Nation & World

Profile: Huckabee, a self-help politician, presents a contradicton in terms

Editor's note: With the Iowa caucus set to kick off the primary election season Jan. 3, the Telegraph will present profiles of the major presidential candidates. New profiles will appear each day through Jan. 3.

Mike Huckabee would later write about that day in 1996 as his "crucible moment."

Jim Guy Tucker, the Democratic governor of Arkansas and a newly convicted felon, was reneging on his earlier pledge to resign. His I'm-staying-after-all phone call came as Huckabee, a Republican and then lieutenant governor, was rehearsing the speech he planned for later that day, when he expected to become the state's chief executive.

What followed was a brief constitutional crisis in Little Rock. Huckabee teamed with Democrats to confront Tucker in a daylong showdown. It made him a momentary hero for taking a firm position — that it was time for Tucker to go — and won the new governor praise for his relative grace in awkward circumstances.

"Some of us want to be bitter," Huckabee would say after finally being sworn in. "I don't know what could be gained. What's done is done."

The next year, though, he would author a slender book trumpeting his character that day. It would be the first of four books he'd write as governor, drawing on his religious faith and personal history to dispense advice. He published a fifth this year to kick off his presidential run.

So emerged the self-help politician.

"Leaders never ask others what they're unwilling to do themselves," he said in an interview.

Never shy about his background as a Baptist minister, Huckabee regularly promoted conservative social issues even as he dueled regularly with the state's ethics commission about his habit of accepting lavish gifts. Strongly pro-gun, he boasted that he was the first governor to have a concealed carry permit. His wife, Janet, has one, too.

The facts don't add up into a neat political archetype. Rather, Huckabee's record is that of an openly religious man who periodically injects his faith into politics and of a conservative Republican who's willing at times to make government bigger.

He beefed up Arkansas' pre-kindergarten education and insisted on arts education. He repaved the state's highways and greatly expanded health insurance for Arkansas children. With nearly every big issue, he lobbied for tax increases to pay the way, though he cut smaller taxes, too. Now that he's running for president, Huckabee has taken a no-new-taxes pledge.

Self-transformed from flabby to trim marathon man, he doses his diet advice with the Gospel. In most everything, in fact, his Christianity lies not far beneath the surface.

Michael Dale Huckabee was born Aug. 24, 1955, in Hope, Ark., the son of a firefighter/mechanic and a teacher. His was a humble upbringing, but he thrived. He was largely self-taught on guitar and, despite the Baptist stereotypes, would play bass with various garage-rock bands. Caldwell describes Huckabee as someone who emerged fully formed in high school with clear ambition, deep faith and a work ethic that would forever put peers to shame. The two bunked together at Ouachita Baptist University, where Huckabee graduated magna cum laude in barely more than two years while holding down a full-time job at KBRC radio station in Arkadelphia and delivering sermons every Sunday morning and Wednesday night.

Next came Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Soon Huckabee was pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Pine Bluff, where he founded a broadcast television station that carried his church services, local football games and a public affairs show that he hosted.

By 1989, he was president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, and in 1992 he ran for the U.S. Senate against Dale Bumpers. The race was all uphill. The preacher was taking on a popular Democrat in a Democratic state when turnout for Bill Clinton's presidential race was sure to doom Republicans.

Huckabee over-reached. He ran campaign ads comparing Bumpers to pornographers for his support of the National Endowment for the Arts. But voters knew Bumpers, a longtime Methodist Sunday school teacher, too well, and the tactic backfired. Bumpers won easily.

Clinton's departure to the White House set political dominoes tumbling through Arkansas, and Huckabee went straight to running for lieutenant governor. He won narrowly, was re-elected and by 1996 seemed headed to an unlikely — for a Republican in Arkansas — election to an open U.S. Senate seat.

Then came Tucker's conviction in the Whitewater scandal that dogged the Clintons. Huckabee dumped his Senate campaign and moved into the governor's mansion. Through most of his decade in office he got along well with what was the most lopsidedly Democratic legislature in the country.

But ethics charges hounded him.

He fought the state's ethics commission over gifts that were showered on him. In one year, he took in $110,000 worth of items, including $23,000 in clothing and other items from a state appointee. When the state changed its law to make reporting more specific, it turned out that the "fishing equipment" loaned to him was a bass boat worth more than $20,000.

"If you compared the list of people who were giving him gifts and the list of people who were getting appointed," said Arkansas Ethics Commission Director Graham Sloan, "there was a pretty good overlap."

When Huckabee was diagnosed with Type II diabetes in 2003, he went on a strict diet and shed more than 100 pounds.

The weight loss gives a narrative to Huckabee's campaign. The storyline suggests a man willing to recognize the errors of his ways (bad eating habits), change (dropping 100-plus pounds) and exhibit the implied lessons of personal responsibility.

"When he makes up his mind to do something," said Charles Barg, Huckabee's primary physician in Little Rock for many years, "he's going to get it done."

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