In December 1987, Jack Kemp visited the New Hampshire State House to register as a candidate in the following year’s Republican presidential primary. The building was “clogged with supporters and reporters,” according to a United Press International account of the event, which made it the perfect setting for what happened next.
“What are you going to do to end the massive racial discrimination against white people in America?” shouted a voice from the crowd.
It was David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan grand dragon, who was also running for president, as a Democrat.
After a brief verbal altercation, Kemp, his paperwork completed, left. All eyes were on Duke. Having hijacked the spotlight, he called an impromptu news conference. Journalists had a choice: Walk out and ignore him or stay to listen.
“The media stayed to listen,” UPI’s Tim Sandler reported.
Duke, now 66 and a Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Louisiana, has not always resorted to publicity stunts that dramatic, but he has always managed to capture the interest of reporters (including this one, obviously). Last week’s attraction was a robo-call — “vote for Donald Trump for president and vote for me, David Duke, for the U.S. Senate” — that drew coverage from CNN, Politico, BuzzFeed and the Christian Science Monitor, among many other outlets.
Duke has latched on to Trump since endorsing him in February, and received gobs of exposure when the real estate mogul declined to reject his support in an interview on CNN that month. Since the initial stumble, Trump has disavowed Duke multiple times, but America’s most famous white nationalist continues to hail the GOP presidential nominee as an advocate for “most of the issues that I’ve championed for years.”
“He is attempting to create relevance for himself, aided somewhat by a national media that can’t really resist the temptation to inject him into presidential politics because of what he represents,” said Mark Lorando, editor of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans.
The question today, as it was on that day in the New Hampshire State House almost three decades ago, is whether the media ought to pay attention to Duke or not. It is a question on which The Washington Post published conflicting opinions in November 1991 — on the front page — two days after Duke, then a state representative, lost the Louisiana governor’s race but gained a large following and a national media audience.
When it was all over, the lesson of David Duke's decisive loss in the most publicized governor's race of modern times was that it is more effective to confront Duke than to ignore him, said Lance Hill, director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism. "The policy of benign neglect does not work with Duke," Hill said. "He is like a mushroom; he grows in the dark."
Basking in the post-election warmth of victory, Edwin W. Edwards, who trounced Duke by getting 61 percent of the vote to Duke's 39 percent to win an unprecedented fourth term as governor, reached another conclusion. He said that Duke would not have become an important political figure without his past associations with the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazism, which made him a novelty. "Mr. Duke," Edwards said, "is entirely a media creation."
It is the paradox of David Duke that Hill and Edwards, two men who have studied Duke intently during his rise over the past three years, seem equally correct: The experience in Louisiana indicates that exposure makes Duke, and it also breaks him.
Lorando and Times-Picayune senior news editor Tim Morris said there is no evidence, a quarter-century later, that Duke will be able to replicate the relative success of a campaign in which he convinced almost 4 in 10 Louisiana voters to back him. He is one of two dozen candidates on the ballot Nov. 8; if no one wins a majority, a Dec. 10 runoff between the top two vote-getters will award the Senate seat.
Morris said he does not consider Duke to be among the top eight or nine contenders. But there has been no reliable polling to gauge the state of the race.
“We recognize that we have the power to bestow legitimacy on a candidate by covering them in a particular way,” Morris said. “For us, that’s just a question of calibrating the coverage to how relevant that candidate really is. We don’t want to exaggerate because he’s David Duke, and he represents something outrageous.
“David Duke gets a lot more national coverage,” Morris added, “because it’s a name that represents certain things, and it’s a name that resonates with people.”
In one prominent example of national coverage, NPR interviewed Duke last month. The conversation was taped, not live, depriving Duke a chance to filibuster with what interviewer Steve Inskeep summarized as “old racist theories that he said were not racist.” NPR explained in an editor’s note that it decided to speak with the former Klansman “because Duke represents the way in which white supremacists attach themselves to Trump’s campaign.”
Still, the interview made available to Duke a platform not afforded most of his Senate campaign rivals. It was another example of his ability to achieve newsworthy status in the eyes of a mainstream media outlet, based not on viability but on bigotry — and promotion of Trump. He has been doing the same thing (minus Trump) throughout his entire public life.
More than a decade before James Carville coined the term “puke funnel” to describe how tawdry news items work their way from British tabloids to respectable U.S. publications, Duke seemed to understand the principle.
In March 1978, he traveled to London, violating a British travel ban on KKK members. Duke, then 27, flaunted his illegal entry, posing outside Scotland Yard and the Home Office in photographs published by the Daily Express, a London tabloid.
“I did it to annoy the home secretary,” Duke told the tab, referring to Merlyn Rees, who had issued a deportation order that Duke evaded for a week. “He's trying to make a fool of me, so I figured it was his turn. It was quite a laugh.”
On the day the photos were published, police found and served the notice to Duke — after a brief foot chase — at the Fox and Geese pub in Lokenham. He was conducting another interview with the Daily Express at the time.
Duke fought the order, saying he would only leave Britain if a cabinet minister agreed to debate him on television, but he ultimately returned to the United States without such a deal.
The Associated Press covered the whole theatrical saga for U.S. news organizations.
Thirty-eight years later, David Duke still knows how to make headlines. He has splashed his face in a British tabloid, commandeered another candidate’s press pool, and now he is looking to ride the Trump Train — and as much media attention as he can muster — back to relevance.