No doubt about it, David Duke was a hell of a story. For political reporters, the former Klansman’s Louisiana campaigns were relics of the segregationist South, bracing proof that the old Confederacy’s worst instincts are still alive. For high-brow essayists, Duke emerged as a symbol of the struggle between good and evil in the American mind—a foreboding figure who brought to life our worst economic and racial tensions. In the end, though, Duke turned out to be more Mickey Mouse than Manichean.

This book, the first comprehensive discussion of Duke’s 1989 state legislative victory, 1990 U.S. Senate race, and 1991 gubernatorial campaign, treats him as more than a passing fancy. Most of the nine men and women who contributed essays—academics, journalists, and activists—subscribe to a similar thesis: Duke is not a sensation unique to Louisiana, an eclectic, populist state. They repeatedly insist that Duke and his brand of race-based campaigning are poised to attract white voters caught in uneasy economic and social circumstances across the country.

Editor Douglas Rose even begins the book with Yeats’ apocalyptic “The Second Coming”: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” It’s a sophomoric touch. Racist politics—or any sort of politics based on appeals to fear, uncertainty, and unease—are ancient. Duke is merely the latest in a long line of politicians who counted on dragging the worst out of voters.

So why is Duke no longer a national political figure? The protest candidacy of Patrick J. Buchanan has been used to explain Duke’s dismal showing in the 1992 Republican presidential primaries. Buchanan, the conventional wisdom goes, made ethnic resentments the center of his campaign and thus became an acceptable alternative to Duke, the neo-Nazi and author of a sexual-advice guide for women. Yet even Buchanan faded as Bush steadily slogged his way to the nomination. Anger is hard to sustain in any form, especially in the context of a national political campaign. Duke was a victim of this truth, but foremost he was a victim of his own history.

This book was begun as Duke rode a wave of national publicity and was completed before he withdrew from the 1992 presidential race. Coming now, it’s a wet firecracker, but it still raises good questions, intended and otherwise: Where did Duke come from, why did he ultimately fail, and why were so many—including this book’s contributors—so sure he wouldn’t?

In a way, the contributors have turned out to be victims of their own success. In 1989 several of them gathered to document Duke’s fascist past and eventually formed the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism—a political action committee widely credited with unmasking Duke. If the analysis in these pages seems familiar, it’s because the coalition did its job well, disseminating damaging information and casting Duke as an opportunist who remade himself to win office. Today, Duke holds no public office and stands little chance of future electoral success, even in his home state. As one contributor notes, “It is unclear whether he will even muster enough white support to win statewide office; as the recent governor’s election has shown, Louisiana’s sizable black electorate (27 percent) is a major stumbling block to his larger political ambitions.”

Although the authors’ portrait of Duke and his world is convincing, it goes further than the evidence warrants in sounding the alarm about Duke’s supposed national appeal. In a passage about Duke’s only successful campaign for a seat in the Louisiana legislature, where he represented a depressed New Orleans suburb, contributor Lawrence N. Powell underscores the volume’s tone. “By reawakening the furies of racism, Duke has disrupted the New Deal party alignments that tenuously emerged in Louisiana following the civil rights movement. And because the forces driving Duke’s political movement—declining living standards, voter cynicism, fear of crime—reflect national trends, the lesson of his legislative victory is that it could happen elsewhere.”

This notion that “it could happen elsewhere” is problematic. Remember, Duke’s victory occurred in Louisiana, and even there he won only one very close election (by 227 votes) under extraordinary circumstances. If the worry is that “other David Dukes” will spring up across the land to cash in on the declining fortunes of the middle class, then what constitutes “a David Duke”? Must he have been a Nazi? A Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan? There can’t be many out there with such credentials who can be taken as seriously as Duke was.

Later, of course, Duke did net 44 percent of the vote against an incumbent U.S. senator and run ahead of the incumbent Democrat-turned-Republican (and wildly unpopular) governor in an open primary. This book offers convincing explanations for such results, ranging from Duke’s manipulation of television news to his polished deflection of past affiliations with groups such as the KKK (he wrote them off as follies of youth). Duke also took advantage of a weakened state party system. In the book’s best essay, Elizabeth Rickey, a member of Louisiana’s Republican State Central Committee, gives an account of how she fought a losing battle to get the state party to condemn Duke. It was Rickey and Lance Hill, another contributor, who uncovered the oft-cited fact that Duke was selling books like Hitler Was My Friend out of his legislative office.

Duke is put in a regional context by Ferrel Guillory, an editor of the Raleigh News and Observer. Guillory’s essay makes the expected points: the South faces weakening parties, political alienation, economic stagnation—and the “inescapable fact of history that the Republican Party surged in the South also by willingly serving as a vehicle for white resistance and disaffection.” In other words, if you strip away Duke’s sheets and swastikas, you essentially get a conservative Republican, a candidate comfortable in the party of Lee Atwater. But although it’s true that Nixon, Reagan, and Bush were willing to use race when it suited them, they did it for the sake of political expediency. Duke is different. Racism is part of his fabric—you can’t take it out or isolate patches like Willie Horton. Duke’s life is one long Willie Horton commercial.

And Duke disclaims his past with a wink and a nod, a fact that calls into question his new-found Republicanism. According to Gary Esolen, whose essay analyzes Duke’s use of television, “The paradox is that although Duke’s TV message is that he has cleaned up his act, he cannot in fact leave his original politics too far behind or he will fizzle out. A scoundrel who goes straight will soon lose the attention of the news media.”

Of course, media attention does not always a successful candidate make. While Duke’s flirtation with the media turned him into a celebrity, it also turned mainstream voters off. We hear much about “the hidden vote”: people “mainstream” enough to deny that they were going to vote for Duke but who would do it once the curtain was drawn. Evidence here, however, shows that this hidden vote was a minor factor in Duke’s 1991 gubernatorial run-off against Edwin Edwards. Duke lost, 61 to 39 percent, after pollsters had predicted he’d hit 46 percent.

Boy in the hood

Of course, Duke’s demise does not mean the end of the politics of race in this or any other year. Middle-class children of the Reagan years experienced overt racial tensions long before the Rodney King incident. In my youth, during the summer of 1980, a jury in Chattanooga acquitted three Klansmen in a drive-by shooting of five black women. Some of the city’s black population rioted, burning buildings and threatening to spread the violence. From my house on Missionary Ridge, the Civil War battlefield that overlooks the city, I could hear gunfire and see smoke rising from the business districts. There were two reactions at home. First, my father put a shotgun by the back door and a rifle by the front; there were fears that things could get out of hand. But there was also his astonishment at the verdict, a recognition of the general pity of it all, and a lecture on the explicable rage of the people who thought the system had, once again, abandoned them. Still, the guns remained by the doors for a time.

As I grew older, it struck me that the ambiguity of those days was not uncommon. The story of the post-1954 South—and, for that matter, of the rest of the nation—is that of men and women of good intentions doing battle with their fears and habits. Fortunately, the good intentions have generally won out, and the kind of viciousness Duke represents has retreated from the center to the fringe. The guns at the door are not necessarily emblems of the Right: My father voted for Carter in 1980, thinking Reagan too conservative. It would never occur to him to vote for Duke, and, clearly, the mass of middle-class voters feel the same way.

Rose and Esolen acknowledge this in their joint analysis of Duke’s gubernatorial race: “The support of conservative Republicans was crucial to Duke but hard for him to get. They were not casting protest votes or experiencing hard times or threatened by affirmative action or fond of Hitler or the KKK. Republican support for culturally racist themes lacks the intensity that Duke supporters bring.” The Duke phenomenon came to an end because he couldn’t extend his support beyond a small band of angry and alienated blue-collar voters.

Duke is an interesting study, a stopping-off point for political and social scientists who make a living generalizing from the particular. The center has a way of holding, however, and Duke has slouched home to the fringe. This book, for all its overstatement, tells the David Duke story well. Let’s hope it will be the last word we’ll need on the subject.

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Jon Meacham

Jon Meacham is a biographer who holds the Rogers Chair in the American Presidency at Vanderbilt University. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 1993 to 1994.