Duke in sheep's clothing

The Sunday Gazette Mail/March 24, 2002
By Michael Willard

Like many businesspeople, I'm nervous about flying. Most everyone, I suppose, has a haunting fear of something these days.

Such was my early evening encounter with David Duke, the controversial onetime American politician most thinking people would brand "racist." He calls it "libertarian." At 30,000 feet in the cramped cabin of a TU-134, I momentarily thought of the vague possibility that a newspaper headline might read: "Onetime Ku Klux Klan wizard killed in fiery crash with 50 others." As we made our way along the milk route from Kiev to Moscow, I simply didn't want to be the "other" in a descriptive sentence with Duke playing the star attraction.

Except for the notoriety of the person aboard, however, it was a routine flight. Duke had been in Kiev accepting an honorary degree from a Christian university. He didn't say which one, but he wore a shiny gold medal on his suit lapel.

In the distant past, I have had the privilege of sipping a Coca-Cola or two with Martin King III, son of the slain civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., aboard my boat in the Potomac River.

Now I have shared a plane cabin with Duke, floating along with a tailwind on the hour-and-20-minute journey. Currently, Duke is planted firmly in Europe, where he's preaching his vitriolic messages: anti-African-American, anti-Jew and a discredited brand of genetics which suggests that some people have more brainpower and others are more athletic. He also says America's foreign policy is misguided.

For the most part, it's garbage.

Duke, though, is a charmer. Absent that dark history, he's the All-American guy next door. He has been called "the Rhinestone racist." I was curious. Why was this man so far from home?

Duke came to Moscow more than a year ago at the invitation of right-wing nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovskiy. Duke now says he lives part-time in Moscow, somewhere in northern Italy and, at times, Austria.

I had not recognized Duke, who over a decade or two stirred emotions in Louisiana not seen since Gov. Huey P. Long in the 1930s. We struck up a conversation in the airport terminal.

When we met, and he initiated the conversation, Duke did not immediately identify himself, saying only that he was a journalist who lived in Moscow.

Although he seemed slightly familiar, I had no idea this was the former New Orleans Klansman who had run for governor, senator and even the presidency. He had served a single term in the Louisiana Legislature. He received nearly 44 percent of the vote in a Senate race.

After several moments, he asked: "You worked with Sen. Robert Byrd, the one-time Ku Klux Klan member?"

He was speaking of the 84-year-old Senate Appropriations Committee chairman and former leader of U.S. Senate Democrats.

Not knowing to whom I was speaking, I went into a feeble apology. "Yes, Sen. Byrd said it was an indiscretion of his youth. He outgrew it, a mistake he has regretted many times."

"I'm that controversial David Duke, and the Klan was in my youth as well," Duke said.

I would like to report that the self-exiled Duke has changed, at least tempered. I would like to write that the firebrand advocate of wayward thinking was now a silver-haired statesman.

Not a chance. His aim has merely changed.

Duke harangued about Jewish conspiracies. He hinted darkly that the Israeli intelligence agency knew in advance of the Sept. 11 tragedies in America.

"Why do you think there was only one Jew in the World Trade Center towers at the time?" he asked, a statement that made absolutely no sense, but in Duke's mind was categorical.

I told him I didn't agree with what he said, mostly about everything; but I was not exceedingly vocal. An Aeroflot cabin is not a place to air fundamental differences on issues that have resulted in mortar rounds.

I needled him lightly about my friendship with Martin King III, mentioned my adopted black son gratuitously, and let it go at that. Then I asked if he wanted a ride into Moscow center. He accepted, and the conversation from airport to Moscow was mostly conversational.

Duke apparently believes fervently in what he says. This doesn't make it right, only purple with misguided passion. It is racist dogma carried into the Twilight Zone.

Aside from his anti-Semitic views and his well-known thoughts on race, Duke has hit a chord in Eastern Europe, as well as Europe in general. He says his latest book has sold a quarter-million copies on the continent.

He describes himself as an American dissident and plays to some European fears that the America of George W. Bush is trigger-happy.

Headlines that day were about a leaked document discussing repositioning of America's nuclear strategy. On the surface, the report could appear alarming. Russia was one of the countries grouped together with Bush's "axis of evil" - North Korea, Iran and Iraq.

Having once long ago sat in on nuclear arms discussions with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in Moscow, and having a father who once served in the Strategic Air Command, I thought the report to be nothing new: simply contingency plans.

However, Duke has found an audience, although perhaps a small one, in Europe. It is a Europe that fears America will go off half-cocked against Iraq - a Europe that, at the heart of it and with few exceptions, hasn't America's capacity or desire to lead.

Duke has been reborn in Eastern Europe. The former song-and-dance man of the Far Right has a friendly, toothy smile. The problem is he's singing a different version of the same old tune.

Former Charleston publicist Willard has offices in Moscow and Kiev. This is a condensation of his column in his monthly magazine, The Ukrainian Observer.

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