As Nazis and Klansmen gather this weekend in Lafayette Park across from the White House, I am reminded of a 2002 flight to Moscow, and my encounter with one Donald Trump supporter, David Duke.
Having a friend and business association with Martin Luther King, III, the son of the slain civil rights leader, Martin asked me to forward on to him a column I wrote at the time.
The 16-year-old column is below. As a postscript, I should note that a year later Duke was convicted of tax and mail fraud in the US and sentenced to 15 months in prison.
Random Notes March 2002
A Man Named Duke
As a road warrior these days, I am more a conscientious objector. I have no particular premonition but like for many business people, flying makes me nervous.
Most everyone, I suppose, has a haunting fear of something.
Such was my early evening encounter with David Duke who, you might recall from the history pages, is the controversial one-time American politician most thinking people would brand racist. He calls it libertarian.
At 30-thousand feet in the cramped cabin of a TU-134, a momentary thought came to me: The vague possibility that a newspaper headline might read:
“One-time Ku Klux Klan wizard killed in fiery crash with 50 others.”
As we made our way along the milk route from Kyiv 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 Kyiv accepting an honorary degree from a so-called Christian university. He didn’t say which one, but he wore a shiny gold medal on his suit lapel as a memento.
I had not thought about Duke for many years. He is one of these people that has to be forced on the radar screen. He is, and continues to be, radioactive on most of the planet. Why bother?
In the past, I have had the privilege of sipping a Coca-Cola or two with Martin King, the son of the slain civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., aboard my boat as we bobbed up and down the Potomac River.
Currently, Duke is planted firmly in Europe, and he’s preaching his vitriolic messages: Anti-African American, anti-Jew, and a discredited brand of genetics which suggests some people have more brain power and others are more athletic. He also suggests America’s foreign policy is misguided.
It’s garbage. Warmed-over American trash momentarily turned into Euro-trash.
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. He 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 the late Governor Huey P. Long in the 1930s. He is among a long-line of colorful Bayou State politicians. We struck up a conversation in the airport terminal.
When we first met, and he initiated the conversation, Duke did not immediately identify himself, saying only that he was a journalist who lived in Moscow.
Though 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 House of Representatives. He received nearly 44 per cent of the vote in the Senate race.
After several moments: “You worked with Senator Robert Byrd?” he explored, “The one-time Ku Klux Klan member.” He was speaking of the 84-year-old Appropriations Committee chairman, and former leader of the Senate Democrats.
Not knowing to whom I was speaking, I immediately went into a feeble apology: “Yes, Senator Byrd said it was an indiscretion of his youth. He outgrew it, a mistake he has regretted many times.”
Then, on the plane, Duke came up to me. “I’m that controversial David Duke, and the Klan was in my youth as well.”
I would like to report that the self-exiled Duke had 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.
As several in the airplane cabin listened, Duke harangued me about Jewish conspiracies. He hinted darkly that the Israeli intelligence agency knew about the September 11th tragedy in America.
“Why do you think there was only one Jew in the World Trade Center towers at the time,” he said, 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 perhaps gratuitously, and let it go at that. Then, I asked if he wanted a ride into Moscow center. It was more a gesture made out of curiosity by a one-time journalist.
He accepted, and the conversation from airport to Moscow was mostly in a conversational demilitarized zone.
David Duke had been reborn in Eastern Europe. The former song and dance man of the very right has a friendly, toothy smile. The problem is, he’s singing a different version of the same old tune.