Context, context, context.
That’s what’s missing in the breathless reports about Steve Scalise speaking to a white supremacist group back in 2002. People here in Louisiana, more than others, should understand the context that makes Scalise’s explanation perfectly plausible. I’ll add some background context most people don’t know.
The most believable conclusion is that Scalise is telling the truth when he says he didn’t know he was speaking to a white supremacist group, or one affiliated with David Duke. He was speaking about tax and spending issues, and he just didn’t properly “vet” the forum.
Reporters flocking to the story are just doing their jobs. If they continue to do their jobs, they’ll eventually report there’s not much “there” there. As New Orleans’ Democratic congressman, Cedric Richmond, quite readily attested, there’s not a racist bone in Scalise’s body.
The first time I ever spoke to Scalise was by phone way back in the summer or early fall of 1989. The subject was a campaign to block Duke’s attempt to make inroads into the official state Republican Party. I was president of the Young Republicans of Louisiana, an active adversary of Duke’s, and an aide for four months to state Sen. Ben Bagert, whom I was helping on two fronts — one of which was to deny Duke the official Republican endorsement for the 1990 U.S. Senate race.
Bagert was a newly minted Republican with a long history of earning black, Democratic votes. He loathed Duke. Scalise had just finished LSU as the speaker of the university’s student assembly. He was Bagert’s cousin. He loathed what Duke stood for. He said he would help Bagert fight the nomination battle.
In the quarter-century since, Scalise has given no indication whatsoever that he holds any brief for Duke’s racist or anti-Semitic views. He served as a volunteer coach for a youth sports team that was entirely African-American. He is a close friend and ally of board members of the American-Israeli Political Action Committee. His long, productive, friendly working relationships with black legislators in Louisiana showed not a hint of racial animus.
Louisianians will remember that in Duke’s only winning campaign, a special election to the state Legislature in early 1989, Duke won not by campaigning on racial issues but instead as the most vociferous opponent of then-Gov. Buddy Roemer’s “fiscal reform” plan. It worked like a charm, so much so that when I tried to argue against Duke — later that year, I was one of the 10 original board members of the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, formed specifically to block Duke politically — I was angrily and repeatedly accused not of being too friendly to African-Americans, or tommyrot like that, but of being a tax hiker and big spender.
Duke’s followers learned well from that experience. Their lesson: It pays to attach themselves to an otherwise legitimate tax issue. And in 2002, the so-called “Stelly Plan” was in many respects just an updated version of Roemer’s 1989 fiscal reform. It makes perfect sense that they would reach out to Scalise, as the most vociferous area opponent of the Stelly Plan, to speak on that and other tax-and-spending issues.
Duke lieutenant Kenny Knight, the man who invited Scalise to the speech, told the Washington Post on Tuesday that Scalise knew him not via Duke but as president of the local neighborhood association — and that Scalise didn’t know the event was a gathering of white supremacists.
I believe them. I spent plenty enough time around Louisiana legislators to know they do not have the requisite staff to vet speaking events. They drive around the state, constantly on their cellphones — handling legislative business, their own private-sector jobs, their speaking engagements and plenty of other matters, usually in a breakneck and rather haphazard fashion. If the head of their neighborhood association asks them to speak on a tax issue they are frequently speaking on anyway, they say yes and don’t ask other questions.
As I largely defended Mary Landrieu from intentional misdeeds in her mini-scandal over billing taxpayers for campaign-related travel, so do I largely defend Scalise here. The context shows no ill intent, but merely ill organization a dozen years ago.
New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and he blogs at blogs. theadvocate.com/quin-essential.