-burner from Louisiana. But Tsongas and other Democratic aspirants who also have to scrape for press coverage are too responsible to stoop to the shabby words and phrases that bring David Duke his ample notoriety.

If newspapers and broadcasters were equally responsible, refusing to crank out the publicity he needs, craves and exploits, the wizard would sink in his sheets into the obscurity he deserves.

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