David Duke has a long history in politics and the white supremacy movement. Here are key moments in Duke's life in the public eye. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

It was January of 1969, and S. James Hintze opened his first-year German course by walking around the room, asking students why they chose to study the language.

“And why are you taking German?” the Louisiana State University professor asked one student in the back row, a peer recalled for a 1991 Washington Post story.

“Because I want to read the original works of the greatest genius who ever lived,” the student said.

Which one?

The professor started guessing: “Kant, perhaps? Or Schopenhauer? Goethe? Thomas Mann?”

“Oh, no,” the student said. “Adolf Hitler.”

That student was David Duke, the man who would become America’s most famous white supremacist and is now creating campaign problems for GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has been ridiculed for failing to immediately and consistently reject Duke’s support.

Duke has since distanced himself from what he said and did in college. He has also distanced himself from his Klansman past and his neo-Nazi affiliations. But, despite those repudiations, Duke’s life today remains, as ever, characterized by a radical ideology rooted in white supremacy and power — and influenced by a penchant for publicity-seeking.

A ‘youthful indiscretion’

The moment in 1969 when Duke proudly proclaimed his great regard for Hitler shocked his fellow classmates. “It was a chilling moment,” Fred Hawley, who sat next to Duke that day, told The Post for the 1991 story. “A moment frozen in time.”

But it wouldn’t be the only such moment. Duke quickly earned a reputation on campus — and beyond — for his outspoken support of neo-Nazi ideology and “racialism.”

At LSU’s Hodges Hall, Duke slept underneath a red-and-black swastika banner and sometimes dressed like a Hitler youth, The Post’s David Maraniss wrote then. In 1991, as today, Duke complained in his public statements of being held to his decades-old views.

“Those were radical times. The campus was swarming with radical leftists, and I was trying to make a strong case from the other side,” Duke said at the time. “We all have things in our past that we regret. What I did then was youthful indiscretion.”

“That was my radical period,” Duke said in another interview. “In college particularly, I was a very angry young man.”

The Klan’s ‘new, cleaned-up image’

Yet Duke’s attraction to radical ideology was far from over. By age 24, he was already using his role as founder and leader of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Louisiana to gain attention from the national press to his cause: Women in the Klan were gaining new visibility, especially in the South, thanks to the “publicity-minded” Duke, the New York Times reported in 1975.

“Women are the same as men in our organization,” Duke said then. “… In fact, some of our best members are women.”

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“It is all part of the new, cleaned-up image he is trying to impart to the Klan — sophisticated, college educated, media oriented, the man in the gray flannel bedsheet,” The Times reported at the time.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Duke’s attempt to mainstream his Klan led to a steep rise in membership. By opening up the organization to women, Catholics and teens, he expanded its ranks.”

Later that year, the Times profiled Duke’s effort — as national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — to project a “a new respectability for radical racism.” That respectability only masked the extremist views Duke, then 25 years old, embraced at Klan rallies:

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In the ensuing years, Duke sometimes clashed with other Klan leaders, including Robert Shelton of the United Klans of America and Bill Wilkinson of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the KKK.


David Duke, grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, stands outside the Patriot book store in New Orleans in 1978. (Jack Thornell/AP file)

What set Duke apart, however, was that he functioned “as a public relations man,” The Post reported in 1980.

Wilkinson’s Klan outfit is more confrontational. The swarthy 37-year-old Imperial Wizard is apt to turn up on the heels of racial disturbances or stage public KKK rallies like the one his followers have organized in Frederick County later this month.

Though the two men had a clash of egos and a falling out ever organizing tactics, their views are much the same. It’s just that Duke delivers his message with a kind of fraternity boy charm while Wilkinson’s occasional bursts of anger betray his street-fighting approach to race relations.

In the late 1970s, according to the SPLC, “Duke began to distance himself from the Klan.” He began to seriously pursue a career in politics and eventually abandoned his the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to form the National Association for the Advancement of White People.

“I believe white people in this country are losing their rights,” Duke said at a news conference in New York, the Associated Press reported at the time. “White people are suffering more massive discrimination than has ever been suffered by blacks.”

‘The Freddy Krueger of the Republican Party’

Duke repeatedly ran for public office, but it wasn’t until a decade after leaving the Klan that he finally succeeded.

After a failed presidential campaign as a Democrat the year before, he ran as a Republican for a Louisiana legislative seat in 1989. The Republican National Committee, the state’s Democratic governor and several others mobilized to defeat him, but he won nonetheless.

At the time, visitors to his district office could buy neo-Nazi materials that argued that the Holocaust was a hoax and promoted other similar views — the sale of which he quickly ended.

His legislative work early on was almost entirely driven by race, The Post reported in a 1990 profile of his subsequent run for U.S. Senate. In a dispatch from a rally, author David Maraniss wrote of Duke’s use of coded language in place of his previously racist rhetoric.

He never used racial slurs. He rarely even used the word black. He has mastered other methods, other codes. One day, Duke told the Maxie crowd, a doctor from northern Louisiana called him on the House floor to tell him that a welfare mother was in his office who had three illegitimate daughters, each of whom had three illegitimate children — all fathered by the same man.

Oaths of disapproval moved through the throng. Duke then slipped into his version of black slang as he mimicked the black patient explaining the situation to the doctor: “Well, doctor, we gets a bigger welfare check, and Johnny, he gets more money for his card game.”

Duke’s Senate run was characterized by a series of embarrassing revelations, Maraniss wrote in a subsequent story.

Here is a candidate who did not pay federal income taxes from 1984 to 1987. Here is a 40-year-old man who underwent facial reconstruction and chemical peels to enhance his TV image. Here is a self-described patriot who claimed that he served behind enemy lines in Laos during the Vietnam era, but who never served in the military, avoided the draft, and spent only a few weeks teaching English to Laotians while visiting his father, a former foreign service officer.

Duke lost his election attempt that year, but not before drawing 44 percent of the vote.

“David Duke is now the Freddy Krueger of the Republican Party,” Loyola University political scientist Stan Makielski said at the time. “He is the horror show that will not go away.”


David Duke greets campaign supporters in Metairie, La., on May 1, 1999. (J. Pat Carter/AP file)

Indeed, he continued to be a headache for the party, running for governor in 1991, drawing the ire of then-President George H.W. Bush.

“When someone asserts the Holocaust never took place, then I don’t believe that person ever deserves one iota of public trust,” Bush said at the time. “When someone has so recently endorsed Nazism, it is inconceivable that someone can reasonably aspire to a leadership role in a free society.”

Duke lost, but still captured 39 percent of the vote. That loss would not deter him from future bids for Congress and the White House.

‘The day our people come back into power’

Despite repeatedly distancing himself from his past Klan and neo-Nazi associations, Duke continues to advocate for white power, but from a defensive posture. In public statements, he often refers in some form to the “displacement and destruction” of the white European race.

“The day our people come back into power, those behind this genocidal agenda will face the fullest extent of the law and be charged with treason for their crimes against humanity,” he wrote on Facebook in November.

“Make Whites Great Again,” he wrote later that month, replacing the “America” in Trump’s campaign slogan with “Whites.”

Duke continues to make news. In his radio show last week, he stopped just short of endorsing Trump, encouraging his listeners to support the GOP’s presidential front-runner because “voting against Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage.”

He urged his audience to volunteer for the billionaire businessman’s campaign, saying: “Go in there, you’re gonna meet people who are going to have the same kind of mindset that you have.” Whether that’s true or not, white supremacists on the outside of Trump’s campaign have used Duke’s comments as a recruiting tool.

On Friday, Trump said he disavowed Duke. On Sunday, asked repeatedly on CNN whether he condemns the racism of Duke and other white supremacists, Trump said he needed to research the groups before doing so.

During appearances on network television Feb. 28, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump repeatedly declined to refuse the endorsement of David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. While Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz both took aim at Trump. (The Washington Post)

The following day, Trump blamed a faulty earpiece for his response on CNN and said he already disavowed Duke.

In addition to his various online posts lamenting “Jewish supremacism” and the diluting of the white race, Duke also sells merchandise online, including idyllic art titled “After the Storm” and books such as “On the Jews and Their Lies.”

“I don’t know if [Trump] ever studied me, my writings or what I’ve actually said,” Duke said Monday on Fox News Radio’s “Alan Colmes Show.”

Donald Trump disavowed former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke on Feb. 26, but then declined to do so on Feb. 28. The Fix's Chris Cillizza looks at Trump's strategy. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

After saying he was voting for — but not officially endorsing — Trump, Duke turned his attention to the question of labeling, telling Colmes: “I’m presented as a white supremacist all the time. You’ve been interviewing me for years. You know that I’ve never embraced that term. In fact I condemn – in fact in my work, in my website, in thousands of interviews, to my own people, to European Americans, by the way – I have a concern about the well-being European Americans in this country.”

“Do you call yourself a white nationalist?” Colmes asked.

“I don’t even call myself that… what I call myself is a human rights activist,” Duke said. “I believe human rights must be accorded to all people, all heritages and all nations. I believe that European Americans – I think that the government of our country is embarked on a purposeful program to destroy the European people in America by making us a tiny minority in the nation that our forefathers created.

“Our people created and wrote the Constitution of the United States, made the great revolution against the British empire, which gave us the nation our foundation, our culture, our great technological achievements, our educational achievements. And we are being – there’s a racism going on because the government is purposely embarked on a program by allowing this immigration and discriminating, by the way, in the way they do the immigration structure that’s intended to make us a minority.”

This post has been updated.

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