Beth Rickey collapsed and died alone on a motel room floor in Santa Fe on Friday night, a pitcher of ice tea in her hands. She was just 53. She had been ill for 13 years, mostly with a mysterious virus she had picked up on a church mission trip to Mexico. Debilitated, she had run through her life savings. Philanthropic help was on the way, but not in time.
It was a sad end for one of the bravest women you could ever meet. There had been a time, back in the early 1990s, when journalists and academicians, Jewish leaders and evangelicals, conservative and liberal, all proclaimed her a heroine. They were right.
Beth Rickey, perhaps more than any single person, helped stop the meteoric political rise of neo-Nazi David Duke. People today may forget what a political force Duke had become in Louisiana back then. With three weeks remaining in the 1991 race for governor, Duke had been in a statistical dead heat in the polls against ethically challenged former three-term governor Edwin Edwards. And Duke had the momentum.
What Duke could never escape, though, was all the evidence that he truly was a neo-Nazi, rather than what he claimed to be: a next-generation Reaganite conservative with a long-ago tawdry Ku Klux Klan past that he had thoroughly put behind him. Much of that evidence was unearthed by Beth Rickey.
Ms. Rickey had been a conservative Republican activist since her teenage years in Lafayette, La. She had interrupted her doctoral studies to work on a state legislative special election in early 1989 for businessman John Treen, brother of former Gov. David C. Treen. It was supposed to be a sleepy by-election — until Duke caught fire.
Ms. Rickey began researching him, past and present, and realized sooner than almost anybody else that Duke was both more sinister than ordinary redneck racists and far more politically savvy. She made it her mission to stop him.
Duke won that state legislatve election in 1989 by a scant 227 votes, a 1 percent margin. Ms. Rickey didn’t quit. She secretly followed him to a national Populist Party (neo-Nazi) convention in Chicago to which he had said he would not go, and she audiotaped him making a racist speech.
She publicized the recording. Then she arranged for private eyes to visit Duke’s home-district legislative office, where they found him selling Nazi books. She publicized that. She was a member of the Republican State Central Committee, so she introduced a resolution to censure Duke.
It was tabled because of a technicality (the committee could officially “censure” only one of its own members, and Duke wasn’t on the committee) but the publicity again embarrassed Duke and helped catalyze other statements from Republican officials denouncing him. Everywhere Mr. Duke turned, Ms. Rickey was there to demonstrate that his neo-Nazi links were not just well in the past, but continuing still.
For her efforts, Ms. Rickey started getting anonymous death threats — enough so that she eventually had to hire security guards to watch her apartment. Bizarrely, she also started getting calls, supposedly friendly, from Duke himself.
Duke liked to think of himself as an intellectual. It was a weakness of his, a vanity. He could not accept that an “intellectual” doctoral student like Ms. Rickey could reject him. He invited her to get ice cream with his daughters. He took her to lunch. Strangely, he called her on the phone late at night. He let down his guard, stopped trying to pretend to be a mainstream conservative and started instead trying to convince her that his theories on race and culture were correct. Blacks were dangerous, he said, but not really the problem. The real problem was the Jews. They were satanic. And so hatefully on.
A bleary-eyed Ms. Rickey, on the other end of the phone, kept her tape recorder running.
Again, she publicized the tapes. Again, she received death threats.
At the end of 1989, Ms. Rickey and two liberal academicians along with a moderate evangelical minister decided that it would take a concentrated organization to defeat Duke. It is hard to believe, unless you were there, just how effective Duke was at manipulating the media. He was telegenic and glib, with a preternatural ability to turn any hostile interview to his advantage while hitting populist hot buttons again and again. And Louisiana was a poor state, with a poor educational system. Demagoguery worked. It would take savvy planning to stop him.
Ms. Rickey and the others called a meeting of a broad spectrum of activists, and then another. At the second meeting, on a cold and wet November evening, they elected a highly diverse, 10-person board. It featured Ms. Rickey and another Republican, liberal scholars, Jewish activists, Christian ministers and others. At the third meeting, they named it the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism. LCARN’s research, political ads and publicity efforts against Duke eventually garnered international acclaim. The organization hounded Duke at every step. And finally, just in the nick of time in 1991, Duke’s balloon popped. Edwards ended up winning by a monumental landslide, 61.2 percent to 38.8 percent. Duke never recovered politically, and years later he ended up in jail for tax fraud and mail fraud.
Ms. Rickey continued, in myriad ways, standing on principle in public and private life. At the end of 1996, however, she got sick when returning from the mission to Mexico. She later developed other ailments, including Crohn’s disease. Many of her admirers tried to help her through the years, but she fell victim to one disaster after another.
She ended up destitute in Santa Fe, 900 miles from home. At about 3:30 Friday afternoon, a wonderful social worker told her on the phone that she definitely would find help. An hour later, the social worker found a philanthropist willing to step in. The philanthropist immediately phoned Ms. Rickey’s number, but reached only voice mail.
Back in 1989 through 1991, though, when it made a huge difference to a state gone haywire, Beth more than answered the call.
Quin Hillyer is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Times. He can be reached at Qhillyer@washingtontimes.com.