To accept an invitation from Howie Farrell and Kenny Knight, then act surprised they were fronting for David Duke, is like turning up at a rally with Goebbels and Goering and wondering how come there are swastikas all over the place.

When Steve Scalise gave a speech to Duke’s European-American Unity and Rights Organization in 2002, no sentient being around here could have been unaware who Farrell and Knight were. They had for years been Duke’s top henchmen, playing leading roles in his campaigns during a brief, but spectacular, political ascendancy. They never lost faith in his racist ideology and, Duke says, were the ones who arranged for Scalise to deliver his speech.

Back in 2002, Scalise was a GOP state rep from Metairie, as Duke had been a decade earlier. Duke had represented a different district, but when Scalise spoke to EURO, he had no reason to fear losing votes as a result. Although Duke had failed to get elected as a U.S. senator or governor, he had won a majority of the white vote both times, and the white vote was what counted on Scalise’s side of the 17th Street Canal.

No doubt that remains true, but Scalise, having gone on to a third term in the state House, then moved up to the state Senate before getting elected to Congress, where he is now a very big cheese. As House majority whip, Scalise must be careful not to offend sensibilities all over the country. He will be cursing the day he agreed to speak to the EURO convention at the Landmark Hotel.

But claiming not to have known what EURO was all about will not get him out of this jam. Nobody could possibly believe that he was that clueless. Age 36 at the time, he had seen Duke, notwithstanding his Klan and Nazi affiliations, rise to become a major force in Louisiana politics, making Farrell and Knight household names in the process.

It is inconceivable that Scalise would not have done a politician’s rudimentary homework to find out what kind of audience he had agreed to address. Perhaps he did not see Duke’s speech to the convention, delivered by video link from a similar event abroad, but Scalise would have had to be preternaturally unobservant to doubt he had fallen among white supremacists.

That does not necessarily make him a racist, and GOP stalwarts are insisting he isn’t one. Politicians may be forgiven for neglecting no opportunity to woo voters, and they clearly do not see eye to eye with every group they appear before.

The level of support Duke enjoyed could not, in any case, be attributed to racial animus pure and simple. His stance on such issues as immigration and welfare reform had great appeal to the GOP mainstream, and Scalise may have seen accepting the invitation as quite compatible with the more respectable right-wing views he espouses. Still, had he anticipated his current eminence, he would no doubt have avoided Duke like the poison he is.

Although no transcript of Scalise’s remarks at the EURO convention has surfaced, online accounts suggest they were well received, apparently confirming that he was well aware of his audience’s sympathies in advance. One blog on Stormfront, the American fascists’ top website, reported that Scalise spoke about “graft within the Housing and Urban Development Fund, an apparent giveaway to a selective group based on race.” A subsequent post suggested that, if Duke didn’t run for office again, Scalise would make a good substitute.

Stormfront hardly can be regarded as a reliable source of information on any topic, but, if this brouhaha is not going to topple Scalise as majority whip, he needs to come up with a more plausible response. GOP worthies strenuously deny that Scalise is a racist, and even the sole Democrat in our congressional delegation, Cedric Richmond, of New Orleans, has joined the chorus pooh-poohing the notion.

But it would be easier to believe the denials if Scalise were not also denying he knew what he was doing at the Landmark Hotel when others felt the presence, in spirit, of Goebbels and Goering.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.