By Bill Hewitt
November 18, 1991 12:00 PM

IN THE PAST FEW YEARS, DAVID DIKE has received almost as much attention for his plastic surgery as he has for his extremist politics. Under prodding, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Nazi enthusiast and current Republican gubernatorial candidate in Louisiana, now admits that he had a nose job and a chemical skin peel. Critics contend that, among other refinements, he also had collagen injections to smooth the bags under his eyes, and liposuction to reduce the size of his lower lip—all of which Duke, 41, vehemently denies. Whatever the truth of the matter, some who have lately encountered him find the changes startling. “I didn’t recognize him for a few seconds when I first saw him,” says Beth Rickey, a Republican Party leader in Louisiana, who opposes Duke.

The debate over appearances—and the changes Duke claims to have made in the man within—is of more than passing interest as he campaigns for the state house in the Nov. 16 election. Now in the national spotlight as a prominent apostle of white resentment, Duke claims that his former extremism can be attributed to “the excesses of youth.” As far as critics are concerned, Duke’s railing about “welfare cheats,” the “urban underclass” and rising crime rates is nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to pander to racist sentiments. They fear that in the mediagenic Duke—handsome and articulate—the far right has at last found the perfect way to hide the politics of bigotry under a cloak of respectability. Last week, even George Bush weighed in, branding Duke as an “insincere charlatan” whose past record “cannot be erased by the glib rhetoric of a political campaign.” It is a charge that Duke combatively deflects. “They never accuse me of any violence toward minorities,” he says in one television spot. “They accuse me only of thought-crime, of being politically incorrect, of saying out loud what many say privately.”

While Duke claims to have abandoned his racist views, how he came by them in the first place remains something of a mystery. He was born in Oklahoma, where his father, David H. Duke, 79, worked for Shell Oil as an engineer. Over the years the family, including David’s older sister, Dotti, 46, and his mother, Maxine, 77, moved frequently. The elder David was a stern, demanding father who insisted that his children excel in school. “Even during summer vacation [he] would sit us down and give us at least four hours of homework to do,” says Dotti, who is married and living in Oregon.

In Dotti’s view, though, David’s relationship with his mother left an equally deep mark. From about the time David was a toddler, says Dotti, Maxine developed a serious drinking problem. Once a superb athlete, she became increasingly debilitated by alcohol, prescription-drug abuse and a series of strokes; long bedridden and her mind a ruin, she lives with Dotti. Duke’s apparent response to this behavior was characteristic of many children of alcoholics. “My brother became the perfectionist,” says Dotti. “His obsession began with wanting to right wrongs and wanting to make things go right.”

By the time Duke got to college, though, something had gone radically wrong. He had appeared to have fallen under the influence of James Lindsay, a Klan organizer and prosperous businessman from New Orleans, and had joined the Klan as a high school senior. Starting in the fall of 1969, his sophomore year at Louisiana State University, he began making highly inflammatory racist speeches on campus. “We have a right to keep the white race white,” he said in his first address at an open-air forum. “I am a National Socialist. You can call me a Nazi if you want to.”

At times Duke sported a Hitler mustache and hairdo. But what struck opponents at LSU was his fervor, despite the constant heckling and threats. “It never seemed to faze him,” says Richard Crane, now an attorney in Nashville who used to debate Duke. “It was bizarre.” In 1971 Duke was denied entry to the advanced phase of LSU’s ROTC program because of his politics.

Not long after graduation, he married Chloe Hardin, the daughter of a wealthy West Palm Beach, Fla., car dealer. Though he quickly rose to the position of grand wizard in the Klan, Duke himself is vague on how he came to embrace its philosophy. “I was enamored with the Old South and the chivalry of it, the romance of it,” he says simply. For their part, his family, having grown increasingly distressed over his extremism, was appalled. Dotti refused to speak to him for nearly nine years. “I could not understand why he was doing what he was doing,” says Dotti, who is now reconciled with her brother and believes he is sincere in his efforts at moderation.

By 1980 Duke had resigned from the Klan for political reasons and formed the National Association for the Advancement of White People, a group he hoped would gather more mainstream support. Mostly, though, Duke and his cohorts labored in relative obscurity. His personal life wasn’t thriving either. In 1984 he and Chloe divorced. (Chloe, who retained custody of their two daughters, Erika, 16, and Kristin, 14, has since been remarried, to one of Duke’s closest friends, a former Klansman named Don Black; Duke served as best man.) Duke achieved his big political breakthrough in 1989. Running for the Louisiana State Legislature from a conservative white district around the town of Metairie, he abandoned his crude racist rhetoric-and instead adopted a platform of “welfare reform,” arguing that the state should try to reduce illegitimate births and abolish affirmative-action programs.

Though he won by only a slim margin, Duke was suddenly on respectable political turf—and he lost no time in taking advantage of it. Last year he ran for the U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Bennett Johnston, again portraying himself as a humble tribune for working people. Widely dismissed because of his past ties to the Klan and the Nazis, he stunned political pros by piling up 600,000 votes in his losing cause.

As he prepares to square off against former Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards, in a race that looks very close, Duke argues that he has genuinely altered his beliefs. “You go around the world and you meet people and you just begin to have a lot more respect for individuals,” he says. “It’s just a natural process that takes place in somebody’s life.” But opponents point to a tape recording made of Duke in 1985 that to their ears makes him sound more calculating—and able to appeal to disaffected white voters all around the nation. Speaking with a neo-Nazi from California, Duke advises the man to soft-pedal his affiliation. “I’m trying to bring new people in, like a drummer,” says Duke. “If they can call you a Nazi and make it stick…it’s really going to hurt. It’s going to hurt the ability of people to open their minds to what you’re saying.”


RON RIDENHOUR in New Orleans