Analysis: Beth Rickey’s Legacy

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 Analysis: Beth Rickey’s legacy
Posted 9/18/2009 8:25 AM ET
By Kevin Mcgill, Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS — David Duke’s supporters tried that night to make it look like he still had star power. They gathered tightly around him when the TV cameras pointed his way, hoping to create, for the viewers at home, the illusion of a packed house. In reality, the man who had drawn thousands to rallies only months earlier had an audience of mere dozens that night at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner. And the numbers coming in from other states were worse: 2 percent in Texas, 3 percent in Tennessee, 9 percent in his home state of Louisiana.

Republican pundit Patrick Buchanan was thrashing Duke in the Super Tuesday GOP presidential primaries of 1992. Duke’s seat at the adult table of politics had been yanked away and all he could do was make hollow offers to “confer” with the victor.

But no politician was seeking Duke’s counsel. Four months earlier, his landslide loss in the Louisiana governor’s race to Edwin Edwards had exposed him as a loser.

More importantly, Beth Rickey had even earlier exposed him as a Nazi sympathizer.

Twenty years ago, Rickey was an activist in the Louisiana Republican Party. Aghast at Duke’s rise in the state GOP, she began researching his past. Duke had long garnered publicity as a former Ku Klux Klan leader and swastika-waving neo-Nazi. But, he had cleaned up his image and, he said, his act by the time he narrowly won a state House seat in February 1989.

It was Rickey, who died earlier this month at age 53, who as much as anyone else put the lie to Duke’s claims that Nazism was the stuff of his youth. Among other things, she went to his office in Metairie and was able to buy books denying the Holocaust and expressing Nazi viewpoints.

It wasn’t the only research she and others did on Duke, though the effect on his political career wasn’t immediate. He would go on to draw 44 percent of the vote in the 1990 Senate race. Then, benefiting from a divided electorate in the 1991 nonpartisan primary for governor, he would make it into the runoff against the scandal-riddled Edwin Edwards — a campaign widely billed as “The Race From Hell.”

But, says Lance Hill, director of Tulane University’s Southern Institute for Education and Research, Rickey had managed to “plant a seed in the mind of voters that took a couple of years to come to fruition.”

Gradually, the truth took root. Duke was not just a garden-variety conservative, who, like many sincere proponents of welfare reform, had to fend off unfair charges of racism.

Hill recalls there was polling data indicating that voters were much more worried about the Nazi sympathies than his old Klan ties.

Edwards didn’t base his campaign on overt references to Nazism or racism. While groups such as the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism (founded by Rickey, Hill and others) painted Duke as evil, Edwards and other groups that supported him ran what amounted to a complementary message thumping Duke on economic issues.

It wasn’t just that Duke, cornered in an NBC interview, couldn’t name the state’s top three employers (information Edwards could have recited as readily as the Lord’s Prayer). It was that employers would steer clear of an already aching state that was ready to anoint David Duke as governor.

Which message resounded most with voters? It doesn’t really matter. The economic argument depended on the unearthing and publicizing of credible evidence of Duke’s true sympathies. As the message spread, Edwards, early on thought to be vulnerable to a Duke political juggernaut, moved up in polls. He won 61 percent of the vote.

Rickey’s legacy: Her work, which earned her death threats, clearly contributed to the magnitude of Duke’s 1991 defeat and the subsequent fast fade evidenced by rows of empty seats at the Pontchartrain Center in 1992.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Kevin McGill is a reporter for The Associated Press in New Orleans. Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.