It would have been like any ordinary Saturday afternoon at the Dulles Hyatt. Inside the lobby of the sterile suburban Northern Virginia hotel, a gray-haired man busied himself at a baby grand piano, filling the room with the sound of schmaltzy jazz standards. Traveling businessmen sat around chatting, puffing cigars, drinking cocktails and chortling at one another’s quips. In the corner a woman cradled a sleeping baby. It would have been like any Saturday at the Hyatt, except for the obvious plainclothes cops guarding the hotel’s entrances, the employees forbidden by management from speaking to lurking reporters and the presence, in a hallway, of the beaming white supremacist David Duke, surrounded by a gaggle of admirers.
“The Jewish supremacists not only want to control Israel, they want to control America, Europe and the whole world,” Duke announced to a dozen men who crowded around to hear his every word. “The best thing we can do is expose Jewish influence. Then one day the world will rise up, people will fill the streets and call general strikes–just like in Europe.”
Duke had arrived at the American Renaissance conference spry and apparently untouched by the ravages of age. After several rounds of plastic surgery and with enough rouge on his cheeks to make Tammy Faye Bakker blush, he is the neo-Nazi answer to Dorian Gray. Though Duke’s vanity distinguished him from his fellow “white nationalists” who converged for the two-day conference, he was not alone in his struggle to remain relevant and distinctive in a complex political climate where most of the ultra-right’s signature issues have been co-opted by pseudo-populist media personalities and Republican politicians.
In 2003 Duke was sentenced to fifteen months in a Texas prison for tax and mail fraud–bilking his supporters out of thousands of dollars, much of which he is rumored to have spent on liquor-sodden nights at casinos and strip clubs. With most of his credibility (such as it was) destroyed by the time of his release, Duke has repositioned himself as a crusader against the “Jewish supremacist” money-power. While explicit anti-Semitism did little to restore his audience in the United States, it has proved to be a hit overseas.
Duke’s book, Jewish Supremacism: My Awakening to the Jewish Question, is selling like cheap vodka on the streets of Moscow. In 2005 Ukraine’s largest private university, the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management (MAUP), awarded Duke an honorary doctorate for his thesis, “Zionism as a Form of Ethnic Supremacism.” Today, he claims to teach an international relations and history course at the 50,000-student school, which, until recently, included President Viktor Yuschenko on its board of directors. Duke has also been airlifted by a Muslim charity to lecture in Bahrain and appeared in Damascus, Syria, to deliver a public address blaming the “Zionist media” for hyping the war in Iraq. While even many American white nationalists remain suspicious of Duke’s motives, he is an international sensation.
Relaxing in the Hyatt lobby, Duke reminisced about his glory days. “I was the first candidate who ran against affirmative action. And I predated Clinton on welfare reform,” Duke told me. He rehashed his controversial term as a Louisiana state representative and his losing 1990 Republican gubernatorial candidacy, in which he captured more than 60 percent of the white vote. He happily recalled his 1977 Klan Border Watch, when he and seven other Klansmen drove a few sedans in circles along the California-Mexico border, waving a shotgun in the moonlight while dozens of reporters in tow tried not to crash their cars into one another.