Cold Call

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S1: Hey, slow burn listeners, this week we’re taking a break from our main story. I’m going to introduce you to someone you’ve probably never heard of. Her name is Joanna Burnett, and I’ve been thinking about her a lot as I’ve been working on this season of Slow Burn. Joanna is three years older than I am. And like me, she grew up in New Orleans in nineteen eighty nine when she was 12. She did something really gutsy. It all started when she noticed that one particular story was dominating the local news.

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S2: I remember almost every single day there was coverage on this former Ku Klux Klansman who was running for office in an American city.

S1: Joanna was looking for a topic for her school social studies fair when David Duke won his race for the state House of Representatives. She knew what she wanted to do.

S2: I just found his name and number in the White Pages, and I think I was surprised.

S3: It was just right there on March 12th.

S4: Nineteen eighty nine. She grabbed a tape recorder and her parents speakerphone and headed out to the garage. And then she started dialing.

S5: Hi, my name is Joanna Burnet, after David Duke’s number several times today. And I’ve gotten was. A telephone ring after about 10 tries. Somebody picked up is David Duke over there? Yes, he is. David Duke. David Duke, huh? This is David Duke. Yes, my colleague.

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S2: This is David Duke. Really finally happy. And then I just immediately started asking questions.

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S3: How do you think you would get elected? How do you think you got elected?

S5: I got of people with horror what I saw. OK. OK. You say you’re not like, you know, like a bigot anymore. Thank goodness. OK. But you call yourself a racialists.

S3: Right. Right. All right. I believe in equal rights. That’s what I call.

S4: Joanna is black, and she knew the Duke had been in the Ku Klux Klan, but she says she wasn’t afraid of him.

S2: I think I was just still really puzzled and trying to understand, you know, this person’s type of thinking.

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S4: Duke, in turn, wanted to get inside Joanna’s head to do that. He needed to know who he was talking to.

S5: Do you think that you should be in Lafayette, Louisiana? Legislative. Her car was for this social studies project. I’ve been sorry.

S4: Twelve Duke spoke in a calm, even tone. He told Joanna that he opposed forced integration of education. He said that the best qualified people should get jobs and promotions and scholarships and that racial discrimination goes on today in America against white people in those areas. When Joanna asked if he’d really changed since leaving the Klan, he turned the question back around.

S6: Well, I think that we all change and I think we all grow.

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S7: And I think that my statements have been recorded and photographed. I think I’m sure there are some things in your life that make you change, if you could. But the right to individual for parents or teachers or from.

S8: Joanna was skeptical. She’d heard a lot of stories about Duke’s past and she wanted answers. She asked him about his use of racial slurs, whether he’d been affiliated with a Nazi group and if his wife had left him because he was in the Klan. Duke denied everything.

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S9: He was defensive and cagey and manipulative. He also criticized the 12 year olds interviewing technique.

S10: Are your parents repeating allegations at camp?

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S8: Duke went on a three minute diatribe complaining that the media didn’t focus on positive things like his academic record. He said that any important person has things in their past that would be controversial.

S10: I’d never compare myself to Jesus Christ, but imagine what you could have written about Christ. If you were a person that didn’t like him and in fact, Christ before lied about that, they crucified the band and made people hate him so much.

S8: Duke told Joanna that she needed to have an open mind. He suggested that she place an order at his bookstore, the same place where Bath Rickey would purchase Nazi books a short while later. The title he recommended was Race and Reason. Duke had read it when he was about Joanna’s age. The author, Carlton Putnam, believed that black Americans were genetically inferior to whites.

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S9: Did you ever pick up the book Race and Reason?

S11: Now I have.

S8: Now. Now. Dupe talked to Joanna Burnett for 20 minutes that night. She’s not sure why he stayed on the phone that long. She thinks the Duke may have thought she was white and that she’d pass on his talking points to her parents.

S9: Joanna’s parents weren’t Duke supporters.

S8: They did believe in good manners, though, and they asked their daughter to write Duke a thank you note. Duke printed Joanna’s letter and her home address in the newsletter for the National Association for the Advancement of White People.

S2: I received at least three letters that I remember from prisoners, from inmates telling me that they were, you know, five foot whatever or six foot whatever, brown hair, blue eyes.

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S11: And, you know, they’re Aryan.

S1: There’s a moment at the very end of Joanna’s tape that really got to me. It comes when our conversation with Duke is over. But before she stops her recorder.

S12: Thank you. You’re very welcome. I think if you had your heart, it got the country. Know, maybe not. All right, Lou. And here’s what you can look at. Two sides of every story.

S1: He was just getting his points through. You should look at two sides of every story. Joanna Burnett was puzzling through her conversation with David Duke in real time.

S2: Like, I mean, this is me saying I should get the foot race and reason and you should learn and listen to both sides of an argument. Yes, but should I really be letting David Duke tell me this? Yeah.

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S13: Should we be letting David Duke give us his side of the argument? I’ve thought about that question a lot as I’ve been doing my own research. It’s standard practice in journalism to reach out to any subject you are reporting on. For one thing, people have a right to respond to accusations you’re making against them. Plus, a story typically benefits from the perspective of its main subject. But David Duke is not a typical subject. Consider Tom Snyder’s interview with Duke on NBC is Tomorrow show in 1974. The one you heard in Episode two where the host and the white nationalists sounded almost chummy.

S14: About five of the class from I know a couple on the football team. Saw your brothers over the holiday in the bowl game. One of the black guys.

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S13: Snyder introduced Duke to a huge new audience. And I don’t think he understood the gravity of that choice. The 37 year old late night host wasn’t as prepared as the 12 year old Joanna Burnett. He allowed Duke to define himself and to spread his white nationalist message nationwide. Other TV anchors have done a much better job confronting Duke. You’ll hear about one of them later in our series. But sometimes the best choices to keep someone like Duke off the stage entirely. And that’s why I won’t be interviewing David Duke for this season of Slow Burn. In the episodes we’ve already released, you’ve heard plenty of Duke’s voice. I don’t think there’s any doubt about what he believed in the 70s, 80s, 90s or today. Duke told Joanna Burnett that we all change and grow. But he’s still using whatever platform he has to foment racism and anti-Semitism. Duke is also congenitally dishonest. He made himself a mainstream political candidate by lying about his views and his background. His goal in interviews isn’t to explain himself. It’s to manipulate the record. I’m doing this series because I think the Duke phenomenon warrants close scrutiny and because the ideas he espouses are still with us and still dangerous. But Duke, the politician, is not currently a threat. Yes, he attached himself to the Unite the right rally in Charlottesville. And yes, he supported Donald Trump’s run for the presidency. But the last time he ran for office in 2016, he got three percent of the vote and a run for the U.S. Senate. Talking to him now would serve no one’s interests. But David Duke’s we’ll be sure to include Duke’s responses to allegations leveled against him. But his core beliefs that black people are inferior to whites, that the Holocaust never happened don’t deserve to be debated. And so on this podcast, we’re not going to hand him the microphone.

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S1: Slow Burn is a production of Slate plus Slate’s membership program. We don’t have a Slate plus bonus episode for you this week, but here’s a preview of what we’ll have next week. Something we recorded exclusively for Slate. Plus, it’s an interview with actor tofor Grace who played David Duke in Spike Lee’s 2013 film Black Clansman. In this clip, Grace talks about the research she did to prepare for the role, including reading Duke’s autobiography.

S15: Yeah, I mean, I did a lot. I read my awakening, which was just terrible experience. If someone wrote a full book that gravity doesn’t exist, it’s just every page is like, you know, you’re pretty sure it does. Just me sitting there is evidence of it. So it it’s weird to read something that you feel like even just by reading it, you’re complicit or something. But I thought the film was great and I wanted to do the best job I could. I hadn’t played a lot of characters that were not fictional, and even the ones I’d played that were based on real people weren’t people that many people were aware of or were Infernus. So I listened to his radio show, even though he was older when he did that, you know, kind of taught me a lot about how he spoke. You know, I watch old clips of his in the 70s, read articles about him. But then it was really I saw it a couple of appearances on Donahue. I’m sure you’ve watched some of those, right? Yeah, that taught me the most about him because it was him interacting with the crowd. I mean, he was there for people to hate. You know, that’s why Donahue brought him on. But what I noticed by the end of these episodes is that it wasn’t like they were cheering for him, but he’d change the temperature of the room. They were listening to him. And I thought, oh, man, this guy is a different kind of evil, like a new form of racism. And that, you know, it sounds like whatever at the time was like the conception of a racist. It’s like a different thing. Where people are really starting to listen to him was the same thing. Black Lines was trying to show us how that changed the course of racism in America.

S16: This week’s episode of Slow Burn was produced by me, Christopher Johnson and Chow, too, with editorial direction by Lowe and Lou and Gabriel Roth. Madeline Ducharme is our production assistant. Sophie Sommer, grad, Slow Burns assistant producer. Our mix engineer is Paul Manzie. David Gross composed our theme song. The artwork for Slow Burn is by Lisa Larson Walker. Special thanks to Jordan Hirsch, Jessica Seidman and Slate’s Katie Raiford. Laura Bennett, Allison Benedikt and Jared Holt. Thanks for listening.