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.
"But Huckabee is also something else: full-blown nuts, a Christian goofball of the highest order. He believes the Earth may be only 6,000 years old, angrily rejects the evidence that human beings evolved from "primates" and thinks America wouldn't need so much Mexican labor if we allowed every aborted fetus to grow up and enter the workforce. To top it off, Huckabee also left behind a record of ethical missteps in the swamp of Arkansas politics that make Whitewater seem like a jaywalking ticket.
All of which begs the question: If this religious zealot's rise represents the end of corporate dominance of the Republican Party, is that a good thing? Or is the real thing even worse than the fraud?
On October 30th, fresh off new polls showing him gaining ground all over the country, Huckabee holds an informal round-table luncheon with reporters at a posh restaurant on the Hill called the Monocle. This is the aristocrat political press, the esteemed Washington bureau reps of the big dailies and the newsweeklies, all white and mostly all in suits and silk ties. It's something of a coming-out party for Huckabee, who has put this thing together to give the Beltway big dogs a sniff of his surging newcomer ass.
The luncheon starts out friendly, with reporters tossing Huck softballs about his newfound momentum and his suddenly beefed-up war chest. But once they run out of bullshit horse-race questions, they start in on him about his credentials as a right-winger. One reporter asks how his support of the "fair tax" (an alternative to the flat tax that some conservatives believe is skewed in favor of low-income Americans) qualifies as conservative; two others badger him about raising taxes to build roads in Arkansas; and a third, remarkably, asks Huckabee if it's proper for a conservative to even talk about poverty on the campaign trail.
What the press doesn't understand is that Huckabee has changed the equation of party-specific orthodoxies. A generation of GOP candidates have used the poor as a whipping-post stage prop, complaining about lazy, frantically copulating homeless fiends living in cars, fucking up the property values of Decent Folk. Huck turns that rhetoric around by saying, "We shouldn't allow a child to live under a bridge or in the back seat of a car." It's a brilliant innovation for a candidate like Huckabee, who recognizes that the only thing he has to lose by talking about poverty and high CEO salaries is the support of the big-money wing of his party — something he doesn't have anyway.
Choosing that strategy also allows Huckabee to do what no evangelical since Jimmy Carter has, which is talk about his faith in terms of sympathy for the underprivileged. "You can't just say 'respect life' exclusively in the gestation period," he says. Huckabee also edges openly into class politics, criticizing his own party for harping on the supposed success of the overall economy. "The reality is, there are many families that really are working as hard or harder than they've ever worked in their lives, and they're not seeing that pay off," he says.
For Huckabee, such lines aren't just lip service. As governor of Arkansas, he outraged Republicans with his plan to expand health coverage for children, his embrace of refugees from Katrina and his support for subsidized higher education for the children of illegal immigrants. Worse still, from a Republican standpoint, Huckabee showed little hesitation in raising taxes to pay for such programs — one analysis claims that new taxes initiated during his tenure resulted in a net tax increase of $505 million. Even Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times and one of Huckabee's most ferocious critics, concedes that the candidate's populism isn't an act. "I don't question his sincerity on that," he says of Huckabee, who, like Bill Clinton, grew up in modest circumstances. "He identifies with ordinary people."
Patrician conservatives of the Bush school are alarmed by Huckabee's challenge to traditional Republican thinking. "His record is really one of expanding government and raising taxes," says Pat Toomey, president of the influential Club for Growth. Adds conservative pollster Frank Luntz, "Huckabee has an anti-CEO message that resonates with small-business conservatives. He's the only Republican who regularly talks about Wall Street accountability."
While a few Republicans have played with populist rhetoric in the past — Pat Buchanan comes to mind — it's been ages since conservative voters had any viable alternatives to the soak-the-poor elitism of Newt Gingrich and George Bush. But that may be changing. Huckabee's current surge on the national scene mirrors the rise during the 2006 midterm elections of so-called "Blue Dog" Democrats — candidates like Indiana's Brad Ellsworth and North Carolina's Heath Shuler who helped unseat the Republican majority in Congress with a mix of populist economics and religious dogma. "Huckabee's exactly like the Blue Dogs," says Brantley. "They have the same message."
Coupled with his apparent gift for wooing the star-fucking national media class, Huckabee's seizure of political territory long claimed by the corporate right is what makes him so dangerous. Because for all his political waffling in other areas — Huckabee has flip-flopped on a host of earthly political issues, from taxes to local control of school boards — he leaves absolutely no doubt about his commitment to religious wackohood.
George Bush and John Ashcroft were religious in a scary way, but the rational among us could always take heart that, deep down, the Bush administration was more cynical than messianic. But it doesn't take much exposure to Huckabee to see that this former understudy of a Texas televangelist is deadly serious about the God thing. On the trail, Huckabee is most animated when he's talking about religious issues. In the first Republican debate in New Hampshire, Huckabee, apparently unaware that human beings are primates, responded to a question about evolution by saying, "If anybody wants to believe that they are the descendants of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it."
Huckabee gave an even more damning glimpse into his inner batshit self in a recent appearance at the Prestonwood Baptist Church near Dallas, where he told audiences that Christians are sitting in the pole position of the race to Armageddon. "If you're with Jesus Christ, we know how it turns out in the final moment," he said. "I've read the last chapter in the book, and we do end up winning."
Winning? I ask Huckabee when, exactly, he thinks victory will arrive. "When I was eighteen, I thought I had it pretty well figured out," he says. "I thought the end of the world was coming at any moment." But when I ask how his views have changed, he says only that he is "less adamant now." Huckabee, with the wisdom of age, apparently believes we have at least a day or two left until the end of the world.
The troubling thing about Huckabee's God rhetoric is that a man who is glad that Christians will "win" at Armageddon must be happy about the rest of us losing. When I press him on whether he believes all non-Christians are eternally damned, Huckabee is evasive. "Being president isn't about picking who goes to heaven and who goes to hell," he says. When none other than Bill O'Reilly hammered him on the same point a day later, Huckabee conceded that "I believe Jesus is the way to heaven."
This God stuff isn't just talk with Huck. One of his first acts as governor was to block Medicaid from funding an abortion for a mentally retarded teenager who had been raped by her stepfather — an act in direct violation of federal law, which requires states to pay for abortions in cases of rape. "The state didn't fund a single such abortion while Huckabee was governor," says Dr. William Harrison of the Fayetteville Women's Clinic. "Zero."
As president, Huck would support a constitutional amendment banning abortion and would give science a back seat to religion. "Science changes with every generation and with new discoveries, and God doesn't," he says. "So I'll stick with God if the two are in conflict." Huckabee's well-documented disdain for science was reflected in the performance of the Arkansas school system when he was governor; one independent survey gave the state an F for its science standards in schools, a grade that among other things reflected Huckabee's hostility toward the teaching of evolution.
Huckabee at most times is gentle and self-deprecating in his public address, but when he talks about religion, he gets weirdly combative and obnoxious, often drifting into outright offensiveness. At one appearance, Huckabee — who's been known to make fart jokes in front of the state legislature — said he would oppose gay marriage "until Moses comes down with two stone tablets from Brokeback Mountain saying he's changed the rules." And he recently scored a rare offend trifecta, simultaneously pissing off immigrants, Jews and the pro-choice crowd when he ludicrously claimed that a "holocaust" of abortions had artificially created a demand for Mexican labor.
Huckabee also has a televangelist's knack for getting caught with his fingers in various cookie jars. In his first year as governor, Huck used a $60,000 taxpayer fund for personal expenses like dog food, pantyhose and meals at Taco Bell. (One of his sons — also a very heavy man, as his father was — reportedly joked that "there's not a Huckabee alive that can eat at Taco Bell for seven dollars.") The governor also tried to keep $70,000 in furnishings for the governor's mansion supplied by a local cotton grower, and used inaugural funds to pay for clothes for his wife. "Mike is first and foremost about Mike," says Brantley. "He'll nickel-and-dime whoever he can to line his pockets."
Huckabee has also been accused of paying himself as a consultant to his own senatorial campaign, allowing special interests to pay for airline tickets for his daughter, receiving a canoe from a Coke bottler and — hilariously, if you're wont to laugh at the sheer small-town gauche greediness of it all — setting up a "wedding registry" at Target and Dillard's department stores so citizens could lavish the Huckabees with gifts as they renewed their marriage vows. The long list of desired goodies included twenty-four settings of Lenox "Holiday Nouveau" china, a KitchenAid mixer and a "Jack La Lanne power juicer." If you didn't want to pick out something yourself, the Huckabees were glad to take straight cash. "Message from the couple," the registry noted. "Target GiftCards are welcome."
Brantley suggests that a lot of this behavior stems from a Southern tradition of ponying up to the local preacher. "If you're the pastor of a church and you've got a guy who owns a men's clothing store, you expect the guy to give you a couple of new suits every year," says Brantley. "But Huckabee continued on like that as governor."
The Arkansans I spoke with about Huckabee invariably describe him as thin-skinned and petty. One evangelical Arkansas Republican who has worked in several GOP campaigns says a family member provided free services to Huckabee just as he had for other preachers, believing that he was helping out someone who was "doing the Lord's work." But the extent of Huckabee's gift-gouging, the man says, was unprecedented: "It's never been understood that that's what you do for politicians."
So far, Huckabee's greedy past hasn't prevented him from surging in the polls. Unlike the rest of the woefully underwhelming field of Republican candidates, Huckabee is a sincere, ideologically in-tune champion of a massive and frustrated conservative demographic. The fact that he is succeeding in spite of his obvious and undisguised lunacy is a testament to the desperation of the voting public, which is so hungry for a candidate who actually responds to its needs that it may be willing to overlook extraordinary levels of kookiness. That might also explain the stubbornly high levels of support for Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, who, though comparatively saner than Huckabee, have still been cast as the nutty uncles of the campaign's interminable family drama.
Make no mistake, Huckabee can win this thing. None of his four main rivals — Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and John McCain — can claim to represent the Christian right. His biggest problem is money: Apart from a few prominent bundlers culled from the ranks of Arkansas-based Wal-Mart, Huck has largely been ignored by the big-money players in his own party. But even here he is steadily gaining: After raising $6,000 a day in the first quarter, he is now racking up $30,000 a day, much of it from small donors. That money could enable Huckabee to compete hard in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, where his relentless God-humping figures to score big at the polls. "We've got to do well in the early primaries," he says. "If we do, there'll be a total upheaval of the process."
When Huckabee talks like this, he sounds like what he is — the Howard Dean of the Republican Party, an insurgent candidate who shot toward the top by appealing to a disaffected base. But Dean, who ended up stumbling out of Iowa with his balls stuffed in his mouth, learned the hard way that populist campaigns have a way of imploding under the glare of the modern campaign process. Which means: Charm only goes so far if you're full-bore nuts. Huckabee may be able to get away with saying he's not a primate, but he'd better not scream it.