NEW ORLEANS — John Boehner was reelected House Speaker yesterday by his Republican colleagues despite some dissenting members. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, however, has been in a survival struggle since late December, when a brave, young blogger, Lamar White Jr., reported on a 2002 event in which the Congressman met with a white supremacist group formed by David Duke, Louisiana’s most famous closet Nazi.
Scalise quickly called the speech “a mistake I regret,” condemned hate groups and then hid in a cocoon of silence. As Boehner and other House leaders circled the wagons for Scalise, the silence stretched a week over the New Year’s holiday when media lights were low.
But Scalise’s silence made it worse for a Republican Party perennially accused of catering to bigots on the fringe by creating a news vacuum filled by Duke, a media hound wallowing in the newfound attention. Duke’s media appearances raise the stakes for Scalise’s long-term survival. GOP House members–like the proverbial Three Wise Monkeys who resort to see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak no-evil platitudes—waited for it all to go away. Politico has reported that some Republican donors see Scalise as damaged goods.
If so, he has his silence -- on top of poor judgment -- to blame.
Rep. Cedric Richmond of New Orleans, a black and the lone Democrat in the state’s congregation, did him a huge favor. “I don’t think Steve Scalise has a racist bone in his body,” he said.
If that’s the case, Scalise’s decision as a 37 year old state representative to accept the spring 2002 invitation from two well-known Duke operatives, Kenny Knight and Howie Farrell, to speak at Duke’s European-American Unity and Rights Organization, makes even less sense.
Why did Farrell and Knight want him there? And why did Scalise agree to such a risky venue?
Scalise could have easily said, “Sorry, boys, this one’s too hot.” Or he could’ve given a more deceptive excuse. He knew that a public appearance with Duke could be disastrous.
Duke was a state representative whose neo-Nazi alliances were disgorged in media reports during his run for governor in 1991. (He lost in a landslide to Edwin Edwards.) Duke’s Nazi stigma made him toxic to most politicians. Scalise, 26, saw that.
But after winning 55 percent of the white vote, Duke had a database of supporters some politicians coveted. In 1999, Scalise was in the legislature when the media savaged Gov. Mike Foster over the news that he had paid Duke $150,000 for his supporters list in the 1995 election. Speculation raged that Duke agreed not to run as part of the deal, though it was never proven.
Foster wasn’t prosecuted, either, but the FBI began probing Duke’s fundraising. In the late ‘90s, he spent extensive periods in Europe, giving anti-Semitic and Holocaust denial speeches at neo-fascist venues. The FBI raided his home in 2000 with an affidavit questioning his use of $200,000 from his white supremacist fundraising.
That was news Scalise could not have missed. Scalise never would have spoken to EURO had Duke been there in person.
“Duke was in Russia—for his fourth visit since 1995,” wrote Leonard Zeskind, author of “Blood and Nationalism,” in an article for the Swedish Monitor, on Duke’s travels in the late 1990s. “He spent the next two years traveling across Europe (East and West) and the Arab countries of the Middle East. He established a home base in Italy. In France, Duke had his picture taken with Jean-Marie Le Pen.”
By speaking to EURO, Scalise did a favor to Kenny Knight, a former neighbor who has been falling over himself in the last few days by giving utterly contradictory statements to various media in a buffoon’s carnival of damage control.
Duke meanwhile crowed to the Washington Post that Knight “would keep Scalise up to date on my issues” – all while Steve Scalise kept mum.
The $150,000 Duke got from Foster could not have supported the European lifestyle; the sources of Duke’s money remain a mystery.
Scalise’s speech in 2002 lent some legitimacy to Duke, who spoke that day by video link from Russia. The juxtaposition planted a story of association on websites that touted both men for their talks. It all went unnoticed until the report by White.
Ten months after the speech, in March 2003, Duke came back to Louisiana, pled guilty to federal charges of tax and mail fraud, and agreed to a $10,000 fine for abuses of the nonprofit fundraising that facilitated his travel, including gambling trips to Gulfport and Las Vegas. He also admitted to filing a false income tax statement.
After a year in prison, Duke resumed his travels. In 2006, he spoke at a conference in Iran, maintaining his drumbeat: “The Holocaust is the device used as the pillar of Zionist imperialism, Zionist aggression, Zionist terror and Zionist murder.”
Meanwhile, Scalise moved up the ladder.
At a press conference today with Scalise, Speaker Boehner again defended him. Scalise spoke briefly, adding little of substance, saying that the people back home know him best.
"I reject any form of bigotry, bigotry of all kinds. I'll refer you back to our statement. I think that's where the story ends," said Scalise.
But someone who knows Scalise from back home, Urban League President and former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, co-authored a letter to Scalise sent today from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in Washington, and made available to The Daily Beast.
The letter seeks a meeting to discuss a pattern of Scalise’s votes on certain issues, noting that he was one of six state legislators to vote against a Martin Luther King holiday, and did so two years after his EURO appearance. "You apparently took a similar position involving the naming of a U.S. Post Office for Louisiana civil rights icon, the Honorable Lionel Collins," the letter states, "a pioneering civil rights lawyer and the first African-American judge in Jefferson Parish."
Who among Scalise's constituents could possibly care if he supported naming a post office for a black judge who died in 1988?
Kenny Knight for one. And David Duke for another.
As New Orleans Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace recalls from a conversation years ago, Scalise touted himself as David Duke without the baggage.
Now, Duke is Scalise’s baggage.
Duke has jumped into field-day mode, rising to Scalise’s defense on CNN with Michael Smerconish. “I did not contribute to him, he did not contribute to me,” Duke said. He also bragged about earning a PhD, a point Smerconish did not question.
The “doctorate” Duke claims is from an anti-Semitic Ukranian “diploma mill” as described by the State Department.
“What Duke actually got at Ukraine’s Interregional Academy of Personnel Management is a ‘Kandidat Nauk’ degree, which ranks below a full doctorate,” wrote Heidi Beirch in a Southern Poverty Law Center 2009 Intelligence Report. “It was awarded to Duke for a thesis entitled ‘Zionism as a Form of Ethnic Supremacism’ and was the second degree given Duke by the university, which had earlier handed the former Klan boss an honorary degree.”
Duke is cynically making sport of Scalise by expressing his support for him, dropping hints of blackmail by naming other House members he claims to know, should Scalise lose his post.
“Scalise was ambitious to the point of reckless opportunism when it came to catering to Duke and his base,” says Tulane professor emeritus Lawrence Powell, author of “Troubled Memory,” a history of the 1991 election and its impact on a Holocaust survivor in New Orleans.
“If Scalise denounces Duke he may alienate some of his local base. But the more he keeps silent, the more credibility he loses as Majority Whip.”
In his brief appearance today, Scalise never mentioned Duke. Does he fear repercussions for doing so? Or has the see and hear and speak-no-evil stance of the Republican House persuaded him that he is in the clear?