There was something very refreshing about Mike Huckabee in the 2008 presidential campaign. He was unpretentious, telling a charming story about how, as governor, he kept on his office wall a picture of some random Arkansan--maybe a gas station attendant, maybe a clerk; the photo changed every month--with the words “Our Boss” underneath. He seemed to mean it, and that was kind of irritating for the GOP establishment, which hadn’t created Huckabee, wasn’t sure it could control him, and sure didn’t want him to get the Republican nomination for president. The GOP and their friends in talk radio like to make fun of President Obama for talking about “hope" and “change,” but Huckabee, too, talked about hope and reconciliation as he ran for office in 2008. Iowa voters rewarded both men for the civil talk, as Obama and Huckabee won their respective caucuses in the state.
How disappointing, then, to hear Huckabee get on the xenophobe appeasement bus. On Monday, during an appearance on the Steve Malzberg Show, Huckabee wrongly claimed that Obama grew up in Kenya, and suggested it gave Obama some anti-British view of the world. Huckabee’s explanation was that he “misspoke,” but that seems unlikely, since he referenced the British in his comments (the British did not colonize Indonesia, where Obama spent part of his youth).
And on Wednesday, Huckabee dug himself in deeper, telling American Family Radio that Obama has “a different worldview” because his childhood was “molded out of a very different experience.” He added:
Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary Clubs, not madrassas.
Obama, of course, is Christian and did not attend a madrassa--not that it would matter if he had. And it’s likely that spending part of his childhood overseas indeed gave Obama a different worldview; spending extended time abroad tends to expand one’s understanding of the world and its cultures, and diminishes prejudice.
But this isn’t even about understanding basic geography. It’s about painting Obama as an “Other,” about manufacturing proof that Obama can’t possibly really be our president, since he’s not really one of us.
We’ve come to expect this from the misinformed and the hateful. But what happened to the Mike Huckabee of 2008? Huckabee back then abandoned traditional party notions of enemy, being the only Republican candidate with the guts to show up at a National Education Association convention in Philadelphia. Huckabee spoke movingly about how important art and music education was, how it helps with spatial ability and math, how his parents paid off his JCPenney catalogue guitar over the course of a year, and how he played it until his fingers bled. He was in front of a group normally associated with Democratic endorsements, and he got four standing ovations. Huckabee is a deeply religious man, and holds some predictably conservative views on abortion and other social issues, but there was no judgmentalism to his tone. He’d been a preacher, he explained to me during the campaign. He knew he himself fell short in the eyes of God, so how could he not accept shortcomings in others?
Huckabee’s folksiness, his humor, and his utter lack of pretention was such a welcome change in 2008 from the wedge politics of the modern era. What a shame he is moving in the other direction.