Republicans vs. David Duke — a political memoir.
Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in this magazine’s occasional, ongoing series of political-event reminiscences by senior editor Quin Hillyer, each with lessons relevant to current events….
“Dat’s de way it’s gonna be, and it ain’t gonna be no udder way!!!”
Billy Nungesser was yelling into the microphone, or at least the closest approximation his extremely raspy, gravelly, cigarette-scarred voice could make to a yell, while he held the whole podium tight in two outstretched arms with white knuckles, as if holding on to a rocky outcropping above a ravine. Nungesser was quite a sight: At age 61, his shockingly orange hair still swept up in a pompadour straight out of Hollywood’s exaggerations of the 1950s, one eye staring straight and the other (glass, I think, but never found out for sure) angling off into the rafters, the rather powerfully built Nungesser was in one of his trademark shiny white suits—probably with an orange shirt and bright pink tie, although memory plays tricks, so that particular outfit may have been worn on a different occasion. His face, which looked like that of a bar brawler except that it could light up with a lopsided smile that could warm a whole auditorium, had this time turned nearly maroon with rage.
Nungesser, this visual study in contradictions, a successful self-made businessman with no college background whose diction devolved into dockyard vernacular when he was upset, was state chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party, presiding over the 1991 state convention. The reason he was holding the podium so tightly while yelling, red-faced, was that neo-Nazi David Duke was trying to reach around him and pry the microphone from the his grasp, while several dozen Duke supporters yelled angrily from just in front of the stage’s risers, having rushed the stage in what seemed an attempt to start a riot. The attempt failed because none of the vastly anti-Duke majority of delegates took their bait. As this bizarre scene played out in front of them, the delegates—a mix of Christian Coalition members, traditional Reaganites, and moderates—calmly remained seated.
Instead of causing a ruckus that either (a) would make it look like a vast throng of Duke supporters were demanding that Duke be allowed to speak or (b) would cause so much chaos that the convention would end in turmoil before a recorded vote, all the demonstration did was emphasize just how meager the convention’s Duke forces really were. And as nothing short of a 200-horsepower forklift was going to make Nungesser relax his bear hug on the podium, Duke—20 years Nungesser’s junior but clearly no match for the elder man’s determination—ended up stalking back and forth along the front edge of the stage, sans microphone, gesticulating wildly, weakly mouthing complaints that few people could hear.
THE PROLOGUE TO THIS truly outlandish state convention contretemps was more than two years long. In an early 1989 special election, Duke had squeezed into a state House seat by 227 votes in one of the cleverest misdirection campaigns in modern memory. Duke had failed in earlier bids for public office as a Democrat and as the standard-bearer of some now-forgotten third party. This time, running as one of a host of Republicans, he had received superabundant attention because of his past as a former national leader of the KKK. He campaigned now as a next-generation Ronald Reagan type concerned only with tax cuts and welfare reform while blithely acknowledging “errors” in his younger days. And he proved a master of the 15-second TV sound bite, able to turn the added attention to his advantage by pushing all the right emotional (economic) buttons in a state largely bypassed by the rest of America’s 1980s boom times.
In 1990, largely on the strength of votes from white “George Wallace Democrats,” Duke had greatly outperformed expectations in garnering 43 percent of the ballots in a two-way race for U.S. Senate. And now, as a cultural phenomenon who seemed coated in Teflon despite growing evidence of continuing extremist ties, Duke was running for governor in a multi-person race. (In Louisiana’s open primary at the time, all candidates, regardless of party, ran on the same ballot, and if nobody earned a majority then the top two, regardless of party, met in the general election runoff.) Only one major Democrat, colorful former three-term governor. Edwin Edwards, was competing, but the Republican side was far more scrambled.
State party rules provided for a convention to determine which candidate would receive the official party endorsement. A non-endorsed candidate could continue to run, but would not be eligible for any of the organizational or other assistance of the official party apparatus. Incumbent Buddy Roemer, a headstrong, semi-conservative maverick before John McCain fully embodied that archetype, had been elected as a Democrat but switched parties mid-term. He then spurned the state party (partly due to enmity with Nungesser) and refused to compete for the endorsement. His backers arrived at the convention hoping to win a “no endorsement” party stance. But U.S. Rep. Clyde Holloway clearly was the favorite of most conventioneers—especially the Christian Coalition, which for the second straight year had mobilized to deny Duke many spots at a state convention. Indeed, so effective were the Roemer, uncommitted, and Holloway enthusiasts at out-organizing Duke in earlier district caucuses that Duke arrived at the convention with only about 5 percent of the pledged delegates.
(A note on the Christian Coalition: In a caucus/convention system, its organizational might was formidable. Its state leadership, which included a few African Americans, was appalled at Duke’s hateful history, especially by his anti-Semitism. Often badly mischaracterized by the national media as bigots, the Christian Coalition in Louisiana performed sterling service in denying Duke any official party foothold.
Long-standing party rules—rules adopted without regard to Duke, either way—forbade candidates from addressing a state convention before a vote. But Duke desperately wanted the news footage that would come his way if he did speak, because he knew that video of him speaking from an official Republican state party platform would help his ongoing efforts to “mainstream” himself as a candidate. The problem was, Duke needed the video without the vote: It would be highly embarrassing for him to garner attention from a speech but then have it reported that despite his oratory he ended up with only 5 percent of the convention ballots. Hence the plan to seize the podium or, if that didn’t work, create chaos that would drown out any news of the actual vote count.
LATER, THROUGH A NETWORK of sources I had developed, I learned what had preceded Duke’s attempt to seize the podium. Earlier that day, behind some fold-away bleachers, Duke had met with his puny number of convention delegates and some other hangers-on. He told them he had issued an official challenge to the rule forbidding candidates to speak, in order to create the story that he was somehow being wronged—and that then, at a pre-selected lull in the proceedings after the challenge was denied, he would try to physically take the microphone while they, his minions, should rush the stage to sow confusion. He expected other delegates to resist, and for the whole convention to devolve into a farce that would besmirch the official party endorsement as not worth having—or, perhaps, if Duke had the microphone, it could look like he were the one who showed leadership by restoring order. Or something like that.
But I didn’t know that at the time. As the 27-year-old managing editor of Gambit Weekly (a popular, politically centrist paper) in New Orleans, I had broken several of the stories demonstrating that Duke maintained neo-Nazi ties despite his pretense of having become more respectable. So I was watching Duke closely as I covered the convention, and I noticed that as one part of the schedule wound down, Duke surreptitiously ambled around the outside of the hall to a spot at the stage’s backside where some short, portable stairs led up to the risers. (These stairs were back left, as the stage faced the audience, while the stage’s main stairs were front-right.) Nobody else in the hall seemed to notice Duke, but—smelling a rat—I followed at a distance.
The timing seemed odd; there was a brief scheduled intermission in the convention program. The podium itself was unmanned. Meanwhile, among those on stage was my father, Haywood Hillyer III, who was then the state’s Republican National Committeeman after 30 years of volunteer, behind-the-scenes, party-building grunt work. Suddenly, I saw Duke spring up the stairs and run toward the empty podium. To this day, I don’t remember if I called out something like, “Hey, Dad, look out!” or whether my father heard Duke’s approach on his own. Whatever alerted him, my father, all 5-feet-8, 150 pounds of him, jumped into the aisle between rows of chairs on the stage, in a stance reminiscent of a halfback trying to pick up a blitz.
A few steps short of my father, Duke—younger and larger—veered around some chairs toward another aisle. My father pivoted to try to block that aisle, and Duke cut back again, knocking some other chairs aside to clear a path where this time my father couldn’t interpose.
But the commotion had alerted Nungesser, who was in private conversation at the far edge of the stage—and my father’s delaying action gave the chairman time to make a dash of his own. Nungesser reached the podium about three steps before Duke, and grabbed it in his fierce bear hug. Duke clearly wanted to get to the microphone without actually physically laying a hand on the chairman, but he did try to hip-check Nungesser out of the way—to no avail.
That’s when Nungesser yelled into the mike. “We have rules in this party!” he screamed. “The rules say the candidates don’t speak! We’re gonna follow those rules. Dat’s de way it’s gonna be, and it ain’t gonna be no udder way!”
Damned if ol’ Billy wasn’t right. This was a man who had come up the hard way, serving as a Marine during the Korean War, building a riverboat catering business from nothing, helping organize and finance the campaigns for public office of his more “Uptown” former high-school classmate David Treen, and then serving as Treen’s chief of staff when Treen became Louisiana’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. (While in that administration, Nungesser donated his whole salary to children’s charities.) Nungesser, despite his penchant for shiny pastels and whites, was just plain tougher than most men, and he damn sure wasn’t gonna let this Kluxer steal the day.
Meanwhile, the rest of the delegates, amazingly, remained preternaturally calm amidst the turmoil. By not reacting to the intended melee, they made Duke’s followers look feckless instead of fierce, and made Duke’s subsequent meanderings on stage look pitiful rather than powerful.
The Duke forces started chanting, but Nungesser motioned to the microphone young college professor David Thibodaux, twice a loser (later to lose twice more) as a congressional candidate (although he did become a successful school board member). Thibodaux moonlighted as the charismatic lead singer for a Cajun band. He began singing “God Bless America,” sounding like nothing so much as a male angel—and the rest of the delegates joined in, drowning out the increasingly weak chants of the now-aimlessly milling Dukesters. Eventually the would-be rioters dispersed, Duke slunk away, and the convention resumed its normal proceedings.
HOLLOWAY, AS EXPECTED, garnered the official nomination, but Duke used his white Democratic base to outpace both Holloway and Roemer and qualify for a (losing) runoff against Edwards. In the end, then, Duke’s convention setback seemed to fade in importance. But Nungesser (and my father) at least had blocked Duke from claiming in any way to be a legitimate choice of the Republican Party itself—and that lack of legitimacy was one of several factors that dogged him in his losing runoff campaign.
Nungesser had done something else important that day: He had preserved the rules, rather than let Duke hijack them. The playbook for radicals has always been clear: Subvert the rules whenever necessary to gain power; change the rules when possible in order to gain any advantage, no matter how unfair. And when you can’t change or rig the rules, create a diversion and cause as much chaos as possible, to try to make the rules irrelevant. Thanks largely to Nungesser, Duke failed on all counts that day. But other radicals, far more adept, self-controlled, and politically potent, know the same playbook, and they can execute it much more skillfully.
It is the rules-changing attempts—the “card check” for union elections, the Fairness Doctrine, the loosening of protections against voter fraud, the empowerment of trial lawyers to sue enemies and of armed bureaucracies with subpoena powers to harass adversaries—that are the biggest dangers this winter and spring to conservative political comeback plans. Somehow, some way, conservatives must win those battles, to keep the rules from being changed and rigged against them. Conservatives must ensure that, despite the odds, it ain’t gonna be no udder way.
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