"We just can't have a president named Huckabee. You just can't," my brightest student proclaimed last week. "What are those people thinking," she said, giggling. They aren't, I started to tell her, and then I remembered another moment, and another girl, in a graduate class more than 30 years ago.
"The American people are not going to elect a peanut farmer named Jimmy who sounds like he should be on Hee-Haw," that one had said.
They did elect the peanut farmer, as you may remember. And now, out of the blue and the endless dreary "debates," a guy nobody ever heard of six months ago named Huckabee has suddenly surged to the top of the GOP pack.
Who is Mike Huckabee? He is a 52-year-old Christian fundamentalist Southern Baptist preacher who ... plays bass guitar in a rock 'n' roll band and idolizes Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. (He said one of the highlights of being governor of Arkansas was pardoning Richards for a 30-year-old reckless driving conviction.) He grew up in — no, I didn't make this up — Hope, the same tiny Arkansas town Bill Clinton came from. Like Bill Clinton, he was poor.
Unlike Clinton, he was no Rhodes scholar, going instead to Ouachita Baptist University, getting married at 18. He does not seem to have had an eye for other women, though he certainly did for food. (His son once said he couldn't walk into Taco Bell without spending more than $7. But when the doctors told him he had diabetes four years ago, he lost 110 pounds, lickety-split.)
Later, he lived for a while in a trailer (he called it a "triple-wide") on the grounds of the Arkansas governor's mansion, while it was being renovated. (This is, by the way, why journalists mostly don't think about writing novels. Real life is far, far stranger. Hard as you try, you just can't make this stuff up.)
Like most human beings, Michael Dale Huckabee is a bundle of contradictions, which seems to add to his appeal. When it comes to science, he is about as backward as William Jennings Bryan was during the Scopes trial. He doesn't believe in evolution, and thinks the earth may be only 6,000 years old. He opposes all abortion, and has angrily denied that man is a primate. But he also clearly and sincerely cares about the poor.
He raised taxes in Arkansas, again and again, to try and do something for the least advantaged. He raised taxes to build new roads and to try to provide some better services. Huckabee fought to put all of Arkansas' share of the tobacco settlement money into the state's health care system. (Compare that to the worthless scuts in the Michigan Legislature, who sold our share off in May at less than 50 cents on the dollar to avoid having to balance the budget.)
Huckabee even seems to think we need some form of national health care and can be very eloquent at denouncing those right-to-lifers who aren't interested in doing anything to help the babies they force to be born.
In other words, he really is an old-fashioned Southern populist, one who has been successful at persuading people he cares about their problems ... because he actually does. Interestingly, he seems to be doing far better at this than John Edwards, who was just as poor as a child, but went on to become a millionaire lawyer, now seen as a man who gets $400 haircuts.
Does that mean Mike Huckabee will be the next president? Not at all. I am not even convinced he is going to be the Republican nominee for a number of reasons. He still does not have the kind of money Mitt Romney has. Corporate interests are scared to death that he really does want to do something for the poor and disadvantaged. They'll spend a lot to stop him.
Also, flash-in-the pan, come-from-nowhere candidates like Huckabee can sometimes do well in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, but seldom have the money — or the slates of delegates — needed to compete in all the many early primary states. Remember, this whole thing may well be decided on Feb. 5, when 20 or so states all vote in what's being called "Super-Duper Tuesday."
Plus, the press is still in their early, first-crush over Mike Huckabee stage. What will follow quickly is some more intense scrutiny.
Reporters in Arkansas say the Huckabee family was notorious for chasing down every loose buck they could, often in blissful disregard of any ethical niceties. (When he and his wife Janet renewed their wedding vows, they set up "Bridal registries" at stores like Target so people could shower them with presents. They also apparently encouraged "gift cards" to be given as well.)
He seems to have somewhat of a thin skin, and is, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone reports, a real religious nut. But after spending some time with him, Taibbi concluded, "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" that he is a whack job.
In other words, Huckabee seems to be a member of that endangered species in politics: a real person. If you want to know why he may well have a chance, take a look at the candidate who should logically be the Republican nominee, former Massachusetts Governor — and Detroit native — Mitt Romney. He is far more handsome than Huckabee. He speaks very well, is enormously intelligent, has a picture-perfect family . . . and comes across as an utter robot.
I interviewed him in April, and have seldom spoken to a more calculating machine. The one sincere note that comes across when you talk to Romney is that he really does think he is better than anyone else, period. Just take a look at the interview he gave The Detroit News' Gordon Trowbridge, published online Sunday. Romney was asked about the fact that Huckabee has soared ahead of him in Iowa.
That's not to be taken seriously, the bionic man said. "With the challenges we face, you need somebody who is smart, analytical," he said. "I'm able to take tough issues and analyze them. I like debate, argument, consideration of options. You need to have a deliberative, thoughtful approach."
Romney's supporters have been worried that the public won't accept a Mormon. Their real problem may be, to put it in Star Trek terms, that he is a Vulcan, incapable of human emotion.
This is a guy, after all, who put his Irish Setter Seamus in a cage on top of the family car for a 12-hour drive from Boston to Ontario, and then was amazed to discover the terrified dog's excrement flowing down the windows. His reaction to what was clearly animal torture?
He hosed off the car. Yes, Romney is proudly into emotion-free crisis management. Yet this is an emotion-laden world, in which not everybody can make $250 million as a venture capitalist.
Frankly, if I were Hillary Clinton, I would be much more worried about running against Mike Huckabee. The venture capitalists of America don't get that, but a lot of other people do, which is why this could be an even more interesting race than we imagined.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org