In 1989, President George H.W. Bush and former President Ronald Reagan broke the 11th Commandment: They decided to speak ill of a fellow Republican. It was an unusual decision for a few reasons, particularly because the Republican wasn’t running for a national or even a statewide election. He was campaigning for District 81’s seat in Louisiana’s state House of Representatives, a majority conservative district in suburban New Orleans.
Bush and Reagan recorded robocalls urging the good people of District 81 to reject that candidate and vote instead for his opponent, a fellow Republican, John Treen, the brother of former Louisiana Gov. Dave Treen.
But the gambit didn’t work. Voters ignored Presidents Bush and Reagan, and David Duke narrowly won the election; the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan suddenly became one of the most powerful Republicans in Louisiana. The next year, Duke ran for the U.S. Senate, and although he lost, he managed to capture 60% of the white vote.
The year after that, in what is arguably the most important statewide election in Louisiana history, he ran for governor. The entire world paid attention. His runoff opponent was former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who had long been beleaguered by allegations of corruption. Supporters of Edwards printed out bumperstickers: “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.”
And although Edwards won in a landslide, the former klansman still captured 55% of white voters. Astronomically high turnout among African Americans spared Louisiana from the indignity of a Gov. Duke. Years later, both men ended up in prison, but when Edwards was released, after eight years behind bars, polling showed he remained the most popular politician in the state.
(If you want to read more about the saga, I highly recommend Tyler Bridges’ book The Rise and Fall of David Duke, which was recently updated and re-released).
In the aftermath of my publication of two disturbing videos of interim U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith making a bizarre statement about wanting to be on the front row of a public hanging (which her campaign referred to as “an exaggerated expression of regard”) and another statement about making it more difficult for students of certain schools in Mississippi to vote (a state with seven HBCUs and a population that is 37% African America), it’s impossible to imagine President Donald Trump would ever repudiate Hyde-Smith in the same way Bush and Reagan did to David Duke.
In fact, Trump is actually considering visiting Mississippi to host a campaign rally for Hyde-Smith, who is facing Democrat Mike Espy, an African American, in a runoff election on Nov. 27th.
This is a different and much more toxic time for the Grand Old Party.
Lee Atwater, who some regarded at the time as the most amoral political consultant in American history, engineered the robocalls from Bush and Reagan against Duke: Donald Trump’s first chief political strategist, Steve Bannon, was the co-founder of a website he described as a “platform for the alt-right.”
There is no joke about it: Hate is on the rise.
During the past few days, I have encountered more than my own fair share of bizarre, if not unintentionally comical, hate mail. Yesterday, for example, I received a private message on Facebook from a Mississippi voter who was angry with me for making everyone believe that the term “public hanging” was suddenly now racist, clearly taking umbrage and feeling insulted. Yet in the Deep South, public hangings are also known as lynchings — historical fact, not merely an incorrect colloquialism. Louisiana and Mississippi weren’t the Wild West.
But before anyone gets outraged by the mere comparison between David Duke and Cindy Hyde-Smith, please hold your horses. (Incidentally, the idiomatic meaning of “hold your horses” originated in the Deep South, not the Wild West).
This year marks the fiftieth “anniversary” of David Duke’s debut into the public spotlight, and during those fifty years, there have been many iterations and perhaps even more physical alterations of David Duke than you can count.
I’m not referring to the David Duke of today or the David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan or the David Duke of Free Speech Alley at LSU.
Consider instead the David Duke of the years 1988 through 1991, the brief period of his life when he finally got elected and nearly became a part of the state’s political mainstream. Anyone of a certain age from Louisiana remembers this version of Duke and the way he could play the dog whistle like a virtuoso.
In the Mississippi Senate runoff, there is one key figure who should be particularly familiar with what Louisiana politics were like thirty years ago, during the rise of David Duke. Her name is Melissa Scallan, and currently she serves as the Communications Director for Sen. Hyde-Smith, the least enviable job in Mississippi state politics right now.
Yesterday, in response to the second video I posted, Ms. Scallan issued a statement and then a follow-up with The Jackson Free Press. Quoting:
“Obviously, Sen. Hyde-Smith was making a joke, and clearly the video was selectively edited,” said Hyde-Smith campaign Communications Director Melissa Scallan.
Scallan told the Jackson Free Press via text message that she did not know which schools Hyde-Smith was joking about because she was not there. Asked if she would ask Hyde-Smith, Scallan said she would not be able to talk to her Thursday night. Later, however, Scallan called to say she had spoken to a staffer who was present when the video was taken.
“She was talking to four freshman students at Mississippi State,” Scallan said, relaying what she said the staffer told her. “And they were talking about the idea of having polling places on college campuses. And someone made a joke about college campuses being liberal, and that’s when she said, ‘Well, maybe we don’t want everybody to vote.’ But the great idea was the putting of polling places on college campuses.”
Public hangings aren’t a joke, and neither are efforts at voter suppression.
Two years after the notorious 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial election, apparently Melissa Scallan and I were living about a mile down the street from one another in my hometown of Alexandria.
I doubt we ever crossed paths, though. She was in her mid-twenties, five years out of LSU and her hometown of Baton Rouge; I was eleven, a student at South Alexandria Sixth Grade Center. The biographical details may seem irrelevant, except for two important things: First, Melissa Scallan earned her degree in journalism from LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communications, which is one of the top five schools of its kind in the nation; in other words, she should know better than to advise a candidate to excuse racially-loaded gaffes as “jokes” and then refuse to have the decency to apologize. (I’m not just saying that because I was briefly enrolled in the Manship School’s Ph.D program; it’s objectively a great school). Second, it’s important to emphasize: Melissa Scallan was an adult living in Louisiana when the state was littered with those blue and white Duke for Governor signs.
She may now claim Mississippi, but the person who is running Cindy Hyde-Smith’s campaign communications is – like me – from Louisiana.
It certainly makes this tweet from her candidate’s account a little awkward and ironic.
The second video of Sen. Hyde-Smith, which is posted at the top of the page, was not “selectively edited.” There are no cuts, no alterations, no manipulations whatsoever. That much is plainly obvious to anyone who possesses even a basic knowledge of videography and the dictionary. Someone should explain this to the head of the Mississippi Republican Party:
When I shared the video yesterday, I had not seen the entirety of the footage, though it was obvious Hyde-Smith was responding to a question about polling places on college campuses. It was also obvious that these were her words, in full, unaltered.
This afternoon, I obtained a full version of the video. It is 14 minutes and 24 seconds long, and, with the exception of her remarks about voter suppression on college campuses, it is completely banal: Just a stream of college kids and minor children, some of whom were with their parents, posing for photographs in front of the senator’s tour bus.
I suspect Hyde-Smith’s campaign understood this: The only way to reveal the entire video would require editing out the faces of college kids and children. It would be irresponsible and reckless to do so.
However, I was able to provide a slightly longer clip that may provide some context. It’s extremely difficult to hear the crosstalk, but it appears as if an African American student was involved in that conversation about adding more polling places on college campuses.
There’s another reason I suspect this particular student was not pleased with Sen. Hyde-Smith’s answers or the use of his image in the tweet above (which, thankfully, I thought to screencapture).
Here was his response on Twitter:
After Coleman’s repudiation, Sen. Hyde-Smith deleted the tweet, but the internet, of course, is written in ink.
It is up for Mississippians to decide who should best represent them in the United States Senate, but just as many Republicans reluctantly pulled the lever for Edwin Edwards over David Duke in 1991, they should seriously consider the message they’re sending to the rest of the world.
Racism is morally and ultimately financially bankrupt; it’s bad for business.