Both voters and the national media have taken a shine to presidential contender Mike Huckabee in the last few weeks. But some Arkansas reporters are finding that Huckabee’s ethical history isn’t making the news as much as his folksy conservative bona-fides. Arkansas Times reporter Max Brantley introduces us to his Huckabee.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I'm Bob Garfield. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] MALE CORRESPONDANT: This rocking Baptist minister has surged past three of our - MALE CORRESPONDANT: Are Iowa Republicans falling hard for a guitar-playing former Arkansas Governor named Huckabee? MALE CORRESPONDANT: The Huckabee support was eight percent among likely voters in Iowa in July. Now it's 24 percent? What's behind it? BOB GARFIELD: The hot, hot, hot presidential candidate - this week - is former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee who, according to the most recent Rasmussen poll of Iowa Republican voters, has surged from presumed also-ran to frontrunner. Along the way, he has charmed punditry's heavy hitters.
CNN's David Gergen finds the former Southern Baptist minister, quote, "human and authentic." Huckabee has impressed conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks as "funny and engaging."
Even New Yorker Magazine's liberal Hendrick Hertzberg found Huckabee's disinclination toward Bible-thumping zealotry, quote, "almost impossible not to like," but — not completely impossible. Back in Little Rock, the charm offensive has set some eyes to rolling. Max Brantley is editor of the weekly Arkansas Times. MAX BRANTLEY: I've really been surprised at the utter absence of reporting that's been done on Mike Huckabee. There are very legitimate issues on the national stage, whether it's his fair tax proposal or his stance on some social issues, that deserve some examination, but they've been put to the side to focus on his jokes and his charming manner and his pardoning of a Rolling Stones guitar player. BOB GARFIELD: It's a familiar complaint. Local reporters have often chafed at the national press’ infatuation with political figures regarded close to home as decidedly less than favorite sons.
On Friday, questions about Rudolph Giuliani's mayoral record made page one of his hometown New York Times, a stark contrast to the familiar narrative of 9/11 heroics. I recalled a conversation I had back in February with long-time Newsday columnist, Ellis Henican. BOB GARFIELD: Is it your sense that the New York media as a group is sort of champing at the bit to let the outside world know about their Rudy? ELLIS HENICAN: I think we think we have some insights that the rest of the world maybe hasn't tuned into yet. BOB GARFIELD: This is precisely Max Brantley's complaint. Huckabee, he says, has become the newest darling of the national media without any due diligence. He cites, for instance, a laundry list of Huckabee's brushes with the Arkansas Ethics Commission, something he wishes those national columnists would take the time to learn about. MAX BRANTLEY: I think they ought to review his long and unseemly record on grasping for material goods and question what public service is really about. BOB GARFIELD: Help me understand here — material goods? MAX BRANTLEY: Well, when he first became Governor, he turned a mansion operating account into a personal expense account, bought a doghouse, did his dry cleaning, bought his restaurant meals with it.
He also first claimed as his own 70,000 dollars’ worth of furniture, that a cotton-grower donated to the Governor's Mansion for the private living quarters, he said very angrily that it was his furniture. Then he found out that it would be against the law for him to claim it as his own, and he said he was misunderstood and misquoted. BOB GARFIELD: And then there was a question of a wedding registry. MAX BRANTLEY: He went out the way he came in. He set up a so-called wedding registry at a couple of department stores so that friends and admirers could buy presents for them to stock their new private home. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] MAX BRANTLEY: They called it a wedding registry because the department stores didn't have a "rake in loot from my friends" account. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] MAX BRANTLEY: It was the only way you could register. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] MAX BRANTLEY: This was some 30 years after they got married, by the way. BOB GARFIELD: That is so brazen it's, you know, on the verge of unbelievable, but it's all a matter of public record. MAX BRANTLEY: Well, here we have a word for it. It's called "tacky." BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] MAX BRANTLEY: And this was legal at the time he did much of this. The question is, is it seemly for a public official to do it. He believes, by the way, that this is perfectly acceptable. It follows a pattern and practice of being a preacher in a Southern congregation where your congregation frequently showers you with love offerings, and he apparently views being Governor as something akin to being a pastor. BOB GARFIELD: Now, let me ask you this: You are editor of a muckraking liberal alt weekly. MAX BRANTLEY: Guilty! BOB GARFIELD: Why shouldn't our listeners dismiss this as personal or ideological animus from you, or even a kind of crusade to bring disrepute on an Arkansas favorite son? MAX BRANTLEY: Well, certainly a lot of people will draw the conclusion. The funny thing about Mike Huckabee and me is — is that the things he gets the most grief about from conservatives are things that I think are shining stars on his record — that is, backing a number of tax increases for vital services in Arkansas.
We endorsed his efforts in those regard and do today, and my hat's off to him for it. BOB GARFIELD: But what about conservative journalists in Arkansas, do you think that they throw in with you in the notion that the national press has just missed a lot about Huckabee? Are they as frustrated as you are? MAX BRANTLEY: Well, I don't know if they have the same degree of frustration, but I think it's interesting you mention the rest of the press.
There's a former staff member, a Mike Huckabee conservative Republican, who's now a columnist for a news organization in Arkansas who wrote a column this week about the fact that Mike Huckabee is more about Mike Huckabee, a desire for self-aggrandizement and to be a TV performer than he is, in some ways, about being a serious candidate. So I could refer you to his work. I could refer you to The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which is a Republican editorial page, which has called him selfish and petty at times.
And I’d point quickly to Quinn Hillyer, who's a senior editor for The American Spectator - and for those who don't know, it's a very conservative publication in Washington; he's a former Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial writer - he called him nasty with a mean vindictive streak, and talked about his ethical miscues.
So I think that's something that somebody from the far left and the far right have come together in the middle on. BOB GARFIELD: Isn't political reporting, though, quite self-correcting in this respect? I mean, well, to the degree that he succeeds in Iowa and the national polls and becomes a more serious contender, don't you think that there will be total immersion in Arkansas of the national press and all of this stuff will be amply reported? MAX BRANTLEY: ‘Tain't necessarily so is what I would say. I think the Bush record didn't get fully and completely reported until his second term. Already where there has been some additional reporting on Mike Huckabee, it's been dismissed by commentators in some cases as either, A, the product of the crazy uncle in the basement of Arkansas journalism - that is, me - or, B, just material that's being put out by his opponents and somehow dismissed because it's opposition research as opposed to something else. I call it facts, either way you shape it. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Max. Thank you so much. MAX BRANTLEY: Thank you for having me. BOB GARFIELD: Max Brantley is editor of The Arkansas Times.