'Frontline' probe of Duke gets PBS campaign coverage off to an impressive start

TELEVISION REVIEW

March 03, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

"Frontline" starts its profile tonight of presidential candidate David Duke by asking, "Is what you now see of David Duke what you would really get?"

By the end of the hour, producer Elena Mannes has made a convincing case that there is no reason to believe Duke when he says he has traded his Nazi and Ku Klux Klan beliefs for conservative, Republican values. As correspondent Hodding Carter puts it: "When you explore the patterns of Duke's life, you discover a boy who began his intellectual journey at the darkest fringes of American life and a politician who has been 'changing' for 20 years -- altering his rhetoric to attract a wider audience, but never really letting go of the ideology of hate that gave him his start."

"Who Is David Duke?," which airs at 9 tonight on MPT (channels 22 and 67), is the best TV reporting to date on one of the most important political stories of the decade, the rise of Duke as a mainstream political candidate. Duke is not on the ballot in today's Maryland primary. But he will be on the Republican presidential ballot in seven of the eight states holding primaries on Super Tuesday, March 10.

Mannes really did her homework, and in some ways this report's excellence needs no more description than that. We get Duke's sister, Dottie Wilkerson, and Duke's biographer, Michael Zatarain, filling in his early years. We get student-newspaper stories and eyewitness accounts of Duke preaching his racist and anti-Semitic beliefs practically from the day he arrived at Louisiana State University.

Every stage of Duke's adult life as a leader of the Klan and various other extremist groups is carefully reported. Some of the best material is provided on tape by Evelyn Rich, who interviewed Duke in 1986 for her doctoral dissertation. "The Jews deserve to go into the ash bin of history," he says in one interview. In another, we hear Duke telling an extremist leader how important it is to appear moderate if he wants to achieve his agenda.

Mannes also found the images to tell her story. Pictures of Duke's child dressed in Klan robes. Pictures of a young Duke holding a sign that says "Gas the Chicago 7."

"Who Is David Duke?" is PBS's first major contribution to coverage of Campaign '92. It's an impressive start.

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