Scott Walker sits with his hands folded at a desk on the set of a public television news program. He glances at the blonde anchorman across from him, then down at his hands, then back at the anchor.
The baby-faced Walker, who’s just 24 years old and representing the Wisconsin Republican Party, has spent roughly the last half-hour verbally sparring with former Ku Klux Klan grand dragon and Louisiana state representative David Duke. The Wisconsin residents calling into the program, “Smith & Co,” have been berating him, too. Walker is staring down at his hands every other time the camera cuts to him.
The year is 1992 and the topic at hand is whether Duke should be allowed on the Wisconsin presidential primary ballot as a Republican. The anchorman, Joe Smith, asks Walker to predict how the state’s bipartisan ballot selection committee will decide.
“I would certainly hope it’s gonna be a majority opposed to putting him on the ballot,” Walker says, pursing his lips.
Duke’s upper body calls out from a TV screen on the wall behind the desk: “Shame on you, Scott Walker, shame on you.” He’s speaking from New Orleans via satellite.
With his eyes still lowered, Walker shakes his head a little and opens his hands as if to shrug, “Well, what can you do.”
The odd scene involving one of America’s most notorious racists took place roughly two decades before Walker became governor. Their encounter largely stayed off the radar as Walker continued to rise through Wisconsin politics and eventually launched his campaign for President. But what appears to be Walker’s earliest high-profile debate has never been as telling as it is now.
Walker is set to face a similarly larger-than-life debate opponent Wednesday night at the Reagan library in California. There, he and nine other Republican presidential candidates will vie to steal attention from a frontrunner who has been accused of racism and had his candidacy dismissed by some as a creation of the media: Donald Trump.
Smith, the anchorman who moderated the 1992 debate, watched it again on YouTube this week thanks to Milwaukee Public Television posting it in 2009. He told TPM in a phone interview that Walker struck him at the time as somewhat unprepared to take on Duke. Although, Smith noted, Walker likely did as well as anyone could expect someone of his age to do.
“I think somebody with the responsibility of the job that he had for the Republican Party at 24, you could say ‘Well, he presented himself as best he could given his age and experience,’” Smith said.
During the debate, Walker explained that the state GOP was making a “moral judgment” about Duke’s background in refusing to put him on the presidential primary ballot. Walker said that Duke was known to have sold neo-Nazi material out of his Louisiana office as recently as 1989. Duke said he had a bookstore that carried “Mein Kampf” and “Das Kapital” but denied selling the books out of his office.
“Your viewpoints may or may not be legitimate,” Walker told Duke, rattling off welfare reform and job security as issues important to both the former Klansman and the people of Wisconsin.
“The key, though, is we feel that in particular you’re hiding behind these issues that are legitimate issues,” he continued, “but do not necessarily make you a legitimate candidate, any more than in the city of Milwaukee if Jeffrey Dahmer were to stand up and talk about family values, that would make him a legitimate candidate.”
“The voters have a right, whether my issues are legitimate or not or whether I’m legitimate or not,” Duke shot back. He further suggested that other Republican candidates owed him a debt of gratitude for being the first to campaign on issues like affirmative action and “workfare.”
A YouTube clip of the debate resurfaced in 2011 on progressive blogs, where writers hammered Walker for saying the issues Duke was running on were “legitimate.” Smith told TPM he thought Walker could have done a better job addressing the fact that Duke was saying things that were in line with Republican ideology.
And to hear Duke tell it now, he mopped the floor with Walker in that debate. In a phone interview with TPM on Monday, the Louisiana ex-legislator cited the volume of callers into “Smith & Co” who said they agreed that he should’ve been allowed on the Wisconsin ballot.
“I think I acquitted myself well and gave the real issues that a true American, if somebody really believed in freedom and the principles America’s founded upon, would really support my right to be on the ballot,” he said.
Duke added that Walker’s argument against letting him appear on the state primary ballot showed “total disregard for the true rights of the American people.”
“I think he was a lightweight, just to be frank with you,” Duke said when asked what it was like to debate Walker. “It’s hard being a good debater when you’re not really honest.”
A spokeswoman for Walker did not respond to a request for comment from TPM on Tuesday. But Walker did discuss the debate with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2009, after another Wisconsin politician unfavorably compared Walker, who was serving as the Milwaukee county executive, to Duke.
“At first, it was to be me against a Duke supporter in Wisconsin. Then it was a guy from the campaign based in L.A.,” Walker told the newspaper in an e-mail. “At the last minute, they switched and put (on) David Duke himself. I argued that he was not legit. At the end of the show, I said that there was no place in the party for guys like Duke and he said, ‘Shame on you, Scott Walker, shame on you.'”
Smith, the moderator, remembered it differently. It said it was difficult to get Duke to commit to appearing on the program. But he disagreed that Duke was sprung on Walker at the last minute.
“I don’t remember that at all,” Smith said of Walker’s notion that he was going to talk with a Duke surrogate. “I do remember, though, that it was touch-and-go as to whether Duke was going to do it. I would not have done this, have Walker show up and then all of the sudden say ‘Oh by the way, we have David Duke.’ I would not have done that because that’s just not fair.”
During the debate, Walker argued that Duke was a “creation of the media.” Smith suggested that the Wisconsin Republican Party’s opposition to Duke’s candidacy played a part in elevating the former Klansman’s stature, too.
“What I thought was really telling was Duke saying ‘my enemies made me,’” Smith told TPM. “Because Walker and others who disagreed with Duke, they talked about it and they created his popularity. Probably not what they had planned to do, but they did.”
In that respect, Smith saw something of a parallel between Duke’s longshot 1992 effort and Trump, the current Republican primary frontrunner.
“Duke got a lot of press because of his background. Donald Trump is certainly getting a lot of play because of his background, in a different way, and being outspoken,” Smith said. “That seems to be the key of getting noticed is being outspoken and really, I think, being true to themselves. So whether you like it or not, it gets people talking.”
Watch the full video, which is about 28 minutes long.