An Ex-Klansman Trades His Robes for a Cloak of Respectability in the Louisiana Legislature

updated 03/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Campaigning recently for a seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives, David Duke seemed like any other fair-haired young Republican eager to start his climb through the establishment. With his fashionably conservative gray suits, neat mustache and banker's haircut, Duke looked the part and proved a master of glib patter as he pressed the flesh around the town of Metairie. On election day his efforts were rewarded: Duke eked out a margin of 227 votes to defeat opponent John Treen, a local builder, then appeared for a victory speech before a raucous crowd at a Lion's Club hall.

Amid the jubilation, however, Duke remains a man unable—or unwilling—to leave his past behind. In the '70s, as Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, he proudly donned white robes for nighttime cross burnings, exhorting his rabid followers in a campaign of hate against black Americans. "Give us liberty and give them death," he said at a 1975 rally in Baton Rouge. "There's many times I felt like picking up a gun and going shooting a nigger." At another point he insisted that the Nazi Holocaust was a hoax. The new David Duke tries publicly to distance himself from all that. But when pressed, he remains fiercely unrepentant. "The only thing I regret about my membership in the Klan," Duke says, "is that it prevents some people from listening to me now."

In truth, Duke's Klan background was something of a badge of honor in Metairie, a lily-white enclave outside New Orleans. Treen outspent Duke 5-to-1 in the campaign. But based on his notoriety as a Klansman, Duke attracted supporters and small contributors by the hundreds. He also drew the ire of regular Republicans; George Bush and Ronald Reagan weighed in with endorsements of his opponent, also a GOP member. (Louisiana election laws placed the two Republicans in a runoff against each other after they finished first and second in a preliminary contest.) Duke's victory was especially frustrating for new Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater, who hopes to attract more blacks to the party. "David Duke is not a Republican," Atwater said. "He's a pretender, a charlatan and a political opportunist who is looking for any organization he can find to legitimize his views of racial and religious bigotry and intolerance."

Duke joined the Ku Klux Klan as a New Orleans high school senior. "I thought the Klan was a chivalrous organization," he says. "I believed it promoted honor and courage." Entering Louisiana State University in 1968, Duke soon gained renown in a public forum called Free Speech Alley by spouting anti-black and anti-Jewish vitriol. In the mid-'70s he promoted himself as the college-educated, salon-coiffed exemplar of a new generation of Klan members bold enough to shed their night-rider hoods. In 1980, Duke says, he quit the Klan. "I left because I got tired of fighting the Klan's image of illegality and violence," says Duke. "I wanted to discuss the real issues facing America." He went on to form a new organization called the National Association for the Advancement of White People.

He took his platform nationwide last year, running for President and sounding off on school busing, affirmative action, welfare and abortion. With the help of his campaign manager, ex-American Nazi Party leader Ralph Forbes, Duke got his name on 15 state ballots and polled 48,000 votes, about one-half of 1 percent of all ballots cast.

Encouraged, Duke scrambled to launch his bid for the legislature, settling in Metairie. Treen mounted a pointed radio-and-TV ad campaign and accused Duke of being a "master of deception" who was "spreading his Nazi venom across the United States." But Duke out-hustled Treen, working the streets and trying to put a polite face on his racism by calling it "civil rights for whites." After his victory he told exultant supporters, "We simply exceeded all the worst nightmares of the opposition."

That much is certain. Despite his victory at the polls, Duke, who is divorced and the father of daughters aged 11 and 13, won't be allowed to settle easily into his $23,000-a-year job. Atwater has vowed to have him "disenfranchised" from the national Republican Party, and at least one state legislator announced he would challenge Duke's election on the grounds that he had not lived long enough in Metairie to run there legally. Yet the voters have spoken, and Duke's seating seems likely. For Louisiana and mainstream Republicans, he may be an embarrassment who will not go away.

—David Grogan, and Johnny Greene in Metairie

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