The unsavory story of Steve Scalise, the Louisiana congressman recently elected as House Majority Whip, is a clear warning to the leaders of the Republican Party. They need to ask why their message attracts some of the most despicable elements in American society – and why they can’t effectively reject those extremists.
Despite many fervent vows of “outreach” and “inclusion” by top Republicans, they keep making the wrong choices. Both Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy have expressed their confidence in Scalise, despite his “mistake.” And the excuses they now offer on behalf of the man chosen for the third highest position in their congressional caucus are rapidly eroding.
Twelve years ago, Scalise was merely a state legislator with ambitions to run for Congress. In May 2002 he accepted an invitation to speak before the national conference of EURO (European-American Unity and Rights Organization) — a racist and anti-Semitic hate group founded by the notorious Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi David Duke — at a hotel in Metairie, LA.
None of those facts is disputed. But since local blogger Lamar White, Jr. exposed his participation in the conference, Scalise has insisted that he was unaware of EURO’s ideology or its connection with Klansman Duke. He blames the incident on his staff and claims he only showed up to talk about the state budget.
As additional facts emerge, however, Scalise’s version is increasingly implausible. Certainly he must have known about Duke, a former state representative in a neighboring district who had run for governor and senator in a glare of international publicity. If somehow he didn’t notice all the neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and other white supremacists present at the EURO conference, they surely noticed him. When Scalise ran for Congress a few years later, one of them wrote:
“It was just announced that Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, will enter the race in the 1st Congressional District. Those that attended the EURO conference…will recall that Scalise was a speaker, offering his support for issues that are of concern to us.
“I suppose if Duke does not make the election for whatever reason, this gentleman would be a good alternative.”
Evidently Scalise’s legislative record was worthy of such approval. He was one of only six Louisiana legislators to vote against establishing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday as a state holiday.
Over the past few days, Duke himself has spoken out repeatedly to defend Scalise as a “nice guy” and “family man,” noting that they share what both men call “conservative” values. Although the veteran Klan leader says he doesn’t know Scalise well, he noted that one of his top aides has known the congressman for years.
“Scalise would communicate a lot with my campaign manager, Kenny Knight,” Duke told the Washington Post. “That is why he was invited [to the EURO conference] and why he would come. Kenny knew Scalise, Scalise knew Kenny. They were friendly.”
So friendly that Knight personally donated $1,000 to Scalise’s congressional re-election war chest in 2008 — six years after the EURO meeting, according to Federal Election Commission records. Today Knight is president of the southern Louisiana chapter of the Council of Conservative Citizens, the racist organization that succeeded the segregationist White Citizens Councils. It was a series of connections with the CCC — including a speaking engagement — that ultimately forced Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican and Senate Majority Leader, to resign his post in 2002.
Before Lott stepped down, he briefly offered some of the same excuses that Scalise deploys now. Lott’s defenders rolled out some of the same distractions, blustering about the 1940s Klan associations of the late Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), or various stupid remarks by Al Sharpton, or… something. Yet even Karl Rove quickly realized that Lott had to go.
It is a different Republican Party now, more reactionary and revanchist, dominated by Tea Party nativism and Confederate nostalgia. For more thoughtful conservatives, this is an opportunity to drop the partisan debating points and confront the troubling truth exposed by the Scalise scandal. What matters is the persistent coddling of bigotry – and the damage that may inflict on their future, and ours.