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Podcasts Servant of Pod with Nick Quah
Josh Levin: Slow Burn

Slate's Slow Burn is one of the best podcast documentary series around, with each season driven forward by a simple framework: what was it like to live through a prominent historical event? For its fourth season, the team examines the rise of David Duke in the late '80s and early '90s, centering its attention on a major recent effort by a white supremacist to gain formal political power. Nick talks with Josh Levin, who hosts the season, and for whom the story of David Duke is a personal one.

Floodlines

SERVANT OF POD WITH NICK QUAH
Episode 8 Transcript: Josh Levin: Slow Burn

Season 1, Episode 8

Tue, 8/25 2:30PM • 31:49

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

duke, story, people, feel, david duke, slow burn, season, josh, interviews, white, moment, beth, episode, series, host, stood, rickey, conversations, talking, living

SPEAKERS

Jesse Jackson (Excerpt), David Duke (Excerpt), Josh Levin, Anne Levy (Excerpt), Beth Rickey (Excerpt), Nick Quah

Josh Levin 00:02

You know, who's to say why he turned out the way he did? Who's to say, you know, whether it could have come out any differently?

Nick Quah 00:12

From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. Slow Burn, Slate's critically acclaimed podcast series, has always had a knack for telling stories that speak to the current moment. And now, it's tackling white supremacy. More in a bit. Josh Levin is the host for this latest season of Slow Burn, which focuses on the political rise of David Duke. Josh has been at the show since the beginning, having served as the editor on the first three seasons. Still, despite all that work, he never thought he'd be sitting in the host chair.

Josh Levin 01:03

I did not nominate myself to be the host. That was not--I'm not empowered to do that. But I think once the idea was floated that maybe I could do one, this was the story that I was most fascinated by and that seemed to fit into this rubric.

Nick Quah 01:25

For Levin, the story of David Duke was also a personal one.

Josh Levin 01:30

The David Duke story was one that I grew up with. It was one that I lived through as a kid. I was eight years old when he won his first race in 1989 in the New Orleans suburbs not far from where I lived. And then over the next couple of years, I watched him seem to gain more power and prominence and his run was something that left a really profound impression on me, some conscious and some subconscious, I didn't necessarily realize until I was an adult, but it just felt scary and confusing. And I wanted to try to understand who he was, where he came from, why people who did support him, would support someone who I found to be so appalling--and I'm Jewish, you know--someone who said things about people like me, you know, wanting them to be in the ash bin of history; things that seemed like so obvious that--how could my fellow citizen support somebody who has said these things? I didn't feel equipped, as a child, to understand that and so now, 30 years later, I wanted to try to understand what it was that I lived through and that we all lived through in Louisiana, and in the, you know, whole country is Duke became a national story and phenomenon.

Nick Quah 03:01

Hmm. What did you feel like that experience watching him sort of--his political rise in Louisiana--were these sort of like, more recent revelations on your part as to how that affected your thinking?

Josh Levin 03:12

As a kid, I didn't really understand, before Duke, that politics had real consequences, potentially life or death consequences, what the stakes were. And I think, as an adult, especially right now, that feels obvious, and very real and present on an everyday basis. Living through this moment that we're living through now, I think has made me kind of understand in a deeper way that that is the feeling that I had back then. And that was the genesis of it. And this feeling that the worlds can switch seemingly in an instant that what feels safe and comfortable, might not be the next day, and also what feels safe and comfortable for you might not be safe and comfortable for other people who are in your community.

Nick Quah 04:11

Hmm.

Josh Levin 04:11

And those are some of the things that I've been thinking about, and make me feel kind of like the show we're making is in conversation with what's going on in the world right now.

Nick Quah 04:22

The decision to focus on David Duke marks a return to politics for Slow Burn. The first two seasons of the show, hosted by Leon Neyfakh, took on Watergate and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Last season, the show shifted gears with a turn towards one of the biggest stories in music, the rivalry between Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur in the early 90s. Hosted by Joel Anderson, that season illustrated how the Slow Burn franchise could be flexible. I asked Josh if Slow Burn has a template and what the team looks for when they decide on a story.

Josh Levin 04:55

I think a good story for our series is one that is fascinating in and of itself, that just as a story on its own, you want to know what happens, you are transfixed by the individual beats in that story. You don't know what is going to happen next. Or even if you do know, there is just still this feeling of suspense because we create this sense of living in the moment and being in a place in time when you don't know what the outcome is going to be. So just, on its own, kind of in a box, it's a story that you want to inhabit for a long amount of time. And then the second part of it is that you want a story that feels thematically important and like it resonates with things that are happening in our lives right now. You know, whether it's questions about power, or sex, or race, or gender, or, you know, what it means to stand up for a cause, what it means to capitulate, who makes decisions in a moment that we would now question, and who makes ones that we would now celebrate? Like, how does that happen? I think you can see all of those elements in every season no matter what the topic is.

Nick Quah 06:20

So when you sort of sit down to map out a season like this, how do you sort of see it in your mind? Like, do you have a number of setpieces you want to go after? Do you sort of identify characters to build it around? What does the initial planning process look like for you?

Josh Levin 06:39

It works as a feedback loop. So there are stories that I want to tell that have to do with the different plot points. So we're obviously going to tell a story, or a set of stories, around Duke running for governor in 1991. The other side of things, that there are a number of questions that I had going into the series: how did the press cover David Duke? How did the Republican Party deal with David Duke? And then you have a set of people that you think are interesting or important. And so there's some set of matching, of is there a person who exemplifies this theme or this plot point? Or there's this theme; who is the person that can help me tell that story? So all combinations of all those things are the process, which might lead you to the correct assumption that it's a bit chaotic and disorganized at times. But since 2019, I've been pursuing this, reading, watching, listening, interviewing, having conversations with the team at Slate. And we're still working on it, kind of until the thing is out in the world. We're still thinking, and refining, and trying to make it better.

Nick Quah 08:04

And this is all happening during a global pandemic. Josh says there were issues around archival access and recording interviews. But in the end, the team rallied and worked to make it come together remotely. I asked Josh about the process, like what it was like to edit with Christopher Johnson, who produces the series.

Josh Levin 08:23

So we're just now, as we're recording this, we're working through the opening section of the fourth episode, which is about the Senate race that Duke ran in in 1990. But the opener is this kind of setpiece about this rally at a bar in the swamp in Livingston Parish, Louisiana, and you hear Duke talking about bumper stickers and saying that everybody in the audience needs to put bumper stickers on their car.

David Duke (Excerpt) 08:56

I'm gonna stand up and do what I know is right. And I'm willing to fight for you, to speak for you, to say the things out loud what y'all say in your heart, and to your friends, your neighbors, your church, your work. I'm saying all that out loud, I hope I'm speaking for you. And if I want to do that, I'm gonna ask you, when you do something for me, and show where you stand and put a bumper sticker in your car. Will you do that for me? Will you raise your hands if you'll do that for me? I want to see it.

Josh Levin 09:24

And that then leads into this discussion about the meaning of iconography in these elections; the meaning, the valence of yard signs and bumper stickers, and what they stood for, and what they signified. And there's a personal element to that, because that's one of the things that really sticks in my mind. I don't remember the kind of blow-by-blow of a lot of this stuff, I was 10 years old. But I just--the signs of it never left my memory. And so that's a lot of different elements that I just described to you. You have like, Duke making this campaign speech, you have these examples that we cite of how yard signs were used and what they meant during that period, and then you have my personal reflections about what they meant to me. So like, turning those things up and down in the mix, in the proverbial mix, and also thinking of the different ways to use all of the archive, and all of the interviews, and research finds that we have to tell that story in a concise way. Like, that's the most recent thing I can remember where we had a back and forth about how to really make that story flow and also make people feel the things that I feel and want people to feel.

Nick Quah 10:41

Hmm. I want to pull back a little bit and talk about this season as a whole. What did you find was the most challenging thing about covering David Duke, or telling the story?

Josh Levin 10:53

One of the things we thought about is how much we care about David Duke as a person versus what he meant, what he espoused, what he stood for. I think you can see some of the choices that we made in the second episode, where we rewind and look at his time at LSU as an undergrad, at Free Speech Alley where he's out there making racist and anti-Semitic speeches, and then going on to found this new Ku Klux Klan, and kind of anointing himself the leader of this white power movement in the US. So we don't try to get inside Duke's head that much in that story. We don't focus too much on what his childhood was like or, you know, ask the question of, you know, why, why did he think these things that he thought? For a couple reasons, number one, I do think I landed on the side of more being interested in what he signified, what he stood for, and what he espoused being more important than just him. Like I don't want this to come off like this is David Duke's biography, like that feels less interesting and less warranted to me. But also those questions feel less knowable. And you know, who's to say why he turned out the way he did? Who's to say, you know, whether it could have come out any differently. But as far as the series went, I just felt like charting that path in that second episode, it felt very comfortable and it felt very important to me to lay out what Duke did, what he was trying to accomplish. Like, I felt pretty firm and solid in my views on that. And then what the different moments were along the way: Tom Snyder interviewing him, debate with Jesse Jackson.

Jesse Jackson (Excerpt) 12:54

Uh, we're not behind because of any lack of genes. We are behind because of the white agenda. That agenda was-- [Crosstalk]

David Duke (Excerpt) 13:01

[Crosstalk] White people--I should say the Jewish slave traders--if they would not have brought you over from Africa, I think your condition would be far less than it was today. So any, any condition you have today, as Black people above that of other Blacks, in the world standard of living, or rights, or freedoms, or whatever, is a responsibility of the, of the actions of the white people. That, that's why it's--you're sitting in a better position than other Blacks are around the world. Indeed, if Blacks wouldn't be here--

Jesse Jackson (Excerpt) 13:28

--wouldn't need you-- [Crosstalk]

David Duke (Excerpt) 13:28

[Crosstalk] --and you'd still be over there-- [Crosstalk]

Jesse Jackson (Excerpt) 13:30

[Crosstalk] --and the American whites are sitting— [Fades]

Nick Quah 13:32

This is tape from the 1977 televised debate between Duke and the Reverend Jesse Jackson in Chicago. After this broadcast, Duke became a "get," sort of an attention grabbing sideshow, for national networks.

Josh Levin 13:45

I mean, you can see in the 70s, when the media is giving him oxygen, there are these kind of personality profiles. This guy is interesting because he looks a particular way, because he's wearing a particular thing, because he sounds a particular way, and not really examining the underlying content of what he's saying, not really examining the intentions behind it, and sort of playing his game.

Nick Quah 14:12

Yeah.

Josh Levin 14:13

In that way of, you know, looking at the wrapping paper, rather than the the package, or looking at the cover rather than the book.

Nick Quah 14:20

Yeah, it's almost as if the media assumed people would hear what Duke was saying and draw the correct moral conclusion.

Josh Levin 14:26

Yeah. And you--I mean, you see this debate around Free Speech Alley--

Nick Quah 14:31

Yeah.

Josh Levin 14:32

--at LSU, where the values that are being championed there are very 1960s values around the importance of allowing anyone to say anything, and that that is the most important marker of a civil society that we can present a forum for views, even ones that we find abhorrent. That was sort of where a lot of people were in the late 1960s and early 70s. And I think you're right about what the intentions were. If we fast forward 5 to 10 years around these television bookings, there's a sort of--I don't know if it's naivete or arrogance--I don't think Tom Snyder had any sympathy for Duke's ideas; I actually think quite the opposite. I think he thought they were self-evidently wrong. And they thus would not have to do any work to disprove them. And so he gets into a situation where somebody is just much more prepared than he is because David Duke has been thinking about these ideas and presenting them to often unfriendly audiences for a very long time. And so he just gets the upper hand. That is something, I think, some, you know, whether they're television anchors or print journalists, think some had a better grasp on that than others; that there is this kind of imperative that when you're presenting a person like this or someone's ideas, that you're taking on a pretty large responsibility, and that you need to be aware of that and be willing to take that on. And that is something Josh Levin has been thinking about throughout the development of this series. It's a major responsibility. And with that in mind, he made a big decision early in the production process. He wasn't going to interview David Duke. More in a minute.

Nick Quah 16:43

David Duke has historically proven to be an incredibly difficult subject to report on, in large part due to his ability to spin, manipulate, and lie. For those reasons, the Slow Burn team decided to treat him differently. In the show, they walk listeners through his political philosophies, decade by decade. And as you'll hear, nothing really changes, including Duke's mission. Despite the refrain he uses to explain away his past. "We all change and grow."

Josh Levin 17:11

But he's still using whatever platform he has to foment racism and anti-Semitism. Duke is also congenitally dishonest. He made himself a mainstream political candidate by lying about his views and his background. His goal in interviews isn't to explain himself. It's to manipulate the record.

Nick Quah 17:33

Self-evidence is such an, like, an interesting word here because I, you know, a lot of that does reminds me of a lot of the conversations we've been seeing in just, discussions about news these days, like what do you give your attention to? What do you take seriously versus literally? That like, old nut with, I think, the early days of the Trump presidency. The thing I guess I'm thinking a lot about when I when I'm listening to the season, is like, this notion of bad faith. How it's really hard to identify and deal with bad faith actors within a system. And I'm curious as to if that's something that you thought about when you were working on the Duke story.

Josh Levin 18:11

Yeah, so, when Duke becomes a political candidate and then becomes an elected official, then he's treated as part of a category of political candidates--

Nick Quah 18:25

Right.

Josh Levin 18:25

--and elected officials. And there is the sort of assumption around people that fit in those categories, are in this particular band of beliefs, are in this particular band of normative behavior and discourse. And it's just very uncomfortable, I think, for--whether journalists, or fellow politicians, or just citizens to have someone who fits in this category--

Nick Quah 18:59

Right.

Josh Levin 19:00

--not actually be in that category, and then like, it just totally throws you off. Well, okay, we're treating other candidates this way, does that mean we have to treat him this way? And Duke would try to profit off of that and accuse people of hypocrisy, if they are not giving him the same amount of airtime. And then to kind of to zoom out a little bit, this was the game that he would play around, quote-unquote, "white rights," or "white civil rights."

Nick Quah 19:26

Right.

Josh Levin 19:26

If Black people get x, then white people have to get x or else you're a hypocrite, and it's unfair, and "I just want things to be equal, and why can't we have a white caucus in the state legislature?" "Why would you be offended by the National Association for the Advancement of White People? It's exactly the same as the NAACP." So he would play these games and kind of tie people into knots with it, or try to. It's a phenomenon that I've definitely thought about a lot and it's one that is really evident the kind of moment that you start digging into this stuff, everything from the NAAWP that I mentioned, to Duke's just complete obsession with Jesse Jackson, and comparing himself to Jesse Jackson, and trying to put himself on equal terms with him.

Nick Quah 20:13

Right, I mean, that--this is sort of like whataboutism in that it's kind of like, it reminds me of like, today's discourse about like, Black Lives Matter. That "white lives matter," that kind of like, "what about us" feeling.

Josh Levin 20:23

Right.

Nick Quah 20:23

That seems to be a rhetorical move that happens again, and again, and again. The other thing that's sort of really striking, and it comes across in the season, is, you know, just how kind of eerie and frightening he is as a character. Like so, there's a scene in the third episode, where Beth Rickey, who is, you know, a GOP, sort of, operative in the state of Louisiana at the time, you know that the, sort of, third episode follows this arc where she tries to, you know, infiltrate Duke's circles and in her own way tried to expose him to, sort of, the state GOP officials that be, and there's a scene specifically where she's talking about an encounter with Duke in a Chinese restaurant.

Beth Rickey (Excerpt) 21:00

Here we are at lunch, having lunch, and we're talking about bodies at death camps. And he was telling me how, in sort of a conspiratorial tone, leaning over and saying, you know, Beth, it really didn't happen. And, you know, finally one--at one point I leaned over and said, "David." He said, "Yep?" And I said, "Are you out of your mind?" And all around me life is going on. Yeah. Here are these normal people, sitting there eating Chinese food, and we're talking about him going to visit one of the death camps in Europe--Mauthausen, I believe--scraping the walls. He said, "Beth." You know, he talks like this, leans over with this kind of breathy voice. "Beth, if there had been any gassings, there would have been a residue on the walls, called Prussian blue. I went and scraped, there wasn't a residue." And he's telling me this and I wish I could convey to you this growing sense of horror to be sitting there talking to this guy, it was just--I just found it so offensive. And that was the last time we had lunch.

Nick Quah 22:12

So there's a couple of things about that scene in particular that I think kind of really sticks in my mind about Duke as a character within the show, which is, you know, he is really unsettling as a person, but he's also incredibly sort of slithery and charming in his own way. And he like, the sort of relationship between him and this woman Beth Rickey is one in which he's able to be somewhat persuasive. You just get that sense, the way that she talks about him. And I kind of recognize a kind of part of why you made the decision not to interview him for the show.

Josh Levin 22:44

He is a manipulator. That's what he has always set out to do. If I can go back to the very opening of the series, the scene that we chose to open with, he's at this Holocaust deniers conference and having a conversation with a grad student, Evelyn Rich, and a neo-nazi named Joe Fields. And he very openly talks about what his beliefs are about the Jews, about the Holocaust, about Hitler. And then when he's a political candidate, just a few years later, he says none of these things. And so his core beliefs never change. It's the way that he chooses to package them. It's what he chooses to emphasize. It's the guise that he appears in. And so somebody like Beth Rickey is so interesting, because she understood all that. She didn't just understand it, she had a visceral hatred for what Duke was and what he stood for. And she knew that going into having these conversations with him, having this kind of relationship with him. And yet, he still was able to work on her, which is just so interesting, and kind of amazing in its way, and we got so much great tape of Beth Rickey, in those moments, as she was kind of living through them and thinking through them talking about how she would talk to Duke and then need to be, she called it, "deprogrammed."

Nick Quah 24:19

Yeah, it seems that one of the sort of bigger takeaways from this story, and just experience in general, is like, there are just some things that you just can't take on their own terms. Like, you just can't even engage. And I think that's kind of an unsettling takeaway, almost.

Josh Levin 24:36

You know, another way to frame that is that there are some cases where the standard rules don't apply, where just kind of moving through life in the way that we would normally just isn't going to work. Now there are multiple people that you've heard throughout the series say that they weren't activists and didn't consider themselves activists. That's what Anne Levy, the Holocaust survivor, described herself as, and she just never wanted to talk about what happened to her. But she said that this feeling came over her and her body that she had to do it.

Anne Levy (Excerpt) 25:12

I never wanted to be in the papers and I never wanted to make a nuisance of myself. But it was something about making myself a nuisance to David Duke that I didn't mind. I was this meek, very in the back person that didn't speak up. And it really did change my life. It changed because, in a way, my children look at me differently. Because I did speak up.

Josh Levin 25:45

This was about more than politics. It was about more than an election, multiple elections, and about a choice between who is going to govern the state or be in the United States Senate. It was an--it's hard not to be too grandiose about this, but it's a kind of a choice of like, there are lots of different lines in the sand here about--

Nick Quah 26:07

Yeah.

Josh Levin 26:07

--things that you would countenance and things that you wouldn't, things that you would accept under the banner of your party and things that you wouldn't. This was just one of these moments that I think people either stepped up or didn't.

Nick Quah 26:21

Did you, at any point, feel nervous or scared to do the story?

Josh Levin 26:26

I think, in a particular way, I would say. I didn't feel under threat for my safety. But I would say, and this goes with the book that I did about Linda Taylor, who was the woman who was known as the welfare queen. I will tell you, I felt nervous about doing both of these stories, because they're just so fraught, they cut so emotionally deep and get really at the core of prejudice and racism and the kind of terrible things that we do to each other. And these stories need to be taken on with a lot of sensitivity and I don't want to get it wrong. And so, that's the way in which I'm nervous, is that I want to do justice to a story that feels important to me, and that I hope is important to people that listen to it. And those are the kinds of stories that, as journalists, we want to do; you don't want to do a story where there's no risk involved, that just feels easy and straightforward. And it feels like you're gonna learn a lot more and you're gonna, you know, make people feel things if you're getting into this kind of rough territory.

Nick Quah 27:33

Do you have a sort of "Moby Dick" story in your mind that would be a perfect Slow Burn story right now that you just not--just don't think that there is enough bandwidth to cover yet?

Josh Levin 28:01

This was it for me, man. Like, I guess--

Nick Quah 28:02

This was the one for you.

Josh Levin 28:03

Well, it's like, what do you do when you do the thing that you've been wanting to do for so long? I mean, this was the story that was on the top of my list. Vann Newkirk did an amazing job with Floodlines.

Nick Quah 28:17

Floodlines is fantastic, yeah.

Josh Levin 28:19

Love--really love that, um--

Nick Quah 28:21

Do you think that's a Slow Burn story?

Josh Levin 28:24

I think it could have been. And I think that it's a story that's personally very meaningful to me. Because I'm from New Orleans and Vann did that show differently. It sounded like Vann, which made it great. So there's kind of a limited number of stories--at least for me, I don't want to speak for everyone--that feel both deeply personal and like other people are going to care about them in a way that, you know, you might be able to make them feel as deeply about it or they already do feel deeply about it. David Duke was really one of those for me just because of the circumstances of who I am and where I came from.

Nick Quah 29:07

We'd generally like to wrap up each of these conversations with--do you have any podcasts that you're listening to that you're really enjoying right now? Or recently?

Josh Levin 29:14

Can I go with my same answer from a second ago?

Nick Quah 29:17

Floodlines?

Josh Levin 29:18

Yeah.

Nick Quah 29:18

Let's talk about that show a little bit more, because I, you know, I don't think I have heard a show written and scored like that before. Like, there's something about the way that they used music that really had a hyperreality to it.

Josh Levin 29:33

It's beautiful.

Nick Quah 29:35

What stood out to you the most about that show?

Josh Levin 29:38

What you just said, and also the ways in which institutional voices are placed alongside those of--I don't want to use the term ordinary, but, you know, people who were living through this catastrophe, this disaster, and were placed on the same level, with the same amount of importance. And the kind of humanity of the series, the way in which it was able to tell a very close-up, zoomed-in story about people and about their lives, while also telling a story about kind of enormous structural and cultural forces, and the impact they have on this specific set of people and all of us. I think it was just so deftly done. And I also, if I can say this, I think Vann just has an amazing voice.

Nick Quah 30:36

Oh, yeah.

Josh Levin 30:37

Just feel like you're in very good hands and you're being told a story by someone that you want to be listening to.

Nick Quah 30:50

Well, I'm really enjoying the season. Josh, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.

Josh Levin 30:56

Appreciate it. Thank you, Nick.

Nick Quah 31:09

Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at LAist dot com slash Servant of Pod. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristin Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.