Jay Patel didn’t pay much attention to the beleaguered looking blonde-haired man in the overcoat who shuffled through the lobby of the Quality Inn last Saturday night. The Indian immigrant, who had come to the United States during the mid-1980s to build a better life for his family, had better things to do that night than stare at the customers. He had a motel to manage. The cozy little budget inn on the outskirts of Ashland, Va., might not be the Sheraton, but it was clean and comfortable, and as the manager, it was up to Patel to keep it that way.
Even if Patel had stopped to study the man making his way to the motel’s first-floor meeting room, he wouldn’t have recognized him. Patel wouldn’t have known David Duke if the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and one-time golden boy of the white separatists had bitten him on the ankle.
So Patel was oblivious to the great irony of the moment: that of all the people in Virginia, Duke, who a decade and a half ago had emerged as one of the most prominent voices in the antisemitic, anti-black and anti-immigrant White Rights movement, had been forced to turn to Patel in his moment of need.
“I have no idea about the guy,” Patel said. “I spoke to one guy, he rented the room… I don’t ask who it is, I don’t know and I don’t care.”
There’s little doubt that if Duke had his druthers, Patel would never have been allowed into the country, and yet he needed Patel because no one else in northern Virginia would rent him a place to speak. The irony was heightened by the fact that the Saturday night speech was to have been among Duke’s last public appearances before he is scheduled next month to be sentenced to prison for mail fraud.
The story of Duke’s dismal experience in the suburbs of Richmond last weekend is a telling indication of just far his fortunes have fallen during the last few years. He was once considered the fastest rising star in the extreme White Rights movement. With his boyish good looks and polished, almost soft-spoken manner, he managed to win election to the Louisiana State House in 1988. After claiming to have jettisoned his racist and antisemitic views, he made strong but unsuccessful bids for the U.S. Senate in 1990 and Louisiana governor in 1991. He lost both races in runoff elections.
But now, a decade after his glory days, the up-and-coming white power broker is washed up and on his way to prison, observers say.
In December 2002, Duke, the founder of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, or EURO, a group that, among other things, blames American Jews and Israel for the September 11 terrorist attacks, admitted to tax evasion and defrauding his followers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, which federal prosecutors charge he later gambled away at casinos. He faces 15 years in prison and fines totaling $10,000.
The guilty plea shattered what little support Duke still had in the white racialist community, according to Mark Potok, who tracks extremist groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “David Duke… has lost any credibility that he once had within the white supremacist movement,” said Potok, who is writing an intelligence report for the law center on Duke. “For 30 years David Duke has been a con man. He has done nothing so effectively as rip off his comrades in the movement and more often than not take their wives and daughters to bed to boot.”
As a result, Potok said, Duke has become irrelevant.
All the same, Duke continues to maintain a Web page promoting his racialist views, has vowed to write a book in prison, and most of all, has tried to hold on to the few supporters he still has.
That is what led Duke to Richmond last week.
Originally promoted on Duke’s Web page as a major policy address on the potential war with Iraq — Duke opposes the war, predictably arguing that it is the product of a conspiracy among the Sharon government, American Jews and the American government — the speech was supposed to have been Duke’s swan song.
Supporters in Richmond had booked a meeting room at a local Sheraton hotel and, according to Ron Doggett, a EURO organizer in northern Virginia, they were expecting 160 Duke supporters.
Then Mordechai Levy, head of the militant Jewish Defense Organization, got wind of the planned meeting. Though Duke has lost considerable credibility with his own followers, Levy still considers him a threat and has made it part of his life’s work to vex the disgraced ex-Klansman. Levy rallied supporters and inundated the management of the local Sheraton and the hotel’s national executives with indignant messages.
The campaign worked. On February 19, days before the meeting was to be held, the hotel backed out, according to K.C. Kavanagh, a spokeswoman for the Sheraton chain, who said the decision was made at the local level. “Apparently when they found out who the group was and what their message was, the hotel asked them to find other accommodations,” she said.
That turned out to be no easy task, said Doggett, the event’s organizer. One after another, Richmond-area hotels either rejected the group outright or cancelled under pressure from Levy’s supporters, Doggett said, leaving Duke and his supporters practically despondent.
“We were like, ‘we’re going to have to cancel,’” Doggett told the Forward. Worse still, Levy and the Jewish Defense Organization were documenting the whole humiliating episode on their Web site. “We saw on their Web site how they were gloating,” Doggett said. “We were all in a state of depression because we felt that it was out of our hand and that we were being defeated on this issue.”
That’s when Duke and his supporters decided to put aside their ideological distaste for foreigners and go to “this East Indian-owned hotel,” according to Doggett.
Patel remembers getting a phone call February 21 from a desperate sounding man — Doggett — who begged to rent a conference room. “He said it was Euro-something,” Patel recalled. “I didn’t pay any attention… It was business,” Patel said.
Last Saturday night, Duke finally held his rally. Only half of the 160 people expected showed up and what was billed as a major policy address turned out to be a brief, extemporaneous address. Duke railed against the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, dubbing it a Jewish conspiracy “beneficial only to Israel,” according to Doggett.
There was one bit of solace for Doggett and Duke, however: Mordechai Levy and his supporters were nowhere to be found. “It was Shabbos,” Levy explained. “You can’t stop it on Shabbos if you don’t know about it.”
But the sweetness of this small victory was tempered by the indignity of it all, Doggett admitted, and most galling to him was the belief that they had been overcharged by Patel. “They raped us pretty good for the room,” he complained.
This, of all the things that Duke and his followers have said about a working-class immigrant, was the only statement that offended Patel.
“I didn’t overcharge anybody,” Patel hissed. “I charged them the regular rate.”