Is the wayward Republican Mike Huckabee now his party’s best hope?
by Ariel Levy
Sun was bouncing off the miles of Jerusalem stone and the black hats of the Hasidim on the afternoon when Mike Huckabee went to visit the Wailing Wall, earlier this year. Huckabee—the former governor of Arkansas, the host of a Fox News show, and, according to the most recent Rasmussen poll, the top pick among likely Republican primary voters for President in 2012—was making his fourteenth trip to Israel. This time, he was leading a group of a hundred and sixty evangelicals on a tour of Christian holy sites with the singer Pat Boone. Huckabee wore mirrored Ray-Bans and a polka-dot shirt with gold cufflinks in the shape of Arkansas. Boone, who is seventy-six and still keeps his hair strawberry blond, was in a light-blue leisure suit and white bucks. Both men were wearing yarmulkes. “I think what I should do is convert,” Huckabee said, squinting in the sunshine. “This covers my bald spot completely.”
Huckabee was a Baptist minister before he went into politics, but, like Boone and most of the other people in their group, he is crazy about Israel and extremely enthusiastic about Jews. “I worship a Jew!” Huckabee said. “I have a lot of Jewish friends, and they’re kind of, like, ‘You evangelicals love Israel more than we do.’ I’m, like, ‘Do you not get it? If there weren’t a Jewish faith, there wouldn’t be a Christian faith!’ ” In recent weeks, Huckabee has defended the Israeli attack on a Turkish flotilla headed for Gaza, in which nine people were killed. He does not support a two-state solution, or, at least, as he told numerous reporters in the course of the trip, “not on the same piece of real estate”—which is to say he thinks that coming up with a place for the Palestinians ought to be an Arab problem. In fact, Huckabee does not believe that Palestinian is a legitimate nationality. “I have to be careful saying this, because people get really upset—there’s really no such thing as a Palestinian,” Huckabee told a rabbi in Wellesley, Massachusetts, at a kosher breakfast on the campaign trail in 2008. “That’s been a political tool to try to force land away from Israel." In a speech to the Knesset on our trip, Huckabee said, “I promise you, you do not have a better friend on earth than Christians around the world, who know where we have come from and know who we must remain allies and friends with.” The members of his tour group who were seated in the audience applauded vigorously; several rose to their feet and shouted, “Amen!”
Huckabee was being paid to lead the tour, and, like everything he does now, the trip provided fodder for his television show. But he was also building credibility with Zionist Christians and right-wing American Jews, which will be valuable should he decide to run for President again. “There’s a lot of Jewish money on the right that’s got to go someplace, especially if Obama continues to be perceived as unfriendly to Israel,” Zev Chafets, an American journalist and Menachem Begin’s former communications director, told me. As for the Israelis, “every prime minister since Begin has relied on the support of the Christian right,” Chafets wrote in his book “A Match Made in Heaven.” President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and various members of the Knesset had all scheduled meetings with Huckabee. High-level government officials kept turning up at lunches and dinners and tourist sites to give speeches to Huckabee’s followers and shake their outstretched hands.
A woman named Rosie, who wasn’t with the group, made her way through the crowd at the Wailing Wall to meet Huckabee. “You say the real deal,” she said. Rosie was a fan of “Huckabee,” which is the top-rated weekend show on cable news. She was in Jerusalem visiting her son, who attends yeshiva there. “I’m from Brooklyn,” she told Huckabee, as her son, Avishai, snapped a picture of the two of them on his cell phone. “Like, unfortunately, Schumer.” She rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, well,” Huckabee said, and smiled sympathetically.
“Glenn Beck, he’s the man,” Avishai said. “I basically parrot all his views to my friends. His,” he said, motioning toward Huckabee, “Hannity’s, Glenn Beck’s—whatever I can hock.”
Huckabee’s tone as a commentator is markedly less combative than that of some of his colleagues on Fox. (“I’m a conservative, but I’m not mad at anybody” was one of his memorable lines in the most recent Presidential campaign.) He described the initial concept for his program, which first aired in September, 2008, as “adult-level civil conversations with people with whom I disagree,” and his favorite compliment is that the show has a calming effect: “It’s like a cha-ching in my head when I hear that.” But his differences with Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly are primarily stylistic; “I’m certainly on the same ideological spectrum,” he said.
The tour buses took the Christians to a souvenir shop next, and while people shopped for olive-wood Jesus figurines in the front room, Huckabee stood in back and talked to me about the End of Days. This is a big topic among evangelicals. The “Left Behind” novels, which dramatize the Rapture, when believers are lifted up to Heaven and everyone else is stuck on a very violent Earth, have sold sixty-three million copies. (The books’ co-authors, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, endorsed Huckabee for President in 2008. ) Many people on the trip were insistently pro-Israel, at least in part because they believe that Jewish control of the territory between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean is a Biblically ordained condition for the Second Coming of Christ. Huckabee believes that history will end and that the Rapture will come, but he doesn’t tie himself to a time line. “I was a lot more sure when I was eighteen!” he said. “I thought it would be one heck of an end-of-the-world war.”
Other members of the group politely admitted that they had no doubt that most Israelis, and anyone else who had not accepted Christ as Lord and Saviour, would be spending eternity in Hell. (“That is an issue,” a man named Randy Rebold told me apologetically.) Huckabee’s formulation is considerably more politic. “If somebody asked me, How do I get to Heaven, I would tell them that the only way I personally am aware of is faith in Christ, because I believe the New Testament,” he said. “That’s the only map I got. Somebody says, Well, I got a different map. O.K.! You know what? If it works, I’m not going to argue with you.”
Huckabee firmly believes that here on planet Earth, however, there should be only one set of guidelines. In several of his seven books, he tells a story about the time his young son John Mark baked a cake. The boy didn’t know what a “dash” of salt was, so he added a cup to the batter, and the cake was inedible. This, Huckabee asserts, is what happens when human beings come up with their own measures of right and wrong, instead of following the Bible’s. “Consider homosexuality,” he writes. “Until recently, who would have dared to suggest that the practice should be accepted on equal footing with heterosexuality, to be thought of as a personal decision and nothing more?” Abortion is another example; he has said that his horror at “the holocaust of liberalized abortion” helped motivate him to leave the ministry and pursue a career in politics. When he was governor of Arkansas, Huckabee blocked Medicaid funding for an abortion that a retarded teen-ager wanted to have after she was raped by her stepfather.
At lunch in a banquet hall outside the Old City, Huckabee and the group sat at a dozen tables as Pat Boone performed his 1958 hit “A Wonderful Time Up There.” “Now ya get your Holy Bible / in the back of the book / The Book of Revelations is the place ya look,” Boone sang, and everyone clapped along to the bouncy beat. “He said he’s comin’ back to raise the dead / Are you gonna be among the chosen few? Or will you make it through? Well-a well-a well-a!”
As recently as the mid-nineteen-sixties, many influential ministers believed that Christians had no place in politics. “Preachers are not called to be politicians but to be soul-winners,” Jerry Falwell said. “Nowhere are we commissioned to reform the externals.” Following Martin Luther, who thought that clergy should not involve themselves in secular government, evangelical leaders in the United States refrained from politics for much of the twentieth century. Political action seemed both undesirable and unnecessary.
When Mike Huckabee was born, in 1955, the mores and values of Christianity seemed indistinguishable from the mores and values of the country. Growing up, Huckabee assumed that everyone was Christian, and in Hope, Arkansas—which is also Bill Clinton’s home town, though the two politicians did not become acquainted until adulthood—he was not far off. His family was not deeply religious, but his mother, Mae, took Huckabee and his sister to Sunday school every week, where the preacher would “literally scare the hell” out of him. “I grew up in a culture where everybody went to church but nobody took it that seriously,” Huckabee told me one afternoon a few months ago, drinking tea on the sunporch of his house in North Little Rock.
Huckabee found the reflexive piety of his community “very pharisaical in nature” when he was young. “People would say boys and girls shouldn’t go to R-rated movies, or they shouldn’t swim together,” he said. “I was the guy that always asked why. ‘Because we said so.’ Well, that’s not an answer! I don’t accept ‘Because we said so.’ That always made me really angry.” In high school, Huckabee was sent to the principal’s office for leading a group of students in protest against the Vietnam War. “I always questioned, even when it was inappropriate to question,” he said. “Before some of these moments in my faith really took root, I think I could have gone a totally different way. I think I could have become the hedonist, because I had rejected what I had grown to believe was a completely superficial and inauthentic approach to life.” He added, “I did not want to be a sheep.”
When Huckabee was fifteen, he encountered an alternative. A young couple in his neighborhood offered Bible study at their home on Wednesday nights, and these meetings changed the way he saw his place in the universe. “For them, Christianity was not a cultural expression—it was a personal relationship with God,” he said. “It wasn’t about behavior.” He was attracted to the intimacy and depth of this vision, and to the couple’s emphasis on love rather than fear. “Evangelical essentially means people who have a belief in the authority and veracity of the Bible,” Huckabee said, “but who also believe that the Bible is about good news.” This was in contrast to fundamentalism, which “tends to put a focus on God’s judgment,” he said. “Evangelicalism is a grace-centered approach. It’s more about we’re all sinners, we’ve all screwed up, we all need help, that’s why we keep Jesus.”
At sixteen, Huckabee attended Explo ’72, a gathering, organized by the Campus Crusade for Christ, in which eighty thousand like-minded youths came to Dallas for “a Christian Woodstock, essentially.” It was a revelation. Huckabee realized that what was happening to him was happening to a generation of Christians. “I saw myself mentally and philosophically as part of the growing Jesus movement,” he said. These young people were invested in a transformative experience of divinity; the Jesus movement challenged the conventions of the Church for many of the same reasons that other young baby boomers were rebelling against the secular establishment. They were all seeking “more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living,” as Hillary Clinton put it in her commencement speech at Wellesley, in 1969.
Of course, the Christians and the counterculture came to incompatible conclusions about what a revolutionized society should look like. In the seventies, disappointed with Jimmy Carter and faced with the legalization of abortion, the visibility of the gay-rights and women’s-liberation movements, and the dissociation of sex from marriage, the Christian right became politically galvanized. Falwell began to pursue political influence, as did Pat Robertson. This was the context that gave birth to the Moral Majority, and Huckabee found himself “kind of in the middle.”
In 1976, after college, Huckabee was enrolled at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Texas, when he came into contact with the televangelist James Robison. It was Robison who famously declared that he was “sick and tired of hearing about all of the radicals and the perverts and the liberals and the leftists and the Communists coming out of the closet,” and was ready “for God’s people to come out of the closet” and take back the nation. Despite Huckabee’s inclination toward a forgiving Christianity, Robison’s passion drew him in. He dropped out of seminary after one year to take a job as Robison’s director of communications.
“The way the Moral Majority movement was actually started was there was a rally that James Robison did in 1979 that I helped coördinate,” Huckabee said. “It was all because of the local television station in Dallas throwing him off the air, because, in a sermon that he preached on television, Robison said homosexuality is a sin. Think: 1979, it wasn’t really an outrageous statement. Anyway, they got some complaints and they told him he couldn’t be on television. Well, Texas? Are you kidding me?” More than ten thousand Christians came to a “Freedom Rally” at the Reunion Arena, in Dallas, to protest Robison’s expulsion. “There was this amazing energy coming up from these evangelical Christians,” Huckabee said. “I remember almost being frightened by it. If someone had gotten to the microphone and said, ‘Let’s go four blocks from here and take Channel 8 apart,’ that audience would’ve taken the last brick off the building.” One year later, Ronald Reagan won the Presidency, with overwhelming support from evangelicals. The evangelical vote has been a serious consideration in every election since.
Huckabee assesses his role in the religious right as “an observer from the beginning, a participant somewhat.” But he finds it “repulsive” when people assume that they know his mind simply because they know his affiliations. “I was never that predictable,” he said with satisfaction. “I also think that’s what caused people, particularly within the Republican establishment, to be so dismissive of me. Because I was never one to just pick up the company line and recite it. I hate that—I think it’s repulsive. And politics is becoming more and more where you’re handed this script and told, ‘Don’t improv.’ ”
Huckabee does deviate from Party orthodoxy on some issues. But what makes him even less predictable as a politician is his sense of humor. At times, he seems unable to resist the force of his own funniness. I joked with him once that I would write about his (fictitious) affair with Nancy Pelosi. He e-mailed back, “The only thing worse than a torrid affair with sweet, sweet Nancy would be a torrid affair with Helen Thomas. If those were my only options, I’d probably be FOR same-sex marriage!”
One afternoon in Jerusalem, as Huckabee was walking up the steps from Oskar Schindler’s grave, Bree Saum, a nurse and divorced mother of two from South Carolina, put a hand on his arm and said, “Now, Mike, if you decide to run again, you’ve got to really speak up.” She was fervent about this, but it was hard to pin down exactly what she wanted him to express. Saum is a Tea Party enthusiast. “Our troops are dying for our freedom, and our Congress is dying to take it away,” she said. “The American people are not stupid! And we’re sick of it.” Saum said she was almost as suspicious of the Republicans as she was of the Democrats, but that Huckabee was someone she felt she could believe in. “I know he’s a Christian,” she told me. “I believe he has faith in Jesus Christ.”
Conservative Christians are desperate for a leader who will govern according to their values. Some feel betrayed by George W. Bush, who, though stalwart on social issues, increased debt and spending, consolidated federal power, and bailed out the banks, all in violation of small-government principles. Many right-wing Christians are also disheartened by politicians who have risen from their ranks only to fail, sometimes spectacularly, to uphold family values. Saum said that she was bitterly disappointed in her own governor, South Carolina’s peripatetic adulterer Mark Sanford. “Typical man,” Saum said, sadly. (She told me that after her divorce “Jesus Christ became my husband. He’s always faithful, whereas my ex-husband wasn’t.”)
It is hard to imagine a mistress, let alone a rent boy, coming forward to incriminate Huckabee. “We never worried about Mike Huckabee hiking down the Appalachian trail,” Rex Nelson, who was Huckabee’s policy and communications director in Arkansas for nine years, told me. “Should he fall off the wagon, it’d be the buffet trail.” Gluttony is Huckabee’s greatest weakness; he wrote about his “food addiction” in a book called “Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork!” In 2003, he weighed three hundred pounds. Chairs gave out under his weight during meetings at the Governor’s Mansion. He learned that he had Type II diabetes, and responded by changing his eating habits, running four marathons, and losing a hundred and ten pounds. His weight has been creeping up lately, but he is nowhere near his heaviest.
In some ways, Huckabee seems like a promising candidate for 2012: a squeaky-clean family man and bona-fide Christian who loves to talk. His communication is folksy but fluid; he never seems flummoxed, like George W. Bush, or befuddled, like John McCain, or unprepared, like Sarah Palin. “If we’re running a race against their most articulate guy,” Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s former campaign manager, told me, referring to President Obama, “we should put our most articulate guy. Huckabee’s that guy.” Schmidt, who has traded barbs with Palin since the election, said, “There’s no one who really provides a better contrast to Sarah Palin, showing her as an entertainer instead of a serious thinker—and there’s not enough oxygen for both of them.”
Given Huckabee’s strength in early polls and the current political environment, in which McCain needs Palin to campaign for him and established incumbents like Governor Charlie Crist, in Florida, are vulnerable to challengers like Marco Rubio—a Tea Party favorite whom Huckabee endorsed—it can be difficult to see why Huckabee feels so marginalized within his party. But he does not have the money to mount a serious bid for office. And he has failed to cultivate many of the people who do.
Huckabee described his fund-raising philosophy as “Look, you know I’m running. You want to help me for the right reasons? Then help me. If there’s got to be a quid pro quo, then keep your money.”
“In his nature, he is anti-establishment,” Kirsten Fedewa, who has been Huckabee’s communications director since 2004, said. “And the establishment is the ticket to the dance in the Republican primary; if you alienate them, you can’t get there.”
At a Republican debate on the economy in Dearborn, Michigan, during the fall of 2007, other candidates for the Presidential nomination spoke about quarterly growth and sounded notes of optimism. (“I see no reason to think we’re headed for an economic downturn,” Fred Thompson said. “If you look at the short term, it’s rosy.”) “They were all reading the R.N.C. talking points,” Huckabee told me. “I said, Well, if you’re sitting in the corner office with a nice view, yeah, the economy’s doing swimmingly well. But if you’re lifting heavy things and you’re out on the freight docks? People are working harder this year than they did last year, they have less to show for it, and they’re scared to death!” (Ron Paul was equally vociferous about the plight of the working class.) “I was predicting an economic downturn a year before it happened,” Huckabee continued. “For that, was I thanked or was I considered somehow the savant? No. I was considered a complete idiot. What bothered me more than anything was the disdain that I experienced from the élites: ‘Oohhhh, who does Huckabee think he is, speaking about the economy,’ ” he said, in an accent meant to suggest aristocracy. “They treated me like a total hick,” he added. “A complete, uneducated, unprepared hick.”
Huckabee is contemptuous of the “pompous patrician” wing of his party. “I grew up having a lot more in common with the people working in the kitchen than with the people at the head table,” he said. “I had to learn how to sit at the head table.” He likes to think that he represents “Wal-Mart Republicans, not Wall Street Republicans.” To him, someone who is conservative only fiscally is ethically impoverished. Huckabee has criticized the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for his shifting position on abortion, and for promising to be better for gay rights than Ted Kennedy (which he decidedly did not turn out to be). There is a chapter in “Do the Right Thing,” Huckabee’s memoir of the 2008 election, called “Faux-Cons: Worse Than Liberalism,” in which he writes, “However wrongheaded Democrats might be, they tell you exactly what they’re going to do. The real threat to the Republican Party is something we saw a lot of this past election cycle: libertarianism masked as conservatism.”
But, while Huckabee is accusing other Republicans of being faux-cons, there are powerful conservative voices claiming that Huckabee is insufficiently capitalistic. In 2008, Rush Limbaugh said, “I don’t support repeated increases in taxes. I don’t support national health care, whether you call it a children’s program or whatever it is. I don’t support anti-war rhetoric. . . . And that’s Governor Huckabee.” (According to Limbaugh, Huckabee’s plan to abolish the I.R.S. and institute the so-called FairTax, which is based on consumption, “doesn’t stand a chance in hell.”) The libertarian Club for Growth—which Huckabee likes to call the Club for Greed—ran ads against Huckabee throughout the campaign, portraying him as “the tax-and-spend liberal Arkansas governor.”
In defiance of libertarian laissez-faire, Huckabee has extended his Christian vision to include the poor. “If there are a certain number of kids from single-parent homes who aren’t going to school and don’t have health care, you can say that’s not government’s job,” Huckabee told me. “Well, sweet and fine! But you know what? If the kid’s sitting outside the door of the hospital choking with asthma, do I sit there and say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t think, philosophically, government should get involved’? I’d much rather the kid get help than I sit around and say I’m so pure in my ideology.”
Prodded by the Arkansas Supreme Court and an eighty-per-cent-Democratic legislature, Huckabee oversaw a major redistricting of public schools when he was governor. “You could go to school in Rogers and get a great education or you could go to school in Eudora and not have a dog’s chance of ever coming out of there with anything but poverty,” he said. “So I pushed some decisions on school consolidation—which is about as popular as having your teeth taken out without the benefit of any anesthetic.” Huckabee considers these measures—which many people saw as suspiciously progressive—to be an extension of his pro-life beliefs. In “The Right Thing,” he writes, “To be truly pro-life means that we should be just as much concerned about the child who is eight years old and living under a bridge or in the back seat of a car.”
And yet, as governor, he also signed sixteen death orders. The difference, he argues, is between a society that condemns to death individuals who violate its codes and a single person who decides to kill another. In the first scenario, a society is making earthly rules. In the second, a person is playing God, and thus guilty of the worst transgression in Huckabee’s book, the sin of pride. (“Our mother would always say, ‘I’m not proud of you, I’m thankful for you,’ ” Pat Harris, Huckabee’s sister, told me.) But Huckabee doesn’t sound so sure. “I probably could be fine if we didn’t have the death penalty,” he said.
In Arkansas, Huckabee commuted the sentence of Maurice Clemmons, who went on to shoot four police officers in Washington last year. Given the same information he had then, Huckabee says, he would make the same decision. “When I looked at his case, I looked at a twenty-seven-year-old put away for a non-weapon burglary and an aggravated robbery. He had a sentence of a hundred and eight years,” Huckabee said. “People had murdered and gone to prison sentenced to less time than he had served; it made no sense. He was black, he was poor, he had a lousy defense attorney. It was a classic example of what can happen and the reason you empower governors to have clemency.” It’s a decision that would make a perfect weapon for his competitors in a Republican primary. But do we really want people who only make decisions in their political lives that are in their own best interest?” he asked. “Frankly, I’m afraid that we might. The truth is, it could be the kind of thing that would keep me from ever being able to run.”
Huckabee said “the sad thing” was how much he loved campaigning—the constant stimulation, the endless opportunity to interact with people, the sport. “He’s incredibly competitive,” Rex Nelson told me. “Never overlook that. If Mike Huckabee were to sit down at this table and play me in a game of checkers, he would beat my brains out. He’s really, really, really competitive, to the point of competing against his staff, competing against his wife.” But Huckabee was discouraged by the last election, throughout which he felt relegated to the periphery by other Republicans with more money and less substance. “It’s almost like a reality show,” he said. “It’s who are we going to vote off the island? And you vote them off not because they’re not capable of leading the island but because you’ve found someone more entertaining.”
I couldn’t help thinking of a certain former governor of Alaska, and told him so. He wouldn’t say anything, but he stared at the floor and laughed ruefully, shaking his head.
A few months ago, Huckabee was eating lunch at Blue Fin, a restaurant in New York—a “city of flamboyant billionaires,” as he once called it—where he spends half of every week, taping his show. It has been an unexpected hit, and though many of the guests are low-profile or wacky (the psychic Kreskin has made several appearances), Huckabee has also had some big gets. On a recent episode, he politely discussed childhood obesity with Michelle Obama. “My view is that, if I host a show, the words ‘host’ and ‘guest’ imply something,” he said, setting his Loro Piana overcoat on the banquette. “If I were to have you in my home, I would treat you with a certain level of civility. When you walk in the door, I wouldn’t say, ‘Let me tell you about you and your crazy left-wing . . . ’ You would be, like, ‘I think I’m leaving now, this guy needs some therapy.’ So why would we do that in a public forum on television?” A bad host, he said, was someone like David Letterman. “I just found him to be the most detached and—I’m sorry to say this—arrogant jerk. He was not warm.” (Huckabee had no similar critique of his Fox colleagues, some of whom can be less than courtly with their dissenting guests.)
“Huckabee” has the aesthetics of a local-access show: the host ends every episode playing bass with his house band, the Little Rockers, which is composed of fellow Fox staffers. “What he does well is break the rules of cable news,” Bill Shine, the senior vice-president of the network, said. “The show is about him; it’s built around him, and not around the genre of cable news. Sometimes I look at the guest list and think, Wow, Neil Sedaka?”
Huckabee has been in broadcasting since he was fourteen, when the man who ran the local radio station in Hope gave him a job reading news and weather. Three years later, he took his wife-to-be, Janet McCain, on their first date, to a truck stop, after he covered one of her high-school basketball games for the station. Huckabee continued working in radio while he and Janet attended Ouachita Baptist University, in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, where he majored in religion. (They married after their freshman year.) When he became a minister, he set up a twenty-four-hour local cable station that aired his sermons. Huckabee has long “believed that part of my calling was to use the media as a communication vessel for the Gospel,” as he wrote in “A Simple Christmas.”
It was Huckabee’s ease in front of a camera that enabled him to stay in the 2008 Presidential campaign as long as he did. “In March of ’07, he said to me, ‘This campaign is going to be over before it starts,’ because he was dismally not raising money,” Fedewa said. “He was staying at Motel 8s.” At the end of 2007, Huckabee had raised less than nine million dollars, compared with Mitt Romney’s fifty-four million—which he augmented with thirty-five million of his own money—and Hillary Clinton’s hundred and seven million.
To compensate, Huckabee gave nearly twenty television interviews every morning for four months, from the run-up to the Iowa
caucuses until he left the race. “We estimate that was two hundred million dollars in free media,” Fedewa said. “The media was his base.” The strategy was to make Huckabee available to everyone, not just CNN and the 700 Club but “The Colbert Report” and Rolling Stone—“the shows that your opponents will be too scared to go on,” as Bob Wickers, one of Huckabee’s campaign consultants, put it. Huckabee is not uncomfortable around Democrats or comedians; he is as happy talking to Jon Stewart about abortion as he is interviewing Gayle Haggard about her marriage, as he did on a recent episode of his own show. And liberals tend to like him in return. Even if you find his politics repugnant, you can still find yourself drawn in by his relentless niceness. It doesn’t mean you’d vote for him, but it might mean you’d have him on your show.
Huckabee was elected lieutenant-governor of Arkansas in 1993. In 1996, Governor Jim Guy Tucker, a Democrat, resigned in disgrace when he was convicted of arranging nearly three million dollars in fraudulent loans. On the day Huckabee was supposed to be sworn in as Tucker’s replacement, Tucker called to say that he’d decided to appeal his conviction. Huckabee threatened to instigate impeachment proceedings if Tucker failed to step aside. In the midst of the ensuing crisis, Huckabee gave an impromptu report to the media and the citizens of Arkansas, an impassioned speech that effectively established him as the governor. In “Character,” he wrote that it was “as clear an example as I ever expect to see of God’s divine providence. It wasn’t my political skills or anything else of my own doing that had brought me to this moment. Only God could have done this.”
Huckabee told me about experiences he’s had with divine inspiration: “There’ve been times when a thought would
come to me . . . and as soon as I wrote it or said it I stepped back and thought, Whoa, pretty darn good.” I asked how he knew he wasn’t just smart. “Well, nobody thinks that,” he said, laughing. “Haven’t you read the blogs? I’m a complete idiot. I’m not smart enough to run for President.”
Huckabee invokes God constantly. Yet he feels that his religiosity is overemphasized. “I’m not one-dimensional,” he told me. “I was the governor of Arkansas for ten years! The lieutenant-governor for three! To say that I stepped out of a pulpit last Sunday and said, ‘Hey, I think I’ll be President!’ No, I’ve paid my dues.”
Many people who have worked with Huckabee insist that his politics are influenced far more by pragmatism than by religion. Huckabee’s Presidential campaign manager, Chip Saltsman (who got into trouble after the election for distributing a song titled “Barack the Magic Negro” to the Republican National Committee), said, “The ‘religion guy’ was foisted on him by the media. It was frustrating, a little bit. We got ‘former preacher’ as much as we got ‘former governor.’ ”
Huckabee had more executive experience than any other candidate, Republican or Democratic, in the 2008 campaign (with the exception of Tommy Thompson, who dropped out of the race after the Iowa straw poll). “And yet you didn’t hear a Chris Matthews saying, ‘Governor, I want to talk to you about your education policy; you did some innovative things,’ ” he said. “No. It was, ‘O.K., you were a Baptist preacher. Let’s talk about evolution.’ It’s, like, ‘Are you an idiot? Is that the only thing you can ask me?’ ”
When Wolf Blitzer pushed Huckabee to say whether he believed in evolution, at a debate in New Hampshire in June of 2007, Huckabee expressed exasperation that the question “would even be asked of somebody running for President—I’m not planning on writing the curriculum for an eighth-grade science book.” He said that the question was unfair, because it “asked us in a simplistic manner whether or not we believed, in my view, whether there’s a God or not.”
As President, though, he would appoint the Secretary of Education. And it is difficult to comprehend what is unfair about the question when he has written, “Everything you do and believe in is directed by your answer to the ultimate question: Is there a God? It all comes down to that single issue.” According to Huckabee, a person who believes God created man has a world view that is “absolutely irreconcilable” with that of someone who believes man created God. And “either by numbers or persuasion, one side of this polarized culture will defeat the other in setting public policy.” This is the defining paradox of Huckabee: his adamant resistance to being branded a zealot paired with his insistence that faith defines character and, consequently, has an essential place in government.
Some of this has to do with class sensitivity. Huckabee wouldn’t mind being characterized as a Christian intellectual, but he is vigilant against people’s using his background as a pastor to characterize him as a “redneck from southwest Arkansas,” as Nelson put it. “For somebody who plays at the high levels he plays at—the highest level, being a real contender for President—he is pretty sensitive.” The Arkansas press often taunted Huckabee for being thin-skinned, and Nelson said that “some of that was legitimate.”
Huckabee was a radical departure from what Arkansans were used to in their politicians. He was a Republican governor—only the third since Reconstruction—in a state that had been dominated by Democrats, and by the Clintons in particular. When he was elected lieutenant-governor, people regularly cleared the elevator at the statehouse when he got in; his Democratic colleagues nailed the door to his office shut before he took occupancy.
There was also the matter of his wife. “Janet, she was different,” Nelson told me. “She parachutes and sky-dives, rode jet skis down the river. I think the snootier elements of old Little Rock, shall we say, wanted someone who was doing lunch at the country club and attending Junior League events.” Janet Huckabee was determined to make her mark as first lady by updating the Governor’s Mansion. During the renovation, the Huckabees lived in a trailer they installed on the property—which Huckabee sees as evidence of his frugality and populism, and which many other people mocked as impossibly hick.
“That was not considered the classy thing to do,” Don Bingham, who was the Mansion administrator under Huckabee, said. “I mean, living in a triple-wide? The governor? That’s so typical barefoot-and-pregnant for the South. . . . They were crucified for it.”
Huckabee was also criticized for accepting personal donations—suits, furniture, a pair of thirty-seven-hundred-dollar cowboy boots, a chain saw—when he took office. Many people attributed this to “the preacher mentality: you’re used to being pounded with gifts—‘pounded’ is the old Southern word—and there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s not viewed as a moral failing,” Max Brantley, the editor of the liberal weekly the Arkansas Times, said. Huckabee faced twenty hearings before the state ethics commission during his time as governor. He contended that he was being unfairly harassed because he was a Republican, and, in 2002, he sued the commission on the ground that its rules were unconstitutionally vague. “Mike Huckabee sued the state ethics committee for the right to receive gifts!” Brantley said. “It just struck me as unseemly.” (Brantley’s wife was appointed to a judgeship by Bill Clinton, and he personally filed several of the complaints heard by the committee.)
Brenda Turner, who was Huckabee’s chief of staff during the decade he was governor, described the suit differently: “We were just trying to say, Let’s really put this in writing so we can comply, because we can’t comply with a moving target.” She went on, “We would ask them, how do you want us to report? Then we would do that. And then we’d be chastised for doing it that way. Think of this: you can write whatever complaint you want and mail it in and he would have to defend that, taking time and money.”
Turner suspects that Huckabee will not run for President in 2012. “He’s actually living the dream that he’s always had, starting on radio at fourteen and loving TV like he does,” she said. “If he runs, it would have to be a calling, and it couldn’t just come from supporters; he’d have to feel the Lord was calling him. I don’t feel like he has that urgency.”
Turner worked for Huckabee for sixteen years, starting as a volunteer when he was her minister at Beech Street First Baptist Church, in Texarkana, but did not stay on for his run at the Presidency. The reason, she told me, was that she was drained from a decade of defending him within the state. She attributes the antagonism to a kind of xenophobia. “This man didn’t come from a business background, he didn’t come from a law background, he was a pastor, and that was somehow mysterious,” Turner said. “My personal feeling is what we don’t understand we fear. And what we fear we seek to destroy.”
As governor of Arkansas, Huckabee successfully championed laws that prevented gay people from becoming foster parents and banned gay adoptions. “Children are not puppies—this is not a time to see if we can experiment and find out how does this work,” Huckabee told a student journalist at the College of New Jersey in April. “You don’t go ahead and accommodate every behavioral pattern that is against the ideal. That would be like saying, ‘Well, there are a lot of people who like to use drugs, so let’s go ahead and accommodate those who want to use drugs. There are some people who believe in incest, so we should accommodate them.’ ” These comments proved unpopular. On his Web site, Huckabee accused his interviewer of trying to “grossly distort” and “sensationalize my well known and hardly unusual views” about homosexuality. The student publication then posted the audiotape of the interview online. Huckabee had not been misquoted.
Huckabee does not like to be thought of as a homophobe. “I’ve had people who worked for me who are homosexuals,” he insists. “And I don’t walk around thinking, Oh, I pity them so much. I accept them as who they are! It’s not like somehow their sin is so much worse than mine.”
In a recent interview, Katie Couric told him that the Arkansas state representative Kathy Webb, a lesbian from Little Rock, had said, “Huckabee doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of tolerance and good will for gay people.” Huckabee seemed surprised. “It’s not personal,” he replied. “I could argue that people who want to change marriage are angry at me for wanting to keep it like it is!”
But Huckabee doesn’t just want to leave things the way they are; he wants to change the Constitution to specifically prohibit gay people from getting married. He has called homosexuality “sinful and unnatural” and is fond of amusing audiences with the witticism “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
One afternoon in Jerusalem, while Huckabee was eating a chocolate croissant in the lounge of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, I asked him to explain his rationale for opposing gay rights. “I do believe that God created male and female and intended for marriage to be the relationship of the two opposite sexes,” he said. “Male and female are biologically compatible to have a relationship. We can get into the ick factor, but the fact is two men in a relationship, two women in a relationship, biologically, that doesn’t work the same.”
I asked him if he had any arguments that didn’t have to do with God or ickiness. “There are some pretty startling studies that show if you want to end poverty it’s not education and race, it’s monogamous marriage,” he said. “Many studies show that children who grow up in a healthy environment where they have both a mother and a father figure have both a healthier outlook and a different perspective from kids who don’t have the presence of both.”
In fact, a twenty-five-year study recently published by the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that children brought up by lesbians were better adjusted than their peers. And, of course, nobody has been able to study how kids fare with married gay parents. “You know why?” Huckabee said. “Because no culture in the history of mankind has ever tried to redefine marriage.”
But in the Old Testament polygamy was commonplace. The early Christians considered marriage an arrangement for those without the self-discipline to live in chastity, as Christ did. Marriage was not deemed a sacrament by the Church until the twelfth century. And, before 1967, marriage was defined in much of the United States as a relationship between a man and a woman of the same race.
Regardless of the past, wouldn’t Huckabee be curious to know whether allowing gay people to marry had a positive or negative effect on children and society?
“No, not really. Why would I be?” he said, and laughed.
Because saying that something ought to be a certain way simply because that’s the way it supposedly has always been is an awful lot like saying “because we said so.” And Huckabee is supposed to be the guy who questions everything.
In February, the Huckabees bought a place in Miramar Beach, near Pensacola, and Huckabee changed his voter registration to Florida Republican. They still have a big house in North Little Rock, which they renovated after they left the Governor’s Mansion, but Florida has certain advantages: the taxes are lower than in Arkansas, and it’s easy to get to New York City. It could also be politically advantageous to have a bulkhead in the Sunshine State should Huckabee decide to run for President in 2012. Huckabee says, “The dogs like it there in the winter.”
Lucrative and enjoyable as his television career has proved, it remains to be seen whether life in the private sector will be sufficiently stimulating for Mike Huckabee. Janet Huckabee says that her husband is “a workaholic.” Huckabee’s sister, Pat Harris, told me, “He was always the everything kid: student council, every club—from junior high on, he just sort of stood out. Mr. Go-Getter. My dad always said, ‘Go and work the room,’ and Mike did. He had to be busy. And you know what? He hasn’t changed.”
“I don’t know how to relax,” Huckabee admitted one spring evening when he was having dinner with his wife at Rocky’s Diner, in a strip mall in North Little Rock.
“A cruise is best,” Janet, who was wearing a basketball jacket and eating jalapeño poppers, said.
The Huckabees have been married for thirty-six years. They went to school together in Hope, beginning in seventh grade. “We started dating at seventeen, got married at eighteen,” she said. “What were we thinking back then?”
“We weren’t!” Huckabee replied. “We weren’t thinking at all.”
“Our parents must not have been thinking, either.”
“If my kids had come to me and they were eighteen or nineteen and said we’re getting married, I’d have said you’re crazy,” he concluded.
A couple approached and asked to have their picture taken with the former governor. “I’m a huge fan!” said the man, who was wearing a trucker’s cap. “Did you run the marathon this year, Governor?”
“No,” Huckabee said, and sighed. “I wish I could. I love running marathons.”
“You don’t need to be doing that,” Janet said. “You can run three or four miles. That’s O.K. But you do not need to be training for a marathon.”
Huckabee shifted in the booth. “I’ve got to get back in good shape.”
“It’s stupid,” Janet said. And that was that.
Pat Harris said the worst thing that has happened in her brother’s life was that Janet Huckabee received a diagnosis of spinal cancer at nineteen, a year into their marriage. “They were so poor,” Harris said. “He was in college. She’d quit college and was working in a dental office. They really didn’t think she’d probably live, they were sure she wouldn’t walk.” Janet is now the mother of three grown children, two of whom work for their father. In her kitchen is a watercolor painting of a house surrounded by trees, with the words “To Janet Huckabee, 1995 full-time homemaker of the year, presented by the Eagle Forum and Phyllis Schlafly.”
“I think we both went into it understanding it was for life,” Huckabee said of his marriage. “I’ve always said, If you believe divorce is an option, you’ll take it.”
“Honey, our little girl surprised me today,” Pat Boone said into the microphone one night at dinner at the David Citadel Hotel, in Jerusalem. He was doing a sort of soliloquy to music in the middle of his song “Thanks for Just Being You.” “She said, ‘Daddy, I know I’m gonna grow up to be a wife and a mommy some day.’ She said, ‘I know what a mommy is, but what’s a wife, really?’ ” And Boone explained: “A wife is the one that feeds and waters and cleans up after that family pet she didn’t want.” There was a wave of knowing murmurs from the believers. “A patient soul that picks up my dirty socks and underwear and handkerchiefs and washes them and puts them back in the drawer so she can do the whole thing again, next week. . . . A good wife is simply a gift from God.”
After the song, Randy Rebold, who is from Knoxville, Tennessee, where he runs a company that organizes school assemblies aimed at building character, told some other members of the group, “It’s like tag. Someone’s got to be It. I’m here to find out if it’s Huckabee. And I think it might be.”
Mike Huckabee will always be too weird for the Old Guard of his party. But the Party is a fractured and dispersed association at this point. No clear Republican front-runner has emerged for the next Presidential race.Palin quit her only substantive job in government and has not hired establishment players to reshape her as a more mainstream candidate; even less Presidentially, she is going to be the star of a reality television show. Mitt Romney, who won the straw poll at the Southern Republican Leadership conference, in April, is regarded by some Republicans as a flip-flopper, and his Mormonism is a liability. Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, has the powerful support of Rush Limbaugh, but he is only halfway through his first term and, assuming he wins reëlection in 2011, would have to abandon office almost immediately to start campaigning for President. Haley Barbour has the potential to consolidate establishment support, but it’s still not clear that he intends to run. Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota, announced that he will not run for reëlection, which has been interpreted to mean that he has his eyes on the Presidency, but he is seen by some in his party as too liberal.
Steve Schmidt told me, “Really, there’s three primaries within the Republican primary. There’s the primary that’s the evangelical wing of the Party, there’s the establishment primary, and there’s usually a maverick of an insurgent category. Whoever occupies two out of the three is the nominee.” It would not take a packaging genius to put Huckabee out as an evangelical insurgent. The next election will cost billions of dollars, and Huckabee is not much of a traditional fund-raiser. But raising money for the primaries in 2012 could have as much to do with getting people to click a button on their BlackBerry to contribute ten dollars as it does with working the corporate Washington cocktail circuit.
Onstage at the David Citadel, the band, amateur musicians who worked for the Fox bureau in Jerusalem, hacked their way through classic-rock standards, and Huckabee got up to play bass, something he can never resist doing. At a 2004 event at the Clinton Library, in Little Rock, attended by Bono and the Edge, from U2, he told the crowd that his real dream had always been to be a rock star. I asked him how he reconciled his love of the devil’s music with his religious and political convictions. He smiled and said, “I think that there’s some obvious conflict in me.” ♦