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Mike Huckabee’s Ascending Chariot

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN

Suddenly it’s Huckabee. The surge of the former Arkansas governor in the race for the Republican nomination has the pell-mell excitement of one of Napoleon’s victorious rampages across Europe in his heyday. In this case the long faces belong not to the crowned heads of the Grand Alliance, but to the Republican establishment, quivering with terror at the thought of their doughty standard bearer in 2008 being a former Baptist minister, a fellow who thinks God created the world 6000 years ago more or less in its current form.

The great dread of American political establishments down the decades has been that a wild man will suddenly sneak past all obstructions cunningly devised to repel uncomfortable surprises and upset the apple cart. Democrats even today shiver at the memory of William Jennings Bryan, another implacable foe of Charles Darwin, who ran on a silver platform in the late nineteenth century. George Wallace, a redneck governor out of Alabama, ran as an independent presidential candidate in 1968 and Richard Nixon was terrified that he would steal enough votes to throw the race to the Democrat, Hubert Humphrey. A would-be assassin’s bullet put paid to that threat.

The clamor about Huckabee’s Christian beliefs is overdone, not least among the left whose bigotry on matters of religion is particularly unappetizing. A robust majority of all Americans, so polls unfailingly show, maintain they have had personal encounters with Jesus Christ. Ronald Reagan believed and publicly stated more than once that the Apocalypse was scheduled to occur in his lifetime at Megiddo, as excitingly trailered in the Good Book. The soigné Governor Mitt Romney, now displaced by Huckabee as the front runner, is a Mormon and thus, unless he is a heretic from the Latter Day Saints on this specific issue, believes that Christ was Lucifer’s older brother, as Huckabee has not been slow in pointing out.

But Huckabee should not be dismissed as simply the creature of the Christian fundamentalists who play a very significant role in the Republican primaries and who are currently hoisting him in the polls. Of course they like Huckabee for all the obvious reasons, and because the alternatives are the Mormon Romney or Giuliani, who’s hopped from wife to wife, shared an apartment with a male gay couple and favors abortion.

But on many substantive matters, demonstrated during his ten years as the governor of Arkansas, Huckabee was often a progressive, with enlightened views and a record of substantive executive action on immigration, public health, education of poor kids and the possibility of redemption for convicted criminals. In his ten years as governor, Huckabee commuted the sentences of, or outright pardoned, over 1,200 felons including a dozen murderers. This was a courageous and unparalleled display of enlightenment in a country whose interest in rehabilitation is near zero. As Huckabee said in answer to Mitt "throw away the key" Romney, should a woman convicted of check-kiting when she was 17, have this criminal offense prevent her from getting a job thirty years later?
Democrats started by chortling over Huckabee’s meteoric rise in the national polls.

The Democratic National Committee supposedly ordered a moratorium to onslaughts on the Arkansas governor in the hopes that as the nominee he will be roadkill for them in the race next fall. This patronizing posture is already fraying. Huckabee would not be a pushover. He’s quick on his feet, has an easy sense of humor and has a powerful appeal to Americans unconvinced by any of the major contenders.

Thus far, beyond hee-haws at his Christian fundamentalism, the most the liberals can come up with is that he intervened to save his son from very nasty charges of dog-abuse at a Boy Scout camp and that among those whose sentences he commuted was a rapist, Wayne Dumond, who killed at least one woman after his release. Murray Waas has devoted thousands of plodding words to the case.

It’s chilling to watch liberals and pwogs thundering their outrage at the mere idea of pardons or commutations, as though one of the besetting horrors of America today isn’t the penological mindset that puts people behind bars for decades, or the living death of what the criminal justice industry laconically terms LWOP, Life Without the Possibility of Parole. Let’s go back to 1988, when Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, who had supervised an elightened parole and day-release program as governor of Massachusetts, was trashed for letting Willie Horton out of prison on a weekend pass. Who first raised the Horton issue. No, not George Bush Sr. Not Lee Atwater. It was Al Gore, in the ’88 Democratic primaries.

Of course, if you decide not to let people rot in prison for forty years, and let some of them out, there’s a chance there’ll be a Dumond or a Horton among those released. That’s a risk. To say that it’s an unacceptable risk is the same as saying there’s a risk in administering the death penalty, because an innocent person might get gassed or killed with poison, but that nonetheless the price is worth it. Some guy with a DUI on his record gets his license back, gets loaded again and kills another carload of innocents. So, we should bring in a lifetime ban of all DUIs from driving ever again? More people get killed by drivers with DUIs on their record than by convicted killers let out of prison, or for that matter by sex offenders. These days, with liberal assent, sex offenders serve their full terms and still can’t get out of prison. Run a society totally on principles of revenge, not forgiveness or redemption and you end up in the realm of Milton’s Moloch, "besmeared with blood of human sacrifice and parents’ tears."

Then there are the corruption charges. Huckabee accepted gift vouchers for meals at Taco Bell and had a registry at Target and Dillard’s where he and his wife got big-ticket items like a Jack LaLanne juicer. Hold the front page! From reading the furious brayings of Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone, you’d think Huckabee was the Emperor Bokassa, of the Central African Republic, crowned on a golden throne, wearing a Roman toga embroidered with a hundred thousand pearls, then driving off in a coach pulled by six white horses flown from Paris.

Try as they may, dustrakers like Taibbi have a hard time showing Huckabee was anything more than a piker in the perks department.

Here’s some of the record of shame. Total for items requested on the Target wedding registry, $ 2,282, including a 12-piece cookware set for $ 249, a DeLonghi retro 4-slice toaster for $ 39. 99 , napkins, kitchen towels, two king-sized pillows and a clock. Total on the Dillard’s registry, $4,635, not omittting the Jack Lalanne juicer for $ 100.

True, the Huckabees got married in 1974, but they had that covenant marriage in 2005, which is certainly as convincing as Hillary Clinton saying she just got lucky when, as Arkansas’ first lady she made $99,000 on cattle futures off an initial stake of $1,000, the whole miraculous bonanza organized by a guy in the retinue of Don Tyson, the largest food processor in the state of Arkansas. More convincing, actually.

As so often with American politicians accused of graft and corruption, one reels back in embarrassment at the tiny sums involved. In 2003 Huckabee was fined $250 by the State Ethics Commission of bringing shame on Arkansas by accepting a $500 canoe from Coca-Cola in 2001. The Comission also gave him a rap on the knuckles for not reporting acceptance of a $200 stadium blanket the same year. He probably wanted it to put over his knees in the canoe.

Huckabee appealed the sanctions to Pulaski County Circuit Court. Judge Fox said he should have owned up to the blanket, but threw out the $ 250 fine, finding that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show that the canoe, painted with the words "Coke, Arkansas and You," illegally rewarded Huckabee for doing his job as governor. Huckabee battled other such charges, including more substantial gifts of clothes and furniture. It was all familiar stuff, to connoisseurs of small-time corruption charges. Were the suits for the shrunken Huckabee to deploy to Arkansas’ advantage at conferences of governors or trade trips abroad? Was the furniture for the rehabbed governor’s mansion while Mr and Mors Huckabee roosted in the double-wide?

Arkansas underpays its governors as a matter of policy, forcing them into a flexible ethical posture, as opposed to chill high mindedness. Incorruptibles are often more of a menace to society. The American way, which isn’t so bad, is to have the laws on the books, for proper use if things start getting seriously out of control. Corruption, held within bounds, is a useful lubricant. Is it really worse for Muscovites to slip the traffic cop 500 roubles ($20), thus paying a de facto fine, as opposed to getting a ticket, and mailing in your $250 speeding fine to the County Superior Court?

Bill Clinton got $20,000 a year for governing Arkansas. Huckabee got $80,000.

These guys had to go to McDonalds or Taco Bell. It’s all they could afford. Of course they pocketed $10,000 bribes in cash for issuing end use certificates and the like. If the truth be told, Gov Clinton in his Arkansas days in the governor’s mansion, was a piker in corruption, just like Huckabee. The laughable thing about Whitewater was the pathetically small sums the Clintons stood to make if all went well, which they did not. When the tribunal investigating Irish prime minister Charles Haughey finally concluded its labors, long after his death, I totted up the proven bribes and it came to something like $50 million.

So Huckabee will probably survive these charges, as he should the whines of New York Times columnists that he is unversed in foreign affairs. Both Ronald Reagan and George Bush demonstrated conclusively that a passing glance at a stamp album is the only education required for dealing with the rest of the world.

Huckabee’s single rival as a genuinely interesting candidate is another Republican, Ron Paul, who set a record a few days ago, by raising $6 million in a single day. Unlike Huckabee, Paul’s core issues are opposition to the war and to George Bush’s abuse of civil liberties inscribed in the U.S. Constitution. His appeal, far more than Huckabee, is to the redneck rebel strain in American political life ­ the populist beast that the US two-party system is designed to suppress. On Monday night Paul was asked on Fox News about Huckabee’s Christmas ad, which shows the governor backed by a shining cross. Actually it’s the mullions of the window behind him, but the illusion is perfect. Paul said the ad reminded him of Sinclair Lewis’s line, that "when fascism comes to this country it will be wrapped in a flag and bearing a cross." In the unlikely event they had read Lewis, no other candidate would dare quote that line.


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