The first time I ever spoke to Steve Scalise, it was in the context of his helping me and his cousin, state senator Ben Bagert, block the political career of David Duke. In the quarter-century since that 1989 phone conversation, Scalise has given no indication that he holds any views anywhere near as odious as Duke’s racist and anti-Semitic garbage, and plenty of indications directly to the contrary — indeed, compellingly so.
Scalise, the House majority whip now under fire for having spoken back in 2002 to a white-supremacist group tied to the former Klansman Duke, says he did not know the nature of the group to which he spoke. The Duke lieutenant who invited him confirms that account, as does another attendee. Indeed, he says that technically Scalise spoke not at the supremacist group at all, but to a civic-association meeting just before the supremacist conference began.
In short, the more we find out about that event, and about Scalise, the more this whole “scandal” looks like a case of guilt not just by association, but by unintentional, second-degree association — a guilt wrongly assessed against a man with a long record of working not to divide the races but to bridge the differences between them.
Scalise deserves the benefit of the doubt.
And I’ve watched Scalise’s whole career since that phone conversation in 1989 – which was even before it was clear Scalise would enter politics. (He had just finished college at LSU, where he was speaker of the student assembly. I was organizing Republican caucuses against Duke’s coming bid for the U.S Senate.) If a whole career spent without racial taint doesn’t earn someone the benefit of the doubt about an event of some confusion and dispute, there’s no hope for any of us.
I’m not the best witness, though. Plenty of black and Jewish leaders from Louisiana, almost all of them liberal, are more convincing. By now, most who have followed this story have seen that liberal, black, Democratic U.S. representative Cedric Richmond of New Orleans immediately sprang to Scalise’s defense, saying his Louisiana colleague “does not have a racist bone in his body.”
I just spoke to somebody with even more authority.
Norman Robinson was a White House correspondent for national CBS News who then spent nearly 24 years as a news anchor for the NBC affiliate WDSU in New Orleans. More to the point, Robinson engaged in probably the most famous, single most consequential TV exchange ever recorded with Duke. Many say that exchange was the pivot point that turned the tables on Duke in the Klansman’s infamous 1991 gubernatorial race against noted scofflaw Edwin Edwards. We Louisianans remember it well, and Wikipedia summarizes it accurately:
Robinson, who is African-American, told Duke that he was “scared” at the prospect of Duke winning the election because of his history of “diabolical, evil, vile” racist and anti-Semitic comments, some of which he read to Duke. He then pressed Duke for an apology and when Duke protested that Robinson was not being fair to him, Robinson replied that he didn’t think Duke was being honest. [New Orleans journalist] Jason Berry of the Los Angeles Times called it “startling TV” and the “catalyst” for the “overwhelming” turnout of black voters that helped former Governor Edwin Edwards defeat Duke.
Whatever the reason, immediately after that debate, Duke dropped from within the polling margin of error in that race, two weeks before the runoff election, to a landslide, 61–39 percent loss.
Here’s what Robinson told me about Scalise: “I have known Steve most of my professional career as a news anchor. I have always known him to be a straight-up good guy; I do not see him in the light that he is being painted. Sounds like they didn’t vet the organization in 2002; that certainly can happen. I certainly don’t know Steve to be a racist. I find that to be very hard to believe. He always comes across as a guy who is fair-minded. His political leanings are certainly different than mine. I respect that. But I don’t see him as a guy who is anti-minority, I don’t see that at all. I consider myself a pretty good judge of character. And this man is comfortable talking with anybody. I see him just as a universal human being who respects humanity. I don’t think he is a guy who judges people by the color of their skin or their ethnic origin. In no way do I see him as an ally of David Duke.”
Scalise’s team has collected similar testimonials from other black and/or Jewish colleagues. Here’s a small sample.
“I’ve known Steve Scalise for the past 11 years. We served in the legislature together when I was Senate Whip of the Legislative Black Caucus. Steve and I have always worked well together, although often times held very different political views, but I can assure you that he has always been a kind, thoughtful, and wonderful colleague and friend and has never displayed any views of racial hatred or bigotry . . . ever.”
– Ann Duplessis, former Senate whip of the Legislative Black Caucus and current president of the LSU Board of Supervisors
“I have worked with Steve Scalise for the better part of 20 years both as head of the University of Louisiana System and executive director of the Taylor as we seek to further educational opportunity for low-income children through the TOPS program. I echo Congressman Richmond in that I believe that Steve Scalise does not have a racist bone in his body.”
– Dr. James Caillier, executive director, Taylor Foundation (a college scholarship fund) and a recipient of the A. P. Tureaud Black Citizenship Medal from the Louisiana NAACP
“When Steve Scalise was first elected to the state legislature, I was chairman of the Louisiana Democratic party. I have always found Steve to be a kind and generous person who puts the needs of all people ahead of his own. His character is without question of the highest caliber, and to even imply that he is racist or is somehow associated with a hate group is ridiculous and absolutely false.”
– Jim Nickel
To top it all off, Edwin Edwards himself — who at age 87 just lost a race for Congress while again running as an unreconstructed liberal — also said Scalise “doesn’t have a racist bone in his body.” And, getting at a key reality of political life, Edwards said: “People who are in public life, public figures, get dragged into situations that are put on by the wrong people and might look bad. I know Scalise, and I think he’s far too right, far too conservative, but I don’t think he’s a racist.”
In my years in Louisiana politics before turning to journalism, 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 cell phones — handling legislative business, their own private-sector jobs, their speaking engagements, and plenty of other matters, usually at breakneck speed. 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.
That’s what appears to have happened here.
Sometimes people stumble into situations that look bad. Sometimes they don’t even know they have done so until many years later. And sometimes what looks like mistaken judgment is actually just a case of confusion. It has happened to me before. It happens at some point to almost anybody in politics. When it does, as has now happened with Scalise, it’s usually not a sign of bad character. It’s just bad luck.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.