Fire in the Belly
Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Dedicated to Fighting Obesity, Could Have a Meaty Opportunity Ahead

By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 17, 2006


He was born in Hope, has been governor of Arkansas for 10 years and is thinking about running for president.

So, yes, Mike Huckabee has much in common with Bill Clinton. He's also struggled to control his appetites over the years. And if he runs for president, these appetites, like Clinton's, will be a defining theme of his campaign, just as they will if he ever sits in the Oval Office.

Huckabee's problem appetites are for food. Clinton loved to eat, too, but not like Huckabee. Food is the prevailing demon of his life.

"I'm a foodaholic," Huckabee declares in the living room of the governor's mansion. He is doe-eyed, speaks quietly, sounds vulnerable -- Richard Simmons would hug him if he were here, God forbid.

Clarification: Huckabee, 50, is a "recovering foodaholic." The mirthful governor, a Southern Baptist preacher and conservative Republican, has lost 120 pounds in the past two years. He resisted corn dogs, drumsticks and other staples of the Southern-fried political buffet. At his peak he hauled about 300 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame -- "about," he says, because his scale went up to only 280. In one embarrassing episode, Huckabee sat down for a Cabinet meeting at the state capitol and demolished a 100-year-old chair.

He's been a fat guy for the bulk of his career in public office, starting when he was elected lieutenant governor in 1993 and continuing into the governor's office, which Huckabee inherited three years later after then-Gov. Jim Guy Tucker resigned following his conviction in the Whitewater case. After failing at numerous diets, Huckabee broke through in 2003 when his doctor diagnosed him with Type 2 diabetes and said he'd be dead in 10 years if he didn't change his eating habits (prodigious) and exercise regimen (nonexistent).

While the country hardly lacks weight loss idols and fitness cheerleaders, none has attacked the issue so aggressively from a public policy standpoint. Nor has any other politician devoted such a hefty portion of his bully pulpit to the cause -- a pulpit that has grown exponentially since Huckabee became chairman of the National Governors Association in July (a post that Clinton also held) and one that would balloon even more if he runs for president.

"There is no greater issue driving the U.S. economy than this," Huckabee says, "this" being the scourge of obesity, junk food consumption and sedentary lifestyles. He preaches nutrition and fitness in the context of self-reliance and civic duty. Bad health maintenance takes a great societal toll, he says -- in rising medical and insurance costs and worker absences, among other things. He allows that this "epidemic" is not a sexy political issue.

But it is clearly a resonant personal issue for tens of millions of Americans -- and if anyone can bring it into the red-meat political arena, it's Huckabee.

It's also worth noting the states with the highest obesity rates tend to vote Republican. Whether this would predict support for Huckabee in GOP primaries is not known, but at the very least, "it's a very intriguing possibility," says Chuck Todd, editor of Hotline, speaking of a Huckabee presidential campaign.

"Think about what they put on the cover of Time and Newsweek when there's no big news story," Todd says. "Diets and Jesus. There is a huge audience for this. These could be Huckabee's constituencies."

Still, like the man himself, Huckabee's chances at becoming president appear slim. He has a small fundraising base, no foreign-policy credentials and little name recognition outside of Arkansas and "the anti-obesity community." But Huckabee's résumé goes well beyond novelty. He's been rated one of the top governors in the country by entities that rate these things (Governing magazine, most recently) and won praise for his handling of the flood of Katrina evacuees into Arkansas from the bordering Gulf Coast states. He is antiabortion, pro-gun and popular among the religious right in his state. He is also commended as pragmatic and non-ideological by Democratic governors he has worked with at the NGA.

But Huckabee's signature issue is fitness and weight control, and his evangelism on these matters never strays far from his own example. He is the subject of one of those striking before-and-after photo sequences you see with ex-fat people -- like Jared, the guy in the Subway ads.

The "before" shot shows the hefty, multi-chinned governor seated before the Arkansas flag. The "after" reveals a grinning man with actual cheekbones, slim and recovered -- or recovering. The photos appear on the cover of Huckabee's 2005 self-help memoir, "Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork: A 12- Stop Program to End Bad Habits and Begin a Healthy Lifestyle." Huckabee dedicates the book to his wife, the former Janet McCain (their first date was for cheeseburgers), his three children and "the millions of children and adults who, like me, struggle every day with the addiction of eating too much and exercising too little and who have tried to change and cried because they couldn't."

People come up to Huckabee in airports and after speeches. They share testimonials, tell him how much weight they've lost, or how much their best friend's cousin has lost, or how much they're now walking every day.

People approach Jared, too. But Jared isn't a three-term governor who was scheduled to give a speech in Iowa yesterday evening and traveled to the state three times in 2005 and New Hampshire once. Fat chance of Jared running for president, in other words.

Huckabee, meantime, is weighing his options.

A Passion for Health

"People ask me all the time, 'Are you running?' " Huckabee says, laughing. "I say, yeah, I'm running. About 25 to 30 miles a week."

That's his way of deflecting the question that he says is "ridiculous" to ask now but that he -- like all politicians subjected to this "ridiculous" question -- is clearly flattered to be answering (or not answering).

It's just after 6 a.m. in the governor's mansion, and Huckabee, clad in running shorts, is stretching on the floor of his sugar-free kitchen. This is where Arkansas' low-fat official dinners are prepared -- with Splenda, whole grains, minimal starch and nothing fried. One of his chefs has lost 60 pounds, Huckabee boasts, while another has shed 20.

The third-term governor is preparing to run four miles. He was up at 4, exchanging e-mail with a nutritionist pal from Cornell, doing 35 minutes on the stationary bike, reading newspapers, drinking two cups of coffee. He is joined by a reporter, a photographer and press secretary Alice Stewart, a former news anchor who, before joining Huckabee's staff, helped train him for last March's Little Rock marathon. (Time: 4:38:32.)

While stretching, Huckabee pinballs from topic to topic:

· It's hard to eat well on the road, he says, especially during campaigns. He travels with a small cooler of snacks -- fruit, veggies, nothing with processed sugar -- which frees him from the starchy, sugary cornerstones of so much stump fare.

· Like Clinton, Huckabee is a musician -- he plays bass guitar in a rock band called Capital Offense. He once played a gig with REO Speedwagon, Grand Funk Railroad and Willie Nelson.

· While Clinton famously said he didn't inhale marijuana, Huckabee says he's never tasted beer but smelled it once. "And it smelled horrible." And that was that.

At which point the governor gives his black Labrador, Jet, a kiss on the head. " Mmmm-wah."

And then he starts talking about high school students having heart attacks.

"You could see this in 10 years," he says. "Imagine it, 18-year-olds dropping dead in the classroom."

Now there's a real pick-me-up to start your morning.

Huckabee says that's where the nation is headed if the "obesity epidemic" continues apace. "It's not a pretty picture out there," he says, describing kids, nearly all of them overweight, who have developed Type 2 diabetes and are getting treatment at Arkansas Children's Hospital. "You never saw this 15 years ago," he says. He says it's a great bet that these kids will start having vision problems and heart attacks, renal failure and kidney dialysis by the time they're 40. And they will "never live to see 50."

The governor once faced an ominous date with 50 himself. But since his "transformation" in his late forties, Huckabee has touted nutrition and fitness with the zeal of a convert.

He launched the "Healthy Arkansas" initiative to promote better eating and exercise habits in one of the country's most obese populations. The initiative grants time off for state employees who stay healthy, not just those who get sick. It also allows workers to take a paid half-hour each day for exercise. "We give employees time to go out and hurt themselves during the day," he says of cigarette breaks. "Not only do we lose productivity but we increase the likelihood of their getting sick. But if you want to take care of yourself, we say do it on your own dime. Now what makes sense about that?"

Healthy Arkansas deals mostly in small-scale health incentives: State employees who undergo an assessment to measure their risky health behaviors are given monthly discounts of as much as $20 from their health insurance premiums. And any worker who wants one is given a pedometer to measure the steps taken in a day (the governor's office held a contest in which the person who takes the most steps in a month gets a parking space near the entrance -- which would seem to be an incentive for less walking).

In keeping with his basic conservatism, Huckabee couches his campaign in terms of personal responsibility, not government regulations.

Public health experts have urged Huckabee to go further -- to push for marketing restrictions on junk food, for instance. But while he's been reluctant to impose government mandates and standards, Huckabee is also praised for his openness to the views of nutritionists and public health advocates. "I think his policy approach to the obesity epidemic is a work in progress," says David Katz, an associate professor at Yale's School of Public Health who met Huckabee 1 1/2 years ago at a "summit on obesity" in Williamsburg.

As an example, Katz says Huckabee was originally against mandatory physical education requirements and curbing the sale of junk food in school vending machines -- believing that those decisions should be left to school districts. But he was eventually persuaded otherwise. "I accept that Mike has a political constituency to worry about," says Katz, who corresponds regularly with Huckabee. "If he alienates the food industry and his political base and he finds himself out of power, what good does it do us?

"If you're asking me if I think he's gone far enough, I would say no," Katz adds. "But I'm pleased that he keeps giving me the opportunity to tell him what I think."

Katz and others are quick to say that Huckabee's greatest contribution has been as a public advocate. Fighting fat is "clearly an issue he's become synonymous with nationally," says Bill Richardson, the Democratic governor of New Mexico, a yo-yo dieter for much of his public life (he's now on a liquid diet). "The good thing about Huckabee is that he doesn't say, 'Bill, you ought to try this, or try that, here's my book,' " Richardson says. "He doesn't proselytize. I appreciate that."

"Clearly, the weight loss story is worth telling and hearing, especially for Southern males," says Mac McLarty, Clinton's former chief of staff, who knew Huckabee growing up in Hope. "Eating cheap food on a family budget is something familiar to a lot of people in this country. It's something that Huckabee has credibility on."

Huckabee often tells about his lower-middle-class upbringing as the son of a firefighter. His household followed a familiar economic model across America today: how to eat food with the highest caloric content for the lowest price. His family couldn't afford nice cars, nice clothes or vacations. "But we could always afford a second helping of mashed potatoes, with lots of gravy," he says. "That was the one way we could always indulge ourselves."

Huckabee will often wax nostalgic, almost romantic about food. The smell of fried chicken, homemade biscuits and gravy brings him back to a time of safety and pleasure and "the level of security I knew" as a child, he says.

For a Christian family, food was also an acceptable weakness, as opposed to vices such as drugs or alcohol. Indeed, people who know Huckabee are wont to describe his revamped body in terms of a religious imperative. "Mike will do what the Lord leads him to do," says John Benjamin, a longtime friend of Huckabee's and a member of his Baptist congregation during the 1980s.

"I consider this a matter of personal stewardship," adds Huckabee, a former president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. "My body does not belong to me. It belongs to the Lord."

As part of his better-health regimen, Huckabee underwent what he calls "nutritional counseling" through a program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. The process was, as much as anything, a journey of self-discovery through the lens of what he named as his "food addiction."

Even so, he conveys no sense of victimhood. "McDonald's doesn't make people fat," Huckabee says. "Individuals overeating makes people fat." This is akin to the familiar slogan among gun control opponents who say that "guns don't kill, people do."

"Everyone in America loves to blame someone else for what they're responsible for," Huckabee says. He is obviously passionate but careful not to force-feed his message.

"I don't want to be the sugar sheriff or the grease police," Huckabee says. "I don't want to be in a position where I tell you what to eat. You want a doughnut, have a doughnut."

He's offering you a doughnut?

"Well, no," he says. "Not exactly."

The Running Governor

Huckabee says he's obliged to preach the good word for good eating, given his own experience, and his status as a sitting governor.

Or, a few minutes later, a running governor.

He gives Jet another smooch on the head ("Mmmm-wah") and is out the door.

Conversations while jogging can be especially fruitful. Camaraderie is built, endorphins released, defenses dropped.

And after a while, Huckabee is saying things that politicians probably shouldn't say. Like this:

"I keep hearing about these bands that have girls throwing their underwear onstage," he says, bemoaning that Capital Offense doesn't have any groupies. "But given our demographics, we're more likely to have old men throwing their Depends at us."

(Stewart, who is accompanying him on his run/interview -- befitting her dual credentials as both a press secretary and marathon trainer -- emphasizes that the governor is kidding about the Depends-throwing.)

Huckabee is presented with a hypothetical scenario: Let's say he is president and has a scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin is running late and it might conflict with his designated exercise time. Does Huckabee postpone the run or the meeting?

"I wouldn't go to that place just yet," Huckabee says, "that place" being the White House. "Nice try, though."

Another scenario: Huckabee is confronting a triple conflict -- a Cabinet meeting, a 10-mile run and a jam session with the Rolling Stones, all scheduled for the same time. What does he do?

"I get up real early to do the run," Huckabee says. "Then I jam with the Stones. And then I spend the entire Cabinet meeting gloating about how I jammed with the Stones."

The run also yields these NutraSweetened morsels:

· Huckabee says he carries a cell phone during long runs in case state business intrudes, which it does occasionally. He used to run with pepper spray and almost used it once when a dog attacked him, biting through Huckabee's pants, though not his leggings underneath.

· He will occasionally splurge, like in Philadelphia recently. He stopped at Gino's, the famous cheesesteak place where John Kerry made the mistake of asking for Swiss cheese on his. Huckabee had not heard about this outrage.

"You're kidding me," Huckabee says. "He should have known better than that."

A few blocks later, Huckabee's run takes him to the Clinton library, on the banks of the Arkansas River. He strikes a stately pose in the dawn sunlight and -- symbolism alert -- is framed by the library on one side and golden arches on the other, looming across the river.

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