Beth Rickey found politics thrilling, but also a little bit terrifying. As a member of Louisiana’s Republican State Central Committee, she helped manage the state party from behind closed doors. Rickey liked watching the action from a slight remove, making droll asides about the front-line players. But sometimes she couldn’t resist speaking a little louder.
“I get really angry if I think someone is getting stepped on,” she said in 1991, in an interview for a radio documentary. “But I hate to be—I hate criticism. I’m this real sensitive person.”
Rickey grew up in a big house in Lafayette, Louisiana, and she had the bearing and the bouffant hairdo of a Southern debutante. She idolized her father, Horace Rickey, who died when she was young. Horace fought in World War II and helped liberate the German death camps. He’d also been a key figure in the Louisiana Republican Party back when segregationist Democrats ruled the South. Beth grew up believing that the GOP stood for rectitude and morality. Before David Duke got elected to the Louisiana state House of Representatives, she still believed it.
In 1989, Rickey was a 32-year-old graduate student in political science at Tulane, in New Orleans. She was also working for Duke’s opponent in that House race, John Treen. During that campaign, Rickey spent a lot of time reading up on Duke in the Tulane library. The material that she uncovered shocked her.
“I come bounding up the stairs with all these book lists and writings,” she said. “And I said, ‘My God, he’s a Nazi.’ He’s not only the head of the Klan, he’s a Nazi.”
The Treen campaign presented Rickey’s findings to voters. A photograph of Duke in Nazi regalia. Duke’s claim, as a college student, that Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf was “the greatest piece of literature of the 20th century.” His long-standing embrace of eugenics.
“We thought that if you get the message out about David Duke, people would be shocked and they wouldn’t vote for him,” Rickey said.
When Duke won the seat, Rickey felt shaken. But she wasn’t ready to give up her fight. Two weeks after Election Day, in March 1989, she followed Duke to Chicago. He was going to speak at the national convention of the Populist Party—the fringe, far-right group that had backed his run for the presidency a year earlier. Rickey wanted to hear what Duke said when he was among friends.
Hanging out with a bunch of Midwestern fascists was a surefire way for Duke to sully his cleaned-up image. But these were the people who had rejuvenated Duke’s political career and who had helped bankroll his successful run for the state Legislature. Duke decided that he couldn’t turn his back on them.
Rickey had registered for the Populist Party convention as a journalist, and Duke’s speech was closed to the media. To get into the room, Rickey went undercover as a member of the party.
“The guards at the door, I found out later they were with the American Nazi Party in Chicago,” Rickey said. “If I’d known that, I don’t know if I’d be so brave now. But I pretended one of them was a friend of mine. I said, ‘Hey, how you doing? How’s your family? How’s the wife?’ I’m glad he was married.”
When Rickey got past the guard, she found herself among skinheads and neo-Nazis. In front of this crowd, David Duke felt comfortable talking strategy. “So he said, ‘I may be a Republican, but I’ll always be a Populist,’ or something like that,” Rickey recalled. “And then they all cheered. I felt like I was in on a dirty little secret. Ha ha ha. Look what I did in Louisiana. Pulled the wool over their eyes. He was using the Republican Party. And that just made me mad.”
After that closed meeting, Duke was photographed shaking hands with a man named Art Jones, the vice chairman of the American Nazi Party. That picture would run in newspapers all over the country.
This wasn’t the image that Duke wanted to project. When he got back to Louisiana, he whined that the media had treated him unfairly.
Duke said, probably truthfully, that he’d never met Art Jones before, and he called Jones a “Nazi kook.” Duke also claimed, not at all truthfully, that the Populist Party was simply an “anti-tax” organization. And Duke said he “repudiate[d] any efforts of extremist groups to capitalize on [his] electoral victory.”
Beth Rickey knew that last part was a lie. She’d been there when Duke had told a roomful of extremists that he was one of them. She’d also heard Duke admit that he was a Republican in name only. Rickey had a clear mission: stop the Republican Party from becoming the party of David Duke.
She had no idea how hard that would be.
In the coming months, she’d bust Duke selling Nazi literature, and she’d dig into the identities of his campaign donors as she pushed to evict him from the party. But she’d also have long telephone conversations with Duke. She’d take drives with him, listening as he sang along to “The Impossible Dream,” from Man of La Mancha. She’d meet his two adolescent daughters and give them money to play video games.
“It’s like being held captive by somebody,” she said. “You get kind of goofy and start identifying with your captor, so to speak. And I would call people at night and say, ‘Look, deprogram me. You know, I’ve gotten all this stuff in my head.’ ”
Listen to Episode 3 of Slow Burn to hear the rest of Rickey’s investigation into Duke. Join Slate Plus for ad-free listening and bonus episodes each week, or subscribe to Slow Burn on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.