Mitch Landrieu comes from a remarkable family of Louisiana politicians and leaders. In his new memoir, In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History, he grapples with his own lifelong transformation on the issue of race, which culminated most famously in his 2017 order as mayor of New Orleans to remove four city statues associated with the Civil War and racism.
In the passage excerpted below, he describes his first-hand experience dealing with former Klansman David Duke in the Louisiana legislature in 1989, and how eerily Duke’s political career presaged the ascendancy of Donald Trump.
On most days during a legislative session, reporters casually follow the major bills as they move through hearings at committees, and you’d expect to see a few of the sponsors, and opponents quoted in the news. Overnight, reporters from far-away places who had never set foot in Baton Rouge showed up to do reports on Duke. National TV interviews, with mostly soft questions from anchors or talk-show hosts who didn’t do the hard reading about his past, allowed him to cast himself as a maverick and a celebrity. Men and women seated in the legislature watched this flood of attention with dread and a certain envy. Who wouldn’t want the spotlight he was getting?
With all this free publicity, he became a kind of folk hero overnight. Imagine what it felt like to many legislators who lived far from the New Orleans area, watching Duke sit at his desk in the House, opening up envelopes with checks from people all over, and notes presumably urging him on. One letter was simply addressed “Duke, Louisiana.”
I decided to be pragmatic and establish some form of contact, regardless of our glaring moral differences, while working resolutely to thwart his agenda. We had a conversation, and for the first half hour or so he came off as reasonable, a guy with a vote who might do the conventional horse-trading we all did in getting a given measure passed into law. But as the conversation went on, his eyes ranged away from direct contact and he started talking about the biological differences between the races, and the need to separate the races, that blacks would be better off in other countries. It was chilling.
Again, I could not stop thinking of Auschwitz. I remembered my prayers from that day and the commitment I made to stand up against this sort of evil. We must not let this happen again.
Here was a closet Nazi, sowing the seeds of new bigotry in Louisiana, while soft-pedaling his repulsive record toward Jews and blacks, pulling in money from people who saw him as standing up for the underdogs.
I set out to act as a foil to the hatred of Duke and to attack his veneer of respectability. In every interview I gave, I made clear that not all white people in Louisiana or the South shared the twisted beliefs of Duke. He “doesn’t care about equal rights for everybody,” I told Iris Kelso of the Times-Picayune. “He cares about creating a white Christian nation, with no room for anybody else. He understands that if he said that stuff, he’d sound like the kook that he really is.” In public meetings and at political rallies, I was more direct: “David Duke is a pathological liar.”
Duke’s popularity created a moral vacuum in Louisiana. Into the breach stepped an uncommon man, the Reverend James Stovall, a white Methodist minister from Baton Rouge. Jimmy Stovall saw Duke for what he was and began organizing a countermovement. Jane Buchsbaum, a New Orleans Jewish activist, joined the group, which called itself the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism. Lance Hill, who was working on a doctorate in history at Tulane, had done research on the Klan and the NAAWP; he became director of the Louisiana Coalition. Historian Lawrence N. Powell of Tulane and New Orleans author Jason Berry also became active. But the person in the Coalition who had the most striking impact on public opinion, and on me, was Elizabeth Rickey.
A 32-year-old graduate student in political science at Tulane, Beth Rickey was a member of the Republican State Central Committee. She was from Lafayette. Her father had served as an army lieutenant colonel under General George C. Patton in World War II. She was an old-school Eisenhower Republican, the kind that today’s party could sorely use.
Beth Rickey and Lance Hill had done the research for John Treen’s campaign flyer that Duke had torn up in front of the cameras, calling it “lies.” By the time Duke won, Beth and Lance had done more extensive research on his ties to hate groups. Beth Rickey came by her party credentials through a family tradition, one that I respected. Her courage transcended politics. Interestingly, she was the niece of Branch Rickey, the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who integrated major-league baseball when he signed Jackie Robinson in 1947.
After Duke’s victory, when she learned that he was going to Chicago to speak to a gathering of the Populist Party—the neofascist organization on whose ticket he had run for president the previous fall—Rickey jumped on a plane, went to the Chicago hotel, and giving her best Southern smile, managed to get herself past the goonlike security people carrying a hidden tape recorder. “The mood in the room was tense,” she wrote later. “The speakers were all angry—angry about minorities, angry about the media, just plain angry.”
An exultant Duke took the podium. “We did it!” After the explosion of applause and yells, he said: “My victory in Louisiana was a victory for the white majority movement in this country.” The crowd chanted Duke! Duke! Duke! He continued: “Listen, the Republican Party of Louisiana is in our camp, ladies and gentlemen. I had to run with that process, because, well, that’s where our people are.” As the crowd, mostly male, including skinheads and men in Klan T-shirts, thundered their approval, Beth Rickey slipped away, nervous and scared. She wanted to be out of there as quickly as possible. As Duke left the conference room, he shook hands with Art Jones, vice-chairman of the American Nazi Party, just as a television reporter closed in. Jones shoved the journalist, calling him “a low-life scumbag.”
When the footage aired in Louisiana, the Republican National Committee in Washington was putting pressure on the state party to oust Duke from their fold. Duke apologized to the legislature in a statement, claiming that he had spoken to a “conservative, anti-tax” rally. But lying is like a helicopter whose wings must keep spinning to maintain altitude.
Beth Rickey was determined to show the world that David Duke was a fraud.
As we got to know each other—a Republican state committeewoman and a Democratic state representative—I found her an able, open person who thrived on politics, yet was jittery about the drama that soon engulfed her as a party loyalist turned voice of conscience. Duke was beyond anything she had encountered before. But having seen the hatred of certain white people up close since childhood, and ever aware of that vein of anger as my life took its course, I could pick up the vibes or expressions of people who hated my father or me, and steel myself to keep moving on what I believed. Beth Rickey was getting a baptism by fire.
I used the information from Rickey and her colleague Lance Hill in speeches and statements; yet as I watched the groundswell build behind Duke, I knew we were in for a long haul. We all wanted to expose Duke and get his white base to see him for what he was, but his charisma and telegenic appeal, with so much TV news coverage facilitating his makeover, meant that his base was growing.
Donald Trump harvested priceless free cable coverage of his primary speeches, casting himself as the great deal maker who would restore a fallen America. Encouraging people in stadiums to beat up protesters, he projected a strongman persona. When Duke endorsed him, Trump was forced by the media to finally, if halfheartedly, say, “I disavow” Duke. Did Trump’s white nationalist supporters believe that? Trump cultivated the part of his base that conventional Southern conservatives would never go near, as when he said there were “good people on both sides” after the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a young woman was killed by a zealot plowing through the crowd in a car.
Back in 1989, as I drove past the lush greenery along the interstate, making the 80-mile return to New Orleans with my wife and infant daughter, I wondered what it would take before the white people who liked Duke finally saw through him. We were trying to get people to see that the past mattered, that Southerners long before our day had subjugated African Americans so ruthlessly, while Duke seized on embedded fears and hostility.
How do you try to course-correct history, confront the past, and change how people think? That was the root issue entwined with David Duke, who denied his past to cast himself as a newborn Republican. He did so by lying, as I said often in interviews—lying about his own past, lying about history, telling historical lies to sell books and sell himself. My father had dealt with die-hard racists as mayor. The language people used had softened in the decades since then, but as I watched a resurgent white supremacy in 1989, I wondered how bad it would get.
In May 1989 Beth visited the legislative “office” in the basement of Duke’s suburban house, outside the district, which doubled as NAAWP headquarters. She purchased The Turner Diaries, an apocalyptic novel by a Nazi apologist about a race war, which the Anti-Defamation League called a blueprint tract by the Order, an underground terrorist group that assassinated Alan Berg, a liberal Denver talk-radio host, in 1984. Also on sale was Hitler Was My Friend and The Myth of the Six Million.
The titles of those screeds alone were offensive; the idea of hatred so organized and the politics of lying so sustained was repulsive. Yet as we know from the monitoring of hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, they have surged in popularity since Donald Trump. The rise of the alt-right, with their chants of “You will not replace us” and the violence they have perpetrated, are downright scary.
After the election, Duke had marched down Metairie Road in the Jefferson Parish St. Patrick’s Day parade with other officials, cheered by people on the sidewalks as a celebrity, if not a conquering hero. When the pundits and national press attacked him, Duke’s base saw an underdog, a guy standing up for forgotten people. Trump cultivated a similar image, just enough to create the narrow wedge of some eighty thousand voters in the Rust Belt states who gave him a winning margin in the electoral college, despite Hillary Clinton’s three-million-vote victory in the popular vote.
Riding a wave of popular support, Duke began traveling the state, stumping against Governor Buddy Roemer’s tax referendum to reduce the $700 million deficit, which had risen with the departure of two hundred thousand people during the prolonged recession. Roemer had more than a revenue revitalization plan at stake; his popularity—as a governor who took office with only 33 percent of the vote—was also riding on the outcome. Duke savaged the tax plan wherever he went. He was not the only factor, but he was a high-profile presence in its defeat, 55 percent to 45 percent.
Demagogues thrive on their own theatrics, as Duke showed in one of his most vulnerable moments. Rickey went to Baton Rouge, and in the rotunda between the House and Senate chambers, she and a colleague from Tulane handed out press releases to reporters detailing the Nazi books she had purchased from Representative Duke’s office in Metairie. The state Endowment for the Humanities, in conjunction with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, had mounted an exhibition of Holocaust photographs in the rotunda. Robyn Ekings, a New Orleans WVUE-TV reporter, borrowed Beth’s copy of Did Six Million Really Die? and waved it in front of Duke with the camera homing in. “Are you selling this book in your legislative office?” Rickey’s essay, from The Emergence of David Duke and the Politics of Race, picks up the story:
Duke’s face reddened, and he asked her excitedly who had brought her that book. Eckings pointed at me. Duke, with obvious agitation, turned and asked why I was doing this. “You’re treating me like Salman Rushdie!” he said to me, then turned on his heel and hurried away, pursued up the stairs by camera crews and reporters until he reached the sanctity of the floor of the legislature, where the press is not allowed. This bizarre reference to the author of The Satanic Verses, hiding from Muslim assassins, was vintage Duke, always the martyr. Reporters told me later that Duke called his office in Metairie from the House floor and warned his staff not to sell any more books.
“The Nazi books” incident was considered a successful hit at Duke’s claims that he had changed. [Republican Party] Chairman William Nungesser called to congratulate me after he saw the media coverage. However, he said that the State Central Committee should not say anything about Duke. Nungesser still clung to the idea that Duke was not a racist but just an opportunist.
The late William Nungesser maneuvered his troops to avoid censuring or ejecting Duke from the fold—he was bringing in new people, some of the Reagan Democrats, and other people from the far-right fringes who had not been active before. Beth Rickey felt betrayed, justifiably so, as Duke began gaining ground. Nungesser later told the New Republic that Duke was “an opportunist, rotten to the core.”
Duke’s statewide campaign attacking Roemer’s tax referendum provided him with a network of contacts to build an organization to seek a larger base. Less than a year later, Duke took aim at the 1990 U.S. Senate race. The incumbent, J. Bennett Johnston, was a Shreveport lawyer who had originally served in the State Senate, lost the 1971 governor’s race to Edwards by a whisker, and with momentum from that effort won a special election in 1972 to fill the seat of U.S. Senator Allen Ellender, who had unexpectedly died. Johnston was a conservative Democrat with support from the oil-and-gas industry; he shifted with the times, forging ties with African American leaders. An adroit Senate tactician, Johnston knew how to pass bills and steer funds to the state for road construction and for major projects for ports, municipalities, and universities—he had a record of delivering to his constituents.
I strongly supported Johnston and felt that I could help him generate the substantial African American vote I thought he needed to win by a large margin. The question haunting me was how far Duke’s road show of demagoguery would take him—how deep his lies had penetrated, how much had public opinion shifted to his “issues”? The Times-Picayune assigned Tyler Bridges to cover Duke full-time. As the campaign came down to Johnston, Duke, and Ben Bagert, a Republican attorney and former state senator, Bridges reported that in the ’80s Duke celebrated Hitler’s birthday each April. A former girlfriend of Duke’s gave Bridges insight on his adulation of Hitler. As the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism unearthed more information about Duke’s links to neo-Nazi groups, the reporting opened a larger lens on Duke’s Nazi background, which made “former Klan Wizard” a soft way of identifying him—which journalists and talk-show producers still do when he finds a way to pop up.
As Duke gained momentum, a polarizing force stoking people’s fears and resentments, I knew he had his share of Teflon—the record of a Klansman and closet Nazi didn’t bother his hardening base. How long would it take for the other white voters to realize that he was a fraud?
Donald Trump is not a Nazi; yet he has courted white nationalists as Duke did, and like Duke, he speaks and tweets a fountain of lies, lying as naturally as normal people try to be truthful. All the bravado and psychological projection in that gimmicky term Fake news! as the media report his falsehoods, is a booming echo to me of Duke comparing himself to Salman Rushdie as a martyr of free speech, or tearing up the paper with details on his Nazi background, crying “Character assassination!” As we finish this book in early 2018, with indictments in the Russia investigation of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III and escalating political drama, I watch our country’s institutional crisis provoked by Trump, and my thoughts turn again to the parallels with David Duke’s psychodrama. There is nothing the country is experiencing today that we in Louisiana haven’t seen or faced in the last thirty years.
As the 1990 campaign began, Senator Johnston sent pollster Geo Garin to do a focus group of twelve white swing voters from Bossier City, next door to the senator’s hometown of Shreveport. “Garin moderated the ninety-minute session and began with a few noncommittal questions to loosen them up,” Tyler Bridges writes in The Rise of David Duke.
“What are you looking for in a senator?” he asked next.
“Someone who still stand up to the NAACP,” said one man.
“The NAACP is the most powerful interest group in America,” said another man.
“All the benefits go to blacks at the expense of whites,” said a woman. For nearly the rest of the session, the group poured out hostility toward blacks, or “niggers” as two of them repeatedly said—and praised Duke as willing to stand up to blacks and the political establishment. When Garin asked if anyone was concerned about Duke’s Klan past, no one responded. A few minutes later, when he asked if Duke’s Nazi past was of concern, one woman said, “You know, Hitler had some good ideas.” As the group filed out, Garin was shaken. A veteran pollster, he had spent more than a decade directing focus groups, particularly when the topic was race. But he had never seen such anger directed at blacks or the political establishment.
Duke had aired no political spots at that point; he had gotten more national TV coverage than any Louisiana politician, and tons of coverage in state. The people in that focus group got his message. Duke pushed a bill to gut affirmative action in Louisiana, which would have thrown a wrench into contracts between the state and federal government. The bill passed the House when normally centrist Cajun legislators, bristling over the refusal of three African American colleagues to support a lottery bill, threw their votes to the Duke measure. His bill died in the Senate. Without a forceful presence by Roemer, and with Duke getting so much attention that his every move generated headlines, reactionary impulses spilled out in the legislature, reminding me of the Yeats poem with the line: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” The House moved a bill that I opposed—which passed despite being transparently unconstitutional—to subject record producers to misdemeanor fines if they did not put warning labels on morally objectionable lyrics in satanic heavy metal and rap music discs sold to minors. Pleas rained down from Henry Mancini, Andy Williams, and the Neville Brothers, the Grammy-winning kings of New Orleans rock, who were on tour in London and threatened to stop performing in Louisiana if the bill passed. New Orleans entrepreneurs were trying to secure an agreement to locate a Grammy Hall of Fame in the city. As the bill moved ahead, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences president Michael Greene, in Los Angeles, said that if the governor did not veto the bill, “We will pull all our initiatives out of Louisiana, as we did in Arizona when they refused to have the Martin Luther King holiday. We just won’t go there.” Roemer did eventually veto the bill.
Duke was gaining visibility as he ran for the Senate. Bennett Johnston began attacking the NAAWP in speeches, making Duke’s past an issue; the Louisiana Committee Against Racism and Nazism aired spots on his Nazi past. The national Republican Party helped Johnston by failing to give candidate Ben Bagert—the official GOP nominee—adequate funds for a competitive campaign. Bagert dropped out near the end. Johnston was reelected in a landslide, 54 percent to 43.5 percent. But within that loss, David Duke had won nearly two out of every three white votes—a far cry from his slim 227- vote margin of victory in the Metairie district some twenty months earlier.
After two full years in the state legislature, Duke had failed to pass a single instrument as he faced increasing opposition from my colleagues in the House and Senate. I was proud of our coalition, of my colleagues who continued to stand up against Duke’s agenda of bigotry, and of our democratic institutions that had successfully boxed in Duke’s progress. Unbowed, Duke felt the wind at his back and decided to give up his legislative seat to run against Roemer for governor in the election of 1991. I was happy to be rid of his poisonous presence in the State House, but I knew the election would be a nightmare as he carried his message of hate across the state. Still, I saw no way for the electoral math to work in his favor.
The late John Maginnis, an able chronicler of Louisiana politics, memorably called that election “the race from hell.” The governor seemed rudderless as the campaign geared up. Duke was challenging him from the hard right, and former governor Edwin Edwards was hungry for political redemption.
As governor in the ’70s, Edwards had embraced New Orleans’s economic potential after the building of the Louisiana Superdome, with support for infrastructure projects and for growing the tourist economy. He got behind much of the agenda that my father, and his successor, Dutch Morial, put before the legislature in Baton Rouge, seeking support for capital improvements and programs to benefit the city. Edwards realized that New Orleans was becoming the economic engine of the state and was generally supportive.
After serving two terms in the ’70s, Edwards had been ineligible for a third consecutive one. He made a roaring comeback in 1983 against Dave Treen, the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, a dutiful man with moderate politics and a bland personality. In a debate, Edwards quipped, “Dave, your problem is that it takes you an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes.” Oil production was humming in that election when Edwards bragged to Times-Picayune reporter Dean Baquet (today executive editor of The New York Times) that he was “safe with voters unless caught in bed with a dead woman or a live boy.” In promising, good times, his exotic personality demolished Treen in a landslide, and he served one term.
Now he wanted a fourth term, something no Louisiana governor had achieved, and planned to hit Roemer from the left. Edwards traveled the state in a Winnebago with his girlfriend and staffers, hammering at Roemer every chance he got.
Edwards typified Louisiana’s joie de vivre culture, a witty, roguish cad with a soft Cajun accent and a loose political style you find in few other states. During that third term, Edwards was twice tried for rigging hospital contracts, but was acquitted. The economy was in free fall as the price of oil had plunged; the state budget was tied to mineral severance taxes, which meant a cutback in state services. The oil industry, a major source of state jobs, was closing offices in New Orleans and elsewhere, with a rollback of drilling jobs in the state and on offshore sites in the Gulf of Mexico. People were literally leaving their homes, dropping the house keys in night deposit boxes at the banks, driving away from their mortgages and equity, and seeking employment and new lives in other states. This was particularly hard on New Orleans, where thousands of middle-class families, including middle-class whites and upwardly mobile African Americans, left to find quality work in cities like Chicago, Houston, and Atlanta. Having dropped out of the race for a fourth term just a few years earlier, Edwards was giving it one last try.
In the 1991 gubernatorial election, David Duke made a hard pitch for Evangelical voters by proclaiming himself a pro-life Christian. The man who wanted welfare mothers to be inoculated with birth control serum, the man who had birthday parties for the worst mass murderer in European history, was suddenly a defender of life in the womb. And some Evangelical voters took the bait. When Duke knocked Roemer out of the primary, the Republicans had a nightmare. Edwin Edwards, the Democrat they hated most, was now poised to win against Duke, their candidate by default, who was soon being savaged by TV spots of Nazi troops as his “past” became an international story.
Across the state, bumper stickers started to crop up: Vote for the Crook. It’s Important. Many people in Louisiana who could never imagine voting for Edwards, including Republicans, realized the disaster Louisiana faced should Duke win. In the final weeks, Duke, the born-again Christian, was attacking Edwards for his religious beliefs—being pro-choice. In a state where most people did not like abortion, Edwards crushed Duke with 61 percent of the vote. The message got through, you could say. Duke, however, received nearly six hundred thousand white votes, a huge number for a man whose Nazi sympathies were finally plastered all over the media.
Within a space of several years, both Edwards and Duke would go to federal prison. Duke pleaded guilty to federal charges of filing a false tax return and mail fraud in December 2002. He served fifteen months in prison. In 2000, after it was proved that Edwards extorted nearly $3 million from companies that applied for casino licenses during his last term in office, he was convicted on seventeen counts of racketeering, mail and wire fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering. Edwards was sentenced to ten years in prison and served eight. He did not seek reelection and maintains his innocence to this day.
As Duke sank in respectability and visibility, many of us felt a long hangover from his brief time in the sun. Before the 2016 presidential campaign, I can imagine that savants of the Beltway saw Duke as an aberration, the bizarre politics of a backwater state. In fact, our nightmare was a precursor of where our country is today. In those years, Louisiana politics demonstrated the raw susceptibility of voters—particularly Evangelical Christians—who rallied behind David Duke, trailed by TV spots exposing his Nazi beliefs as a would-be defender of human life. It is the same phenomenon that allowed Christians in 2016 to support Donald Trump, despite the women who accused him of sexually assaulting them, after the Access Hollywood video in which he bragged about groping women, using words that TV networks bleeped out. Have we gotten to the point where winning is everything? It is clear there is a deal with the devil, where morals, personal responsibility, or principles are secondary to election wins.
We live in an age of disinformation, with so many overloaded circuits that journalism and news gathering is part of a strange digital stratosphere with few restraints and with easily doctored images that distort reality, and where the old role of spin doctors—those who seek to turn public opinion—is fast subsumed by con artists on social media, or even Russian manipulation. This is an atmosphere in which demagogues thrive.
Back in 1990, I watched well-intentioned conservatives in our legislature buckle under to reactionary tides that surged because of Duke, even though he lacked the ability to pass any legislation. The chaos that followed as Roemer had to veto bills that had no constitutional validity made Louisiana a source of derision in the media and political life generally. David Duke was alt-right in the soft verbal currency of today; he ran on a racist, isolationist, nativist platform, and after three years, finally, sank like a stone in water. Those were hard, dark, grueling years for people who loved the state and wanted to make it better. Steve Bannon is doing the same thing to the Republican Party today. Congress is bipolar after a decade of Tea Party members pushing a radical agenda. Donald Trump’s flailing inability to lead and the temper tantrums of his bizarre, hair-trigger-tweeting personality open a window for the likes of Bannon to slither through. The nativist, isolationist agenda Bannon and Breitbart are pushing has the face of white supremacy leering at every turn at the party once led by Eisenhower, a war hero, and Abraham Lincoln.
We saw it all coming in Louisiana years ago. When people are scared and hurting, when the jobs are drying up and they get angry, and a demagogue arises pointing the finger at black people and brown people—blame the other—it takes a counter-offensive not just to expose the lies but to offer people hope and a belief in the better impulses of democracy. When the truth is lost, the battle to fill that vacuum is a sinister spectacle and a struggle from which good people can never call retreat. From our days with Duke, I can tell you how to end it. You have to confront those tactics straight up, shine a bright light on them, and reveal the truth. And then you must confront the bigotry behind them head-on, stay on course, and pull the tree up from the root. There is no other way forward.
From In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History by Mitch Landrieu, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Mitch Landrieu.