Mike Huckabee: Is this folksy showman willing to get meaner?

Is a folksy showman willing to get meaner?

More than preaching or politicking, broadcasting is at Mike Huckabee’s core

Published on May 6, 2015


Mike Huckabee takes the stage in this cavernous mega-church and the faithful take to their feet. He holds up his hands, beaming, flanked on billboard-size video monitors by two simulcast Mike Huckabees, his boxy black suit silhouetted by 2,400 square feet of American flag. Here for a national webcast is the holy trinity of Mike Huckabee: the preacher, the pol and the mass communicator.

Above: Mike Huckabee departs after a stop at the Granite State Indoor Range and Gun Shop in Hudson, N.H., last month. The former Arkansas governor announced Tuesday that he is seeking the Republican nomination for president. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Pastor Huckabee, the longtime Baptist minister, is at ease behind the plexiglass pulpit. The campaigner — Huck on the hustings — effortlessly rallies the crowd, part of the home-state base that twice elected him Arkansas governor.

Above: Mike Huckabee departs after a stop at the Granite State Indoor Range and Gun Shop in Hudson, N.H., last month. The former Arkansas governor announced Tuesday that he is seeking the Republican nomination for president. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Make or Break: Presidential candidates are a breed apart, often propelled by traits that have shaped their careers and have deep roots in their personal histories. In this occasional series, The Washington Post is exploring key characteristics of the leading contenders that could help make one of them the country’s next commander in chief -- or sink their presidential ambitions.

Also in this series:
Ted Cruz: Principled or know-it-all?
Rand Paul: Heir to a 'libertarianish' revolution
Marco Rubio: A man in a hurry
Rick Perry: Can he close the deal?
Hillary Clinton: She won't back down. Or go away.
Jeb Bush: A clan of ferocious competitors returns to the fray
Chris Christie: The human opera takes the stage

But mostly, here is Mike the Microphone, the consummate radio and TV guy who’s been logging airtime for nearly half a century, the folksy showman commanding a mike (in this case, a skinny tube extending from an earpiece) to sell his book, his ideas and himself.

It was as a lifelong broadcaster that the onetime “pastor on TV” perfected the conservative amiability that helped him win the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and could again set him apart from an increasingly crowded field of Republicans.

But in the GOP of 2016, when the sharp edge plays better than the soft smile, Huckabee enters the race facing a key question: Will the same “I’m not mad at anybody” on-air vibe that fueled his rise make him a non-starter for mad-as-hell early Republican voters?

[Mike Huckabee has a long and complicated history with the Clintons]

Pat Harris, his big sister, seated in the front pews of the Church at Rock Creek, isn’t sure about the primary politics as Huckabee smoothly woos the audience. But she knows this: She’s been watching her ambitious little brother successfully ride the airwaves since he was an 11-year-old radio prodigy in Hope, Ark.

“It’s pretty much the same thing I’ve been seeing him do ever since he was a little kid,” Harris says. “This is just a little fancier.”

Revving up for his GOP presidential campaign on this day earlier this year, Huckabee is back in Arkansas with a multimedia roadshow that is part sermon, part stump speech and part book tour for his rural-culture manifesto, “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy.”

His message is by-the-Good-Book evangelical conservatism: pro-Israel and anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage and anti-gambling. It’s a political litany delivered with a preacher’s pity. The 59-year-old Huckabee isn’t mad at those who feel differently, but he does worry about them.

“If you’re not a person of faith, I’m not sure how you live, because I’m not sure what you’re living for,” he says from the stage, sounding sincerely puzzled. “What’s the point?”

He delivered the same kind of wistful scolding when he was the preacher at two small-town Baptist churches at which he also started two television stations. And as he became more political, the persona he perfected — avuncular, self-deprecating, genially witty — began to draw the most coveted comparison in Republicanism: Reaganesque.

But these are not the Great Communicator’s primaries. Outrage is the currency of a Republican electorate spoiling to deny Democrats a third straight turn in the White House. Fuming at President Obama, appalled by the prospect of another President Clinton, GOP primary voters are out for blood.

Huckabee has tossed some tentative chum of his own in recent months, looking more political than polite. Most notably, he went after the Obamas, not on their policies but on their parenting, specifically for allowing their daughters to listen to the “toxic” lyrics of Beyoncé.

If Mellow Mike — the one who lavished praise on the first lady as a model mother five years ago when she was a guest on his Fox News program and lamented the “cowardly” criticism she had endured — can’t win the nomination, can Mean Mike pull it off?

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The old KXAR studio still stands, an abandoned brick shoe box on the north edge of Hope.

“Be a good place for a presidential library, wouldn’t it?” asks Lester Sitzes from his dentist office a few blocks away from the abandoned building. Sitzes has been one of Huckabee’s best friends since the days he would ride his bicycle over to keep his buddy company during long Saturday shifts on the air.

Huckabee’s life in broadcasting began before he could drive, with a foul tip. He was a pretty good catcher, but this one deflected off his bare hand, shattering a finger. “To this day I can’t move it any more than this,” he said, holding up the damaged digit.

Huckabee at meeting of the Nevada Republican Central Committee in Carson City in late March. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post) For this series, Post photojournalists used a phone app with filters to capture the candidates as potential voters might.

But in the Hope, Ark., of 1966, there was more than one way to be a Little League star. Games were broadcast. Haskell Jones, the manager of KXAR, took pity on the injured catcher and invited him over to the table to call a few innings. Even at 11, he showed flashes of glibness and ease.

“We were all just surprised at how good he was, even so young,” recalls Verlaine Jones, 91, Haskell Jones’s widow. “You just had to hear him, and you thought he was born to be on the radio.”

[Huckabee stresses humble roots and traditional values in his campaign announcement]

When Huckabee turned 14 and became one of the youngest announcers in the state to get his FCC license, Jones gave him a regular job. Huckabee’s father, a firefighter, would drive him to the tiny station at 4:30 a.m. The boy would unlock the door and turn on the transmitter, sitting down to introduce farm reports, read obituaries and cut commercials for Fostex acne cream and Barry’s Market (“You can’t beat Barry’s meat”). When his playlist veered too close to the rock-and-roll that was topping charts up in Little Rock, Jones was known to come into the studio, pick up the needle and break the record.

Huckabee credits his old-school first boss with teaching him responsibility, public service and the awesome reach of broadcasting.

His biggest lesson was his worst day. Huckabee was 15 and monitoring a police scanner when he heard reports of a city worker being electrocuted. It was a big story, so he opened the mike: “This news bulletin just in. Hope Water and Power employee was reportedly killed this morning working on a power pole. More details coming.”

The phone rang immediately, and it didn’t stop. Every family of a city worker in town wanted to know: Was it my dad? Was it my son? The city manager phoned, screaming. He was getting the same calls.

“Boy, did I ever learn a lesson,” Huckabee says, looking stricken over a recent plate of salmon at the JW Marriott a few blocks from the White House he would like to occupy. “Honestly, I should have been fired.”

But he wasn’t, and he began to hone the hardest skill in show biz and politics alike, the ability to “connect” with a mass audience.

“It was Haskell who taught me that when you’re talking on that microphone, you’re not talking to all those people out in radio land,” Huckabee says. “You’re talking to one person. Make it intimate.”

Make or Break: Presidential candidates are a breed apart, often propelled by traits that have shaped their careers and have deep roots in their personal histories. In this occasional series, The Washington Post is exploring key characteristics of the leading contenders that could help make one of them the country’s next commander in chief -- or sink their presidential ambitions.

Also in this series:
Ted Cruz: Principled or know-it-all?
Rand Paul: Heir to a 'libertarianish' revolution
Marco Rubio: A man in a hurry
Rick Perry: Can he close the deal?
Hillary Clinton: She won't back down. Or go away.
Jeb Bush: A clan of ferocious competitors returns to the fray

And finally, Huckabee learned Republicanism. As one of the town’s few GOP supporters during the Watergate era, Jones walked a fine line. He defended his party in daily radio commentaries but was careful not to offend his largely Democratic audience.

“We didn’t buy it when we were kids,” says Ben Downs, another young KXAR staffer at the station who now runs a string of radio stations in eastern Texas. “But we listened to how he said it. Later we kind of thought maybe he had a point.”

Huckabee says he drew on that tone as a Republican governor facing an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. It was respectful disagreement, at least on the air.

“I learned that you can’t spend all your time demonizing them in public,” Huckabee says, “and then expect them privately to work with you.”

But some who tangled with him say they encountered a Huckabee very different than the affable televised one — he could be thin-skinned and spiteful, famously labeling one group of conservative GOP lawmakers who opposed him on spending as “Shiite Republicans.”

“I think I was the queen of the Shiites,” says Peggy Jeffries, a former state senator from Fort Smith and an early Huckabee supporter. She and other conservatives complained that the governor campaigned for Democrats against Republicans who crossed him.

“He was vindictive,” Jeffries says.

[section headline="" description="" caption="Huckabee listens to a prayer by an attendee during the Nevada Republican Central Committee meeting in March. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)" credit="" src="http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2015/04/huckabee-praying-full.jpg" link="" align="full" ]

Huckabee didn’t actually run for office until his 30s, a failed 1992 run for the U.S. Senate.

But much earlier, the top student who read all the newsweeklies showed how he would put his showmanship to work. In 1972 at Boys State, the American Legion-sponsored leadership program, the 17-year-old Huckabee launched a long-shot bid for “governor,” beating candidates from much bigger high schools.

“Most people start getting those kind of communication skills in college, but Mike had a good decade on them,” his sister says.

She and her parents would stay home Friday nights to hear him call high school football games. Everyone thought the low-watt AM celebrity and champion debater would go into law. A local attorney had offered to help Huckabee with college and law school tuition and a job afterward, his sister says. When Huckabee announced, at 15, that he planned to go into the ministry, not everyone rejoiced.

“People thought it was a waste, honestly,” Harris remembers. “Why is he going to give up this promising career to be a poor little Baptist preacher? Well, because that’s what God told him to do.”

Huckabee as a young boy. (Courtesy of Mike Huckabee)

But the call to preach the gospel was as much about getting on the air as into a pulpit, Huckabee says: “My real goal was Christian broadcasting.”

He was a fan of TV evangelist John Ankerberg, whom he describes as a “Christian Phil Donahue.”

“He would take on culture, politics, all sorts of topics,” Huckabee says. “I could see something like that for myself.”

At Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, he worked shifts on local radio. Then, at seminary in Fort Worth, televangelist James Robison noted his polish and — after buying him three new suits — put him on the show.

“He was comfortable. He really was,” Robinson recalls. “Even in the stadiums. He was anxious to learn how to communicate with a large crowd.”

Huckabee hadn’t intended to run a church, but he ended up leading congregations in Pine Bluff and Texarkana. He started TV stations at both, not just airing Sunday services but also covering local sports and producing talk shows. Showing an eclectic range that would later mark his Fox News show, Pastor Huckabee would interview anyone passing through. Local newspaper editors were regulars. Donna Douglas (Elly May from “The Beverly Hillbillies”) came on. So did Tom “Eb from ‘Green Acres’ ” Lester.

“That’s just Mike,” says Gary Underwood, who served as the sole employee of the mostly volunteer station in Texarkana. “He can talk to anybody. Even if he didn’t agree with you, he’d be polite and gentlemanly.”

The exposure made him a public figure. When the sick or the incarcerated had no one else, they called the preacher on TV who advertised on bus-stop benches. He and wife Janet, who have three children, often helped.

“Many a time, we’d watch the kids while he and Janet went off to another jail,” Harris says.

Huckabee built his name throughout the state, serving on cancer association boards and eventually cracking the outer orbits of statewide politics as the head of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. Two years there, and he felt ready to make his first run for office since Boys State. At age 37, he took on a popular incumbent, U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers (D), who trounced him. But less than a year later, in 1993, the lieutenant governor’s slot came open and Huckabee, fresh off a statewide race, prevailed in a special election.

Then, in 1996, Gov. Jim Guy Tucker (D) was convicted of fraud related to the Clinton-era Whitewater scandal. Huckabee was the constitutional successor to the office.

The Democratic machine in Little Rock dismissed him as the “accidental governor.” But at 1:50 p.m. on a blistering July day, he was straightening his tie, ready to be sworn in as just the third Republican chief executive since Reconstruction.

What happened next would change his political fortunes forever.

The phone rang in Huckabee’s office. It was Tucker, saying he’d changed his mind about resigning.

“I was right here looking at his face,” says Rex Nelson, a former Little Rock political reporter who had joined Huckabee’s staff. “We thought he was calling to say, ‘Good luck.’ What he said was, ‘I have decided to stay on.’ He thought there was a tainted juror in his case.”

It quickly became one of Arkansas’ most dramatic constitutional crises. Citizens, fearing a coup d’etat, filled the Capitol. They lined the marble stairs, some of them yelling.

“It was hot, and it got kind of scary,” Nelson says. “I was thinking, ‘This is like some Huey Long movie.’ ”

Tucker dug in, and Huckabee feverishly negotiated impeachment options with legislative leaders. Finally, after a four-hour standoff, Tucker faxed over a handwritten, unconditional resignation. They rounded up a judge and swore Huckabee in as the 44th governor.

Photo gallery

The former Arkansas governor announced that he will make a second bid for the Republican nomination.

But for many, the most memorable moment came next. Underwood, the church TV tech who had followed Huckabee to Little Rock, stripped the teleprompter of the speech Huckabee had planned to deliver before the crisis. Instead, he mounted the same 15-minute digital timer Huckabee had used to count down his televised sermons. The new governor, without notes, began to address troubled Arkansans in a live statewide broadcast.

“He completely calmed people down,” Nelson recalls. “He laid out the events of the day in a kind of ticktock, like a news reporter. It was his radio skill combining with his experience as a pastor being a calm, reassuring presence. He stopped being the ‘accidental governor’ at that moment.”

Huckabee went on to win reelection to two full terms of his own and served almost 12 years in the office. He called on his communication skills frequently as a way around Democratic lawmakers. When the House bottled up his plan to spend Arkansas’ share of the national tobacco settlement in 2000, he went on the air to campaign for a ballot initiative that eventually passed.

“It was a phrase we used at our office all the time, ‘Take it to the people,’ ” Huckabee says. “With a hostile legislature, we had to do it to get anything done.”

He put more of his personal self on the air, in one way literally. His weight ballooned while he was in office, and he waged an Oprah-like public fight with his double chins. He transformed his diet and took to running marathons, losing more than 100 pounds. In 2005, he published one of several books: “Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork.”

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It was the trimmer, polished Huckabee who stunned Republicans by winning the Iowa caucuses in 2008, his undeniable evangelical cred and small-room charm making up for anemic fundraising. It was an upset he couldn’t sustain, dropping out, broke, after South Carolina.

But the strong showing helped him bag two coveted spots on the electromagnetic spectrum. There was “Huckabee,” a Saturday talk show on Fox News that he gave up in January as he prepared for another run at the nomination. And then, three weeks after Paul Harvey died in 2009, he took over the radio icon’s slot with “The Huckabee Report,” a thrice-daily commentary.

For years, Huckabee has traveled with his own mike, a trim Electro-Voice RE20 he has to explain to every TSA agent. With a USB plug for his MacBook, it’s generations removed from the big wedge-shaped RCA that filled the studio at KXAR.

Huckabee holds his targets and a gun for a group photo at the Hudson gun range. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The radio bits were a Harvey-like mix of ripped-from-the-wire oddities (he loves stupid criminals) and issues of the week. And as the political season heated up in recent months, he didn’t always sound so turn-the-other-cheeky.

Here was his warning in February to any terrorist tempted to storm a shopping mall in “flyover country”:

“A bunch of electricians and sales clerks and soccer moms will pull out their Magnums and Smith and Wessons and fill you with more lead than a number-two pencil. It would be fatal to mistake the dithering, Ivy League, hothouse flowers in Washington for the Second Amendment-loving Americans that you might just encounter in a shopping mall.”

He gave up “The Huckabee Report” earlier this month. He’s a declared candidate now, heading to Iowa, cutting ads, giving interviews, rallying crowds.

Whoever owns the mike, Huckabee is on the air.

Huckabee visits the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in Jerusalem's Old City in February 2010. (Bernat Armangue/Associated Press)