A Higher Power

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 15, 2007

When he climbed out of the car at Fort Robinson that morning in June 1972, Mike Huckabee found himself surrounded by 1,200 other high school juniors, each a leader in his Arkansas home town, each primed for an election. Several were carrying posters touting their platforms. Others were handing out cards.

Then as now, Huckabee didn't have the campaign apparatus of his peers. The 16-year-old arrived at Boys State, a prestigious and civic-minded youth camp run by the American Legion, from the small southwest Arkansas town of Hope with nothing but a suitcase and a gift for oratory.

By week's end he was its brightest star, elected governor in a landslide. He left Boys State with a network of high-achieving new friends who were eager to hitch their futures to his. And he'd soon have a letter from Gov. Dale Bumpers encouraging him to consider a career in public service.

It was a heady triumph for a teenager who already harbored big ambitions. But it wasn't enough -- not yet -- to lure him from his chosen path: preaching the word of God.

Three days after Boys State, Huckabee and two buddies from Hope piled into a car and headed to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, where they joined 80,000 other teenagers at Explo '72, the first worldwide gathering of evangelical youth. Time magazine dubbed it "the Jesus Woodstock." There, Huckabee spent six days learning from the Rev. Billy Graham and Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, how to lead others to the Lord.

"It was transforming," Huckabee recalls. "Suddenly, I'm one of nearly 100,000 very young evangelical Christian believers who had a very fervent faith and wanted to change the world. Suddenly, I was confronted with a feeling of 'Wow! There are a lot of people like me, too.' "

Huckabee's decision to enter the ministry, announced before his senior year of high school, disappointed a number of admiring teachers and classmates. Why would he squander such obvious leadership potential, they asked, to be a preacher?

"But this is what he knew in his heart he was supposed to do," says his older sister, Pat Harris. "I don't think Mike ever quibbled or felt like he was giving up anything. He was totally committed to what he was doing."

It would take almost two decades for Huckabee's ministerial calling to yield to his political aspirations. And when it did, many of those closest to the evangelical Baptist minister were shocked. But Huckabee has always been comfortable navigating both the spiritual and secular realms. For him, one form of power has always fueled the other.

* * *

Huckabee's rise to political prominence -- first among Southern Baptists, then among Arkansas Republicans and now among the candidates vying for the GOP presidential nomination -- had an implausible beginning.

Huckabee was reared in a one-story brick rental house in Hope, the small town that also produced Bill Clinton. The Huckabees lived near Hope's railroad depot. Mike's father, Dorsey, a burly firefighter who never finished high school, was a "spare the rod, spoil the child" disciplinarian. Huckabee once referred to his father as a "patriot," saying: "He laid on the stripes, and I saw stars."

His mother, Mae, was a clerical worker at the local gas company. Every Sunday morning, she would take Mike and Pat to Garrett Memorial Baptist Church -- a small Missionary Baptist congregation that stressed the inerrancy of the Bible, the memorization of Scripture and the importance of saving souls through mission work. Huckabee was taught as a child that Adam and Eve were real people, that God created the Earth in seven days, that evolution is a false doctrine and that homosexuality is a grave sin -- all views he still holds today.

Huckabee says he was shy and insecure as a youngster. That began to change in fifth grade when he received a guitar for Christmas and, coached by an Assembly of God preacher, tackled basic chords and his fear of performing in public.

At 14, he got a job at the local AM radio station, where the station manager, a passionate, deeply conservative Republican, became his first political mentor. Haskell Jones gave Huckabee a copy of Phyllis Schlafly's 1964 book, "A Choice Not an Echo," written in part to promote Barry Goldwater's presidential bid. Schlafly railed against the moneyed East Coast elites who she argued were diluting the Republican Party's core values. Huckabee found the ideas in the book electrifying.

His work at KXAR was equally transforming. He became a minor celebrity in Hope by announcing high school sports, reading the news and giving away tubes of Fostex acne cream to callers who answered trivia questions he made up.

"I didn't have to see my audience," Huckabee, now 52, explains, "but I had one. And it helped me develop a sense of confidence -- a sense that I could do this."

But nothing supplied the confidence he found in Philippians 4:13, which he first read at 15. "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me," it says. God was telling him, he says, "that there were really no limits to what was ahead of me."

Soon after that, he preached his first sermon, titled "Watering Down the Blood of Christ," and he illustrated his message by holding up a pitcher of bright-red liquid and pouring plain water into it. "The point of the sermon was Jesus had died, and his blood was there to cover our sins," says his sister. "But because sin kept creeping in, it watered down his blood and diluted the purity of Christ, and we became less because we let sin in."

Huckabee's budding gift for oratory carried over at school. He was such a star in speech class that fellow students took him out in the hall at one point and asked him to quit volunteering to go first.

In 10th grade, he was elected class president. He started the Christian Student Union because he was concerned about the spiritual lives of his peers. It wasn't so much that he viewed them as sinners, he insists. "It was really to encourage Christian behavior," he says. "It was an 'anything goes' world at that time. And this was to offer an alternative to the alternative."

In his book "Character Makes a Difference," Huckabee describes 1968 as the year that marked the death of American innocence. "From that year onward," he writes, "we have lived in the age of the birth control pill, free love, gay sex, the drug culture and reckless disregard for standards."

But Huckabee had little firsthand exposure to the excesses of the 1960s. By all accounts, the strife that erupted across much of the nation after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy bypassed Hope. The high school there integrated fairly smoothly in 1969-1970. Drugs were unheard of.

It didn't occur to Huckabee that not everyone went to church until he won a scholarship to a two-week space camp at Cape Canaveral in the summer of 1971. The camp drew top high school sophomores from all over the country. "I was shocked by how many of them had no belief in God at all," recalls Huckabee, who was singled out by one boy as the camp's sole "Jesus freak." Huckabee says he didn't retreat from his beliefs or chide the doubters. "I was the one kid who would explain why it was important."

The invitation to Boys State followed the next summer.

All of the participants campaigned for office, with the prestige of the position sought, from alderman to governor, betraying the extent of each boy's ambition. Huckabee sought the top job from the moment he arrived.

Winning an election was hard work. A candidate had to collect 25 signatures on a petition from members of his own party, survive a primary and, ultimately, appeal to enough members of the opposing party to prevail, making speeches at every stage of the process. Huckabee swept into the governor's office with more than 80 percent of the vote.

"He challenged the young men to get involved and told us we could make a difference," recalls Jonathan Barnett, then chairman of the Arkansas High School Republicans. "He talked about how fortunate we were that we lived in the United States. And he talked about how the Bill of Rights guaranteed us 'the pursuit of happiness' -- not the guarantee of happiness."

When Boys State ended, Barnett told Huckabee that he wanted him to run for public office someday and asked if he could manage his campaign when the time came. Huckabee demurred, explaining his call to the ministry. Barnett didn't try to talk him out of it. But at least once a year, he'd phone to ask whether Huckabee had changed his mind.

"I'd say, 'Mike, are you ready?' " says Barnett, now a general contractor in Siloam Springs, Ark. "And he'd say, 'No, I'm not ready.' I took that to mean he might not ever be ready."

Boys State ended on June 9. On June 12, Billy Graham opened Explo '72 with a rousing call to action. "We are here to say to the world that Christian youth are now on the march," Graham said to thunderous cheers. "And we're going to keep marching until millions of people are brought into the kingdom of God!"

Tens of thousands of teenagers each received a yellow pamphlet containing Bright's treatise, "The Four Spiritual Laws," which explained how to lead nonbelievers to Christ. In the days that followed, they attended training sessions to hone their evangelical skills and fanned out in Dallas-Fort Worth neighborhoods to talk with residents about God's word.

Huckabee roomed in a Southern Methodist University dorm with Lester Sitzes, his best friend since second grade. They did their evangelizing together, with Huckabee, the more polished speaker, taking the lead. "I was always Mike's wingman," Sitzes says with a chuckle.

On the last night, they returned to the Cotton Bowl for a huge concert headlined by Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Christian artists. As attendees filed into the stadium, each person was handed an unlit candle.

Huckabee has vivid memories of what followed. After Graham finished speaking, the lights were turned off. Graham lit his candle and then lit Bright's, turning one light into two. Each man lit another candle, so two became four. The audience was told to follow suit, lighting their neighbor's candle as soon as theirs was lit.

"Two things made an impression," recalls Huckabee, who was seated at the opposite end of the stadium. "Even though I was extremely far away, that tiny flickering of the one candle penetrated the darkness, and I saw it. That told me that even a little bit of light in the midst of darkness is worth something. . . . The second thing that happened was, as those candles began to accelerate -- because obviously it happens pretty quickly through the principle of multiplication -- this light just starts expanding around the stadium, faster and faster, until the stadium is aglow. It had a big impact on me -- the rapidity with which something can spread, good or bad, and the impact that one life, and one light, can make. That's when it really sunk in to me that one person can make a difference."

Once back in Hope, Huckabee wore his Explo '72 T-shirt until it was threadbare, determined to be that candle.

* * *

It was another huge gathering of evangelicals in Dallas that reignited Huckabee's interest in politics. In 1980, he and 15,000 other pastors and conservative Christians gathered at Reunion Arena in what is often characterized as a political "coming-out party" for the evangelical movement.

At the time, Huckabee was working for James Robison, a television evangelist known for his fiery sermons. Huckabee, who had attended seminary for a year after graduating from Ouachita (pronounced "WASH-uh-taw") Baptist University in Arkadelphia, was Robison's publicist. He orchestrated Robison's prayer meetings and promoted his television show, while Robison railed against homosexuality, abortion and the country's moral decay.

Robison's Fort Worth-based ministry helped host the gathering in Dallas, organized at a time of great political ferment among evangelicals, remembers Richard Land, then a 33-year-old Christian broadcaster and now head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Rev. Jerry Falwell had formed the Moral Majority the year before and registered 12 million church members. Now evangelicals wanted to figure out how to mobilize their newfound political strength.

Ronald Reagan, who had just won the Republican nomination for the presidency, was the event's keynote speaker. And he brought down the house by famously telling the believers: "I know you can't endorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you."

Land says the event made a huge impression on Huckabee: "It was there that Mike caught a new vision for the potential of faith in politics and faith in public policy. There were a lot of younger evangelicals who had been raised to believe that politics was dirty business and the last thing a Christian would do is get involved in politics."

Huckabee's wife, Janet, who had just given birth to the couple's second child, says he began talking about running for office himself. Right around that time, she says, he was offered an opportunity to serve as interim pastor of a small Baptist church in Pine Bluff, where Huckabee had identified a potentially promising congressional seat. But before he could explore a run for Congress, church leaders asked him to become their full-time pastor. And a full-time job, for a young family with few means, was hard to turn down. Politics would have to wait.

* * *

One night in late 1991, Huckabee suggested that he and Janet take a walk. He told her he was thinking about running for the U.S. Senate and asked what she thought. She was supportive and not at all surprised. "I think we both felt the same thing, but neither one wanted to talk about it," Janet recalls.

That feeling, as Huckabee would explain in "Character Makes a Difference," was mounting frustration. After 12 years as a minister, he'd begun questioning the significance of the work he was doing.

"In my early years of ministry, I was quite idealistic, thinking that most people in the congregation expected me to be the captain of a warship leading God's troops into battle to change the world," he writes. "As the years passed, I became increasingly convinced that most people wanted me to captain the Love Boat, making sure everyone was having a good time."

At the time, Huckabee was finishing a two-year term as president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, which he had held together during a period of deep division between fundamentalists and more moderate Baptists. In his outgoing speech to the convention, recounted in the Arkansas Baptist Newsmagazine, he hinted at the career change that he would announce in a matter of weeks.

"We cannot change the world if we refuse to participate in the institutions of society that dictate its direction," Huckabee said. "Christians have a message to America that would save many a person such misery. . . . If we want to stop the spread of AIDS and deal with the teen pregnancy problem, we must play by the rules of our Creator -- one man with one woman for life in a monogamous marital relationship."

He pleaded for tolerance, telling his fellow Baptists: "Our most important fight is not with each other. [It is] a battle to salvage our culture and our very civilization from a world view that thinks man is good and God is dead."

Years later, after he'd lost the Senate race but become governor of Arkansas, Huckabee would explain in starker terms his motivation for "getting inside the dragon's belly."

"I didn't get into politics because I thought government had a better answer," he told a group of pastors on the eve of the 1998 Southern Baptist Convention. "I got into politics because I knew government didn't have the real answers, that the real answers lie in accepting Jesus Christ into our lives." He concluded that speech with words he says he'd phrase differently today: "I hope we answer the alarm clock and take this nation back for Christ."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed

to this report.

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