Mike Huckabee, the latest It girl of the Republican presidential race, tells a hell of a story. Let your guard down anywhere near the former Arkansas governor and he'll pod you, Body Snatchers-style — you'll wake up drooling, your brain gone, riding a back seat on the bandwagon that suddenly has him charging toward the lead in the GOP race.
It almost happened to me a few months ago at a fund-raiser in Great Falls, Virginia. I'd come to get my first up-close glimpse of the man Arkansans call Huck, about whom I knew very little — beyond the fact that he was far behind in the polls and was said to be very religious. In an impromptu address to a small crowd, Huckabee muttered some stay-the-course nonsense about Iraq and then, when he was finished, sought me out, apparently having been briefed beforehand that Rolling Stone was in the house.
"I'm glad you're here," he told me. "I finally get to tell someone who cares about Keith Richards."
Before I could respond, Huckabee plowed into a long and very entertaining story — one that included a surprisingly dead-on Pirates of the Caribbean-esque impersonation — about how Richards and Ron Wood got pulled over for reckless driving while on tour in Fordyce, Arkansas, a million and a half years ago, in 1975. Richards ended up getting a misdemeanor conviction — an injustice that stood for thirty-one years, until Huckabee, a would-be rock musician himself, stepped in and pardoned Richards last year.
"It's a long process, pardoning," Huckabee said, placing a hand on my shoulder. "It takes a lot of paperwork. And the funny thing is, people said to me afterwards, 'Governor, you'll do that for Keith Richards, but you wouldn't do that for an ordinary person.' And my answer to that is always, 'Hey, if you can play guitar like Keith Richards, I'll consider pardoning you, too.'"
Huckabee, who in recent years has lost 100 pounds, has the roundish, half-deflated physique of an ex-fatty. With his button nose and never-waning smile, he looks slightly unreal, like an oversize Muppet. I was so taken aback by his appearance that I checked his hands to make sure they had the right number of fingers. After the Richards tale, he went on to tell me about the band he plays bass for, and how he has jammed with the likes of Percy Sledge and Grand Funk Railroad, and how he prefers John Entwistle to Flea's slap-and-pop style of bass-playing. Ten minutes later, driving away from the fund-raiser, I caught myself thinking: Hey, this guy doesn't seem like a total dickhead. I can almost see him as president....
Then I woke up and did some homework that changed my mind. But I confess: It took a little while. Huckabee is that good.
Ever since Huckabee turned in a dominating performance at a summit of Christian voters in Washington a few weeks ago, he has been riding a surge among likely Iowa voters (he's now second to Mitt Romney, and gaining). The media, like me, have been charmed by their initial impression: "It's hard not to like Mike Huckabee," gushed Newsweek. Even The Nation said he has "real charm."
But all the attention on his salesmanship skills obscures the real significance of his rise within the Republican Party. Mike Huckabee represents something that is either tremendously encouraging or deeply disturbing, depending on your point of view: a marriage of Christian fundamentalism with economic populism. Rather than employing the patented Bush-Rove tactic of using abortion and gay rights to hoodwink low-income Christians into supporting patrician, pro-corporate policies, Huckabee is a bigger-government Republican who emphasizes prison reform and poverty relief. In the world of GOP politics, he represents something entirely new — a cross between John Edwards and Jerry Falwell, an ordained Southern Baptist preacher who actually seems to give a shit about the working poor.
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