by Paul Gullixson

Page 4: Taking on David Duke

Publication Date: Wednesday Apr 12, 1995

Page 4: Taking on David Duke

One April morning in 1989, just three months after Tyler Bridges began writing for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the newspaper's editor called him into his office. "We want you to find out everything you can about David Duke," he said. Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and Nazi sympathizer, had just sent a chill through the nation by winning a seat in the state Legislature.

Some of Duke's more rabid supporters would later say that "the Jews brought Tyler Bridges to New Orleans to get David Duke."

But Bridges, 34, a native Palo Altan and Stanford graduate, says he had little idea of what he was about to get into that day. "I didn't even know who David Duke was when I came there," he said.

In a matter of weeks, however, Duke would know him. Duke, a man who had presided over cross burnings, who preached that Jews and blacks were a "moral threat to the white race," and who had been photographed wearing a Nazi uniform, would come to refer to Bridges as the "Times-Picayune's hatchet man."

Bridges was at the forefront of the coverage of Duke, who continued to amaze the nation when, in 1990, he won 44 percent of the overall vote and 60 percent of the white vote in his failed bid for the U.S. Senate. The next year he ran for governor and lost, receiving 55 percent of the white vote.

Duke campaigned that he had changed. But Bridges detailed how he hadn't. He wrote about Duke's anti-Semitism, and he was the first behind such stories as Duke's celebration of Hitler's birthday, his plastic surgery and his dodging of the Vietnam War draft.

Perhaps in the greatest tribute to Bridges' reporting skills, on the eve of the gubernatorial election in November 1991, Duke refused to appear on Nightline with Ted Koppel if Bridges was also a guest. In the end Duke appeared. Bridges didn't.

Bridges will be returning to the Palo Alto area this week to talk at Stanford and Printers Inc. about his adventures in covering the Duke campaign, as detailed in his new book "The Rise of David Duke." The book details Duke's climb in popularity from a friendless Nazi-preaching "kook" on the campus of Louisiana State University in the mid-'70s to a member of the Louisiana Legislature. Bridges also follows Duke's listless presidential campaign in 1992 but refuses to close the door on his political career. Duke has already hinted at making another run at the governorship this year.

Bridges admits that his Palo Alto upbringing didn't prepare him for the South. "That's something that I had to overcome," he said. "Growing up, I thought everyone from the South was a racist. When you grow up in Palo Alto . . . it's hard to imagine someone belonging to the Klan. You don't understand the idea."

In order to understand Duke, "I had to understand how people could support him. And I had to abandon my biases. What would motivate them? The people I grew up with in California would never have elected him dogcatcher.

"The first time I heard (Duke) speak I expected to see him with horns coming out of his head," said Bridges. "Instead he was a good-looking guy and he spoke very well. And he was speaking to a suburban audience."

In the end, the truth won out, Bridges said. The majority of voters understood that Duke was a true fanatic and that he would be bad for the state.

But while the differences between Louisiana and California stood out five years ago, the similarities have begun to sink in more recently.

Duke had been elected as a conservative, speaking against such things as quotas, affirmative action and the need for welfare reform. His support came from "a very frustrated populace," said Bridges. "He was talking about issues that spoke to fears. 'You're losing your job because of affirmative action. Your government is wasting your tax dollars.'"

But what Duke was saying has been picked up by other politicians, particularly in California. "Proposition 187 spoke to a lot of the same fears," said Bridges. "People are tapping into issues David Duke was talking about and raising five years ago."

"Louisiana is an anomaly," Bridges continued. "But the types of issues David Duke was speaking to are real. It would be a mistake to dismiss him as just a Louisiana phenomenon. He would have drawn support in many parts of California. Anywhere racial tension exists, Duke would be able to tap into that."

Bridges will be speaking at Printers Inc. Bookstore in Palo Alto tomorrow at 8 p.m.

Paul Gullixson is editor of the Weekly. 

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