Inmate David Duke

On Tuesday he will report to a federal prison in Texas, a new personal and political low for a man who had already fallen far from the political prominence of a decade ago.
The Times Picayune, Apr. 13, 2003
By John McQuaid

Louisiana white supremacist David Duke visited the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain in November at the invitation of Discover Islam, a local organization whose mission is, ironically, building cross-cultural understanding between Westerners and Muslims.

Discover Islam paid Duke’s travel expenses and lodging at a five-star hotel in Manama, Bahrain’s capital. Local papers carried ads announcing the appearance of “Dr. David Duke” (the title thanks to a Ukrainian honorary doctorate). Over three days Duke gave a news conference and two speeches in packed hotel meeting rooms. Then he flew to nearby Qatar and appeared on the talk show “Without Borders” on the Al Jazeera satellite network seen throughout the Arab world.

Duke attacked Israel, Judaism and the U.S. posture toward Iraq. His message included anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that have long been a staple of the right-wing fringe and have more recently taken hold in the Arab world: That Israel is actually running U.S. foreign policy and is the shadowy main mover behind the confrontation with Iraq; and the Israeli intelligence agency the Mossad knew of terrorist plans to destroy the World Trade Center with hijacked airplanes and warned Israelis to get out before the planes hit.

That corner of the Persian Gulf region was abuzz, briefly, over the visit. The U.S. State Department protested to Al Jazeera. Bahrain’s expatriate community was outraged. “In a nutshell, he is a racist who does not deserve the notoriety he was initially given here in Bahrain. He will never be invited to Bahrain again, because we won’t be fooled again,” said Tony Nazzal, an American communications technician who lives in Manama.

In a world plagued by spectacular terrorist attacks and religious and ethnic hatred, Duke can still find audiences for his brand of extremism. In fact, it’s much easier for him to grab the spotlight abroad now than at home in the United States. He has spent much of the past several years traveling and making speeches, mostly in Europe and more recently in the Middle East.

The international arena is rife with hostility toward both the United States and Israel, and that offers plenty of platforms for Duke’s views, which are harshly critical of both countries. In Duke’s universe, the Jews and Israel are the roots of all evil, and the United States bears the ultimate blame for Sept. 11 because of its support for Israel. U.S. foreign policy — including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — is the result of Israeli manipulation. For Duke, supporting it amounts to treason.

Political eclipse at home

But here, Duke is in political eclipse — and a felon soon to be behind bars.

On Tuesday he will report to the Federal Correctional Institution in Big Spring, Texas, a low-security prison, to start a 15-month sentence after pleading guilty to charges of tax and mail fraud. Duke admitted to sending letters begging money from supporters that exaggerated his financial problems, then going out and gambling the money away in casinos in Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast.

The prison term marks a new personal and political low for Duke, who had already fallen far from his days of political prominence of a decade ago.

Running as a Republican, Duke won a seat as a Louisiana state representative in 1989, took 59 percent of the white vote in his unsuccessful challenge to Sen. J. Bennett Johnston the next year, and knocked incumbent Gov. Buddy Roemer out of the runoff in the 1991 governor’s race. The Louisiana political and business establishments trembled before the threat posed by an extremist becoming a major officeholder. National Republican officials worked overtime to dissociate their party from him. National and international media were riveted on his every move.

But Duke was never able to abandon his extreme ideology or overcome his personality flaws. Instead of trying to build on that relatively brief moment in the limelight, he squandered it with repeated financial chicanery and a migration back to the far fringes of anti-Semitism and white supremacy where he had started his career. Partly to escape his legal troubles, he began spending most of his time abroad. He found his fame opened doors and the media attention was less skeptical.

Even supporters alienated

Duke’s political descent and felony plea have alienated even longtime supporters in America, including those who once saw him as the ticket to the mainstream.

“He is a fractured personality. He is morally bankrupt, a tragic character. He had great potential. It’s a shame he frittered it away,” said Richard Barrett, the general counsel of the Nationalist Movement, a Mississippi-based white supremacist organization that once supported Duke’s political career.

Duke’s prison stay is a further blow from which he will have trouble recovering, political analysts say. When he gets out of prison, Louisiana law prohibits him from seeking office for 15 years, but he could mount a legal challenge to run for a federal post. His fund-raising ability, already at low ebb, will likely dwindle further, the analysts say.

“I’m sure he’d still appeal to some people. Some will see him as a martyr,” Loyola University political scientist Ed Renwick said. “But he hasn’t been a major figure for a decade. You never hear of him except for an occasional article in the newspaper. He went so far and he kept going further to the right until he left most people behind. I don’t see him major threat to anybody. His political career in Louisiana is probably over.”

‘Political schizophrenia’

Duke never abandoned his extremism even while he was flirting with the mainstream. He never mentioned Jews while campaigning, for example, but in 1989 he was caught selling Nazi, anti-Semitic and other extremist literature out of his Louisiana legislative office.

“He has this political schizophrenia,” said longtime Duke critic Lance Hill, director of Tulane University’s Southern Institute for Education and Research. “On the radical right he is an openly anti-Semitic white supremacist, but when he runs for office he puts on this mask of conservatism.”

By papering over his more extreme beliefs and past associations, for a time Duke became an appealing vehicle for anger toward government and at liberal welfare-state policies that was festering among a segment of white voters in Louisiana and nationally. He was in some ways a political pioneer, said Carol Swain, a University of Tennessee political scientist and author of the book “The New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration.”

“I believe he has had a major impact on American politics. He championed at the beginning of his career a lot of issues facing white Americans that were not being addressed by the major parties,” Swain said. Though tainted by racism, she said, Duke’s attacks on welfare, affirmative action and other issues presaged later mainstream political fights.

During the 1990s, though, Duke dropped this mask. He shifted his focus away from the issues that won him votes and returned to openly promoting a neo-Nazi point of view. He didn’t call it that, though he has been calling himself an Aryan and publicly blaming “the Jews” for most of the world’s ills in recent years.

Book was turning point

The key event was the 1998 publication of his book “My Awakening,” its title evocative of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” German for “My Struggle.” The self-published book is part autobiography, part pseudoscientific tract about the supposed genetic roots of racial disparities, part conspiracy theory alleging the Jews control various U.S. and global institutions. Above all, it is a call to action for “Aryans” to protect the white, European heritage by whatever means necessary — through politics first and if that ultimately fails, through violence.

Publishing and promoting an earnest, 717-page tome was a major statement that Duke could not easily paper over, though he did try during a 1999 run for Congress.

“I think the autobiography was a turning point,” Hill said. “It’s clear he had given up any hopes of winning public office. He had been criticized on the far right in the campaigns of the early 1990s of compromising his beliefs to win votes. He started his career as leader in neo-Nazi movement in America, and he came back to those roots in the late ’90s.”

Duke himself is opaque about why he moved in this direction. Some theorize that there was more money to be made tapping support from the far right. “He had to come back to the fringe to get money from the fringe,” said conservative radio station owner Robert Namer, who acted as a go-between when Duke sold mailing lists to then-gubernatorial candidate Mike Foster in 1995. “He had to find religion again. You can’t be a mail-order priest and then be an atheist — no one will send you money.”

There is a market for what Duke is offering these days. “My Awakening” has apparently sold well, according to Duke and some Duke critics. Duke claims it has sold 50,000 copies in the United States, and many more abroad, where it has been translated into Russian and several other languages.

But the now-obsessive focus on what he calls “Jewish supremacism” — the title of his latest book — has marginalized him even on the far right. Even his most loyal backers question this focus and his extensive travels abroad, saying they are not the ingredients for political success at home.

“I think his efforts would be better served by giving his attention to matters here at home,” said longtime supporter Kenny Knight. “He’d get more mileage out of efforts to deal with issues here in Louisiana and the South: the Confederate flag, race issues, crime issues.”

Aside from self-aggrandizement, Duke’s practical political aims were never completely clear. He was never a good political organizer. Most of the organizations he founded he eventually abandoned, either through inattention or personal conflicts. His current organization, the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, known as EURO, has a Web site and members scattered across the country. But it’s not a force on the far right, according to several hate-monitoring groups.

The odd couple

At home and later abroad over the past decade, Duke has traded on his fame and his skill as a polemicist. He has led a self-indulgent, if not luxurious, lifestyle marked by dalliances with women, daily workouts, gambling for a time and speaking engagements before small, sympathetic audiences.

Duke’s odd-couple encounters with controversial British historian David Irving offer a snapshot into the life he was living as he wrote “My Awakening.”

Once a respected scholar of World War II Germany, Irving veered increasingly into the “revisionist” camp that questions the Holocaust and reveres at least some elements of the Nazi regime. In 2001 he lost a libel suit he filed in England against American scholar Deborah Lipstadt, who in a book referred to him as “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial.”

Lipstadt’s attorneys used Irving’s own journals to demonstrate he was associating with Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis. Duke was exhibit A.

In the journals, Irving writes that Duke approached him at a 1994 book signing and they dined together along with Duke’s then-girlfriend Christy Martin. They socialized often over the next several years in Louisiana and at rightist gatherings, sometimes playing tennis and golf and at one point hanging out until 2 a.m. in a St. Petersburg, Fla., disco called Beech Nutts, where Duke picked up a waitress named Dorrie.

Irving did editing work on Duke’s emerging manuscript and tried unsuccessfully to hook him up with a New York literary agent. At his request, Duke gave Irving the names of 400 contributors who gave more than $100 each. Duke also lent him $2,000. Nevertheless, Irving viewed Duke with some personal distaste.

“Duke makes rather a lot out of his tennis victory yesterday: crowing slightly more than is funny,” Irving wrote while Duke and Martin were staying with him on Key West. “He speaks loudly in a kind of un-modulated American southern croak, which is hard to take after a while. . . . It is also hard to listen politely to his seemingly endless vapourings on the — to me — boring subject (of the Holocaust); ditto the Jews and Zionism, although these are admittedly the topics of the chapters he has been writing while down here. He is also insensitive to others: his treatment of Christy Martin, an innocent 23-year-old soul who (wrongly) believes he will marry her, is not above reproach.”

Rolling the dice

Several years later, an apparently fed-up Martin approached authorities with evidence that Duke had been lying about his financial situation in fund-raising letters and then gambling with the “personal gifts” sent in by supporters deposited in her bank account, according to news reports and sources close to the investigation.

“My equity, savings and retirement are gone, but my computer is humming, and my word processor is clicking out the book that I know will make a huge difference in the struggle ahead,” Duke wrote in one appeal in which he also wrote about being forced to sell his house. But according to prosecution documents, Duke sold his house at a profit and was maintaining a variety of accounts open for noncampaign donations that, while not enormous, totaled more than $400,000 over a five-year period.

Duke had been an avid craps player for years, and prosecution documents indicate he was playing the tables in Louisiana, Mississippi and Las Vegas. In a defense posted for a time on his Web site, Duke wrote that he and some friends developed a computer model that could beat the house at craps, and his gambling forays were made to support his political efforts: “The system that I employed at the casinos was a sincere, if unorthodox, effort to find a way to raise funds for the Cause and not a ‘lavish spending spree,’ ” the statement said.

But Duke’s attorney and friend, Jim McPherson, said that the gambling simply got out of hand and he asked Duke to stop. “The gambling industry has learned long ago, if you’ve got a system, come on down,” McPherson said. “At first he won. He was using small amounts of his own money. But then he started losing and started using money he was soliciting from his supporters.”

Duke says he hasn’t visited a casino since 1998, when the investigation began — something prosecutors do not dispute.

Taking extremism abroad

With his finances under scrutiny, Duke decided to seek more sympathetic shores and headed overseas. He had been to Europe and Russia before. In 1995, he visited Moscow and met with ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky. This type of exchange wasn’t unique. In recent years, driven in part by the growth of the Internet, American far-right organizations have expanded their contacts with counterparts abroad. Anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist extremists have a greater following in some parts of Europe and the former Soviet Union than they do in the United States.

In 1999, Duke said, he began spending time abroad, using the northern Italian mountains near Verona as a base, but making several extended trips to Moscow and other parts of Russia. He was in Moscow promoting the Russian version of his book when the FBI raided his house in November 2000, carting away boxes of documents.

Duke said he visited Ukraine, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, France, Germany and Austria, among other places. Mostly, he did the same things he did in America: speechmaking, writing and meeting with far-right political leaders and organizations, and partying when possible. When in Moscow, Duke stayed in a downtown apartment and frequented a popular disco and striptease bar called the Hungry Duck, according to Lev Krichevsky, then the Moscow director of the Jewish organization the Anti-Defamation League, who monitored Duke’s activities.

Duke said he partly paid his own way, but also received travel and other expenses from various host groups.

Audiences were larger

But the audiences were larger and the venues often more respectable than the fluorescent hotel meeting rooms and small book and pamphlet fairs where American extremists gather.

In January 2002, for example, Duke spoke at a conference held at the Moscow Social Humanitarian Academy, a private high school favored by Communist Party members. Titled “Global Problems in World History,” it featured revisionist historians and conspiracy theorists. Beginning his presentation with a crisp wave of a wooden pointer, according to a fellow presenter, Duke spoke on “The Zionist Factor in the U.S.” Among other things, he said Israeli scientists were genetically engineering viruses to use as weapons. “Only the Jews will be immune to them,” he said, according to a story in the newspaper Novy Peterburg.

The press attention was also generally more favorable than he gets in the United States. Sometimes the mainstream press ignored Duke, sometimes it treated him with respect, sometimes with criticism. But he wasn’t the political pariah he is in the United States.

“My Awakening” was translated into Russian and retitled “The Jewish Question Through the Eyes of an American.” Duke appended several new chapters on the importance of preserving Russian heritage and the threat of “Jewish oligarchs.” For a time it was put on sale for 50 rubles — about $1.70 — in bookstalls in the basement of the Russian parliament building, where it sold at a brisk pace, Krichevsky said.

An embarrassment

Still, he had the capacity to cause embarrassment. In Ukraine, Duke received an honorary doctorate of philosophy from the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management, a prominent university with a student body of more than 30,000 at its central campus and affiliates elsewhere. According to various sources, the top management of the school has taken a strong anti-Zionist position and produced a series of articles in a university-published magazine called Personnel condemning the Jews and Israel for international mischief-making.

Duke’s visit contributed to an ongoing uproar over the university’s leadership and its alleged anti-Semitism. Several prominent politicians on the board of the academy have been pressured to resign, including former President Leonid Kravchuk and former Prime Minister Viktor Yuschenko.

“President Kravchuk has made some steps to distance himself, publicly and privately. The former prime minister Yuschenko has made some too,” said Jed Sunden, the publisher of the Kiev Post, an English-language newspaper that called for them to step aside. “But they have not made the clean break as you see with politicians in the states — in the Trent Lott affair, for example.”

Effects of Sept. 11

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, had an unusual effect on the right-wing fringe. Some groups crowed enviously over the terror attacks. “Anyone who is willing to drive a plane into a building to kill Jews is all right by me. I wish our members had half as much testicular fortitude,” wrote Billy Roper of the National Alliance, a far-right group with ties to Duke.

Duke took a softer line, but he still blamed U.S. policies abroad, especially its support of Israel, for stoking hatred of the United States that led to the attacks.

The world’s intense focus on the Middle East gave Duke’s anti-Zionist activities a boost, and he churned out polemics on the topic. His Web site focuses heavily on the issue, with a long screed against Israel and what Duke calls its role in Sept. 11. Duke also claims that the U.S. war in Iraq is done at Israel’s bidding.

These sentiments are quite common now across the Arab world, and before long Duke’s writings were being picked up by newspapers in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and elsewhere. One article even made it full circle and was posted on the Web site of a New York University student protesting U.S. policy, stirring a campus controversy.

Duke’s Internet postings on Israel also led to his invitation to Bahrain, according to Essam Eshaq, a director of the group that hosted him, Discover Islam.

He said that the group knew of Duke’s racist views — among them his belief in the intellectual superiority of people of European descent over dark-skinned people, including Arabs — but that they decided they still wanted to hear an American politician criticize Israel.

But others say that privately, the group’s leaders were taken aback by the uproar the visit caused. “He completely took people in,” said George Williams, the editor of the Gulf Daily News, Manama’s English language newspaper. “Discover Islam would never admit it, but they were quite embarrassed by this.”

Still, Duke’s resume is opening doors for him abroad. “If the Republican Party, which is the party in office in the White House today, finds it acceptable to field him as a candidate, what’s the big deal in coming and speaking on issues which concern people here?” Eshaq said.

No special protection

A month after the Discover Islam appearance, Duke’s attorney and prosecutors finally reached a plea arrangement and Duke returned to the United States from a visit to Austria. As he prepares for prison, some supporters are worried he may be a target of violence. A spokesman at the Big Spring prison said no decisions have been made on whether to provide special protection for Duke.

“It’s certainly going to be, I would imagine, a difficult period for me, but no, I am not overly concerned about that,” Duke said. “I certainly have apprehension, like anyone going into federal custody. But I’ll get through it. I can handle it. I want to make sure the experience makes me stronger and better and affords me a time for self-inspection and hopefully embark upon a good path, an effective path for the rest of my life. I’ve got a lot of life ahead of me.”

Duke says that the charges he pled guilty to were insignificant and maintains he didn’t bilk his supporters. He says he took the plea deal because he feared drawing a heavily black jury. “A man identified as a former Ku Klux Klan leader wouldn’t have a chance (in a jury trial),” he said. “I was given a choice of doing that or taking a plea.”

Duke may find it hard to recover, even on the fringe, which has taken several other hits recently. In the wake of Sept. 11, the FBI and Justice Department have put more pressure on rightist groups. Matt Hale, the head of the hate group the World Church of the Creator, is under indictment for plotting to kill a federal judge. William Pierce, the founder of the National Alliance, died last year.

But Duke will likely be viewed as a martyr by some government-hating segments of the far right. And he will probably retain some cachet abroad that he can still exploit. Duke observers caution that he is a very resourceful figure.

“Is he washed up as a mainstream figure? I don’t know. There were at least three other times when I would have said he’s washed up, and he wasn’t,” said Tim Wise, a senior adviser to the Fisk University Race Relations Institute who monitors the far right. “Now he’s going to jail, but I’ve learned to never say when he might be finished. He always manages to reinvent himself, and the movement he’s a part of is so desperate for leaders, they keep coming back to him.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday April 13, 2003.
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