The dark side of Mike Huckabee
The national media seems to have a crush on our ex-governor, but here in Arkansas, we know better.
By Max Brantley
Pages 1 2
Nov. 13, 2007 LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- The Pony Express has reached us here in the Arkansas backwoods with the latest journals from the big cities. So the country correspondents have taken a break from hand-setting lines of type to read the Beltway boys and girls rave about our former governor, Mike Huckabee.
"Easy to like," wrote Newsweek's Jonathan Alter. "Who Doesn't Heart Huckabee?" said the headline over Gail Collins' column in the New York Times. And those are restrained commentators. If you Google the names Ronald Reagan and Mike Huckabee in tandem, I understand you get better than 600,000 hits.
OK. I exaggerate. I have a phone and a computer (and it's 208,000 hits). But you'd think from national press comments that our friendly state is unreachable by phone or Internet. Do national commentators do homework? Or is a smiling, shoe-shining parson all it takes to generate such fluff?
Come to Arkansas. You'll have to look hard to find a long-term political analyst who'd subscribe fully to the national media narrative about the latest man from Hope -- fresh face, funny, nice.
Mike Huckabee is fresh to you, maybe. Funny? If barnyard humor is your shtick of choice. Nice? Well, he did do some good things in his 10 years as governor, but ... read on.
Before we begin, though, a word of warning to any reporters who might want to repeat, on air or in print, any of the facts recounted below. Huckabee does not take kindly to journalists who practice journalism.
Even editorialists and columnists at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the state's dominant (and Republican-friendly) daily paper, use words like "petty" and "thin-skinned" to describe Huckabee. Then again, he's compared hard-hitting (and accurate) news reporters for the Democrat-Gazette to the press fabulists Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke. He called liberal columnist John Brummett of Stephens Media "constipated" when that early admirer commenced some gentle criticism. His administration paid $15,000 to settle a suit filed by Roby Brock, the host of a public TV news show whom Huckabee's people tried to force off the air for his critical commentary.
Then there's me. I'm the editor of an alternative weekly, but I began covering Huckabee when I was a columnist for the now-defunct daily Arkansas Gazette in 1991, and Mike and I have been on the outs pretty much ever since. He once called me and the Memphis Commercial Appeal bureau chief "junkyard journalists" for our reporting. He also compared me, in print, to serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and, I've been told on good authority, has wished aloud for my early and violent demise.
It all began 16 years ago for Mike and me. Huckabee, in his political debut, was preparing to become the Bible-thumping, abortion-decrying Republican challenger to U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers, the Democratic incumbent. With a playbook straight out of James Dobson, he tried to portray Bumpers as a pornographer for his support of federal grants to the arts.
More important, Huckabee revealed an enduring weakness as glaring as that other Arkansas governor's fondness for women. Huckabee seems to love loot and has a dismissive attitude toward ethics, campaign finance rules and propriety in general. Since that first, failed campaign, the ethical questions have multiplied.
In the 1992 contest with Bumpers, Huckabee used campaign funds to pay himself as his own media consultant. Other payments went to the family babysitter.
In his successful 1994 run for lieutenant governor, he set up a nonprofit curtain known as Action America so he could give speeches for money without having to disclose the names of his benefactors. He failed to report that campaign travel payments were for the use of his own personal plane.
After he became governor in 1996, he raked in tens of thousands of dollars in gifts, including gifts from people he later appointed to prestigious state commissions.
In the governor's office, his grasp never exceeded his reach. Furniture he'd received to doll up his office was carted out with him when he left, after he'd crushed computer hard drives so nobody could ever get a peek behind the curtain of the Huckabee administration.
Until my paper, the Arkansas Times, blew the whistle, he converted a governor's mansion operating account into a personal expense account, claiming public money for a doghouse, dry-cleaning bills, panty hose and meals at Taco Bell.
He tried to claim $70,000 in furnishings provided by a wealthy cotton grower for the private part of the residence as his own, until he learned ethics rules prevented it. When a disgruntled former employee disclosed memos revealing all this, the Huckabee camp shut her up by repeatedly suggesting she might be vulnerable to prosecution for theft because she'd shared documents generated by the state's highest official.
He ran the State Police airplane into the ground, many of the miles in pursuit of political ends. Inauguration funds were used to buy clothing for his wife. He once took control of the state Republican Party's campaign account -- then swore the account had been somebody else's responsibility when it ran afoul of federal election laws. He repeated the pattern when he claimed in a newspaper story that his staff controlled the account to stage his second inauguration.
When I filed a formal ethics complaint over what appeared to be an improper appropriation of donated money, he told a different story, disavowing responsibility for the money. He thus avoided another punishment from an Ethics Commission, which had sanctioned him on five other occasions. He dodged nine other complaints (though none, despite his counter-complaints, was held to be frivolous). In one case, he was saved by the swing vote of a woman who left the chairmanship of the Ethics Commission days later to take a state job. She listed the governor as a reference on the job application. Finally, unbelievably, Huckabee once sued to overturn the ban on gifts to him.
My newspaper chronicled all this and so much more. Since my paper wrote critically about him, I didn't often experience the "nice" Mike Huckabee that so many national commentators have enjoyed. In fact, ultimately Huckabee ended press services, which are publicly financed, to my newspaper. The Arkansas Times received no news releases from the governor's office, no notices of news conferences, no responses to routine questions. He was condemned for this by journalism organizations.
Truth is, we were happy to be thrown into the governor's briar patch. The world is full of disaffected Huckabee campaign workers, former employees and garden-variety Republicans who love to pass on tips about a governor they'd found self-centered and untrustworthy. If you think he left a well of warm feelings in Arkansas, note that Hillary Clinton had raised more money in Arkansas at last report and that a recent University of Arkansas Poll showed her a 35 to 8 percent leader over Huckabee in the presidential preferences of Arkansas residents.
Only one-third of 33 Republican legislators have said they will support him for president.
Thanks to such unhappy people, we've broken numerous stories about Huckabee, from the first early word of his destruction of state computer hard drives (more fully reported by the Democrat-Gazette); to the time and place of his announcement for president; to his sale and purchase of homes; to his infamous "wedding registry." About the last: Three decades after the Huckabees' wedding, his wife registered at department stores so their new home, post-governor's mansion, could be stocked with gifts of linens, toasters and other suitable furnishings.
In early 2007, our reporting also prompted the former first lady to decline dozens of place settings of governor's mansion china and Irish crystal that had been purchased with tax-deductible contributions to the Governor's Mansion Association, nominally set up to improve the mansion, not to buy going-away presents for former occupants. (Huckabee's governorship ended on Jan. 9, 2007.)