Mike Huckabee made a fine little splash Sunday when he announced on Meet the Press that he was running for president, demonstrating again that if the measurement is glibness he belongs in the top tier of Republican candidates.
Smooth talk, however, is overrated as a political gift. If fair words and a graceful tongue were the yardstick, Alan Keyes (remember him?) or anyone but George W. Bush would have been president the past six years.
It is itself not overly prized in politics, but there is one quality that a fresh and unknown candidate evades at considerable peril: truthfulness. The former governor has always had a problem with it when he seeks to embellish his record or clean up his mistakes. Elegant phrases will go only so far in papering over untruths.
The weakness was in full panoply in Huckabee’s short interview with Tim Russert, host of NBC’s Meet the Press. Russert, who is not ordinarily a nervy interviewer, nailed Huckabee only once on a bit of flimflam, — his role in the parole of rapist and murderer Wayne Dumond — and Huckabee may be lucky enough to avoid much contention over his exaggerations and diminutions of his Arkansas record. But his dissembling will catch up with him before the campaign moves far along.
How much better he would be if he stuck laboriously to the truth and owned up to the errors that befall every officeholder. People are supposed to admire straight talk. Huckabee’s 10-year record as governor is not as spectacular as he makes it out to be, but the truth would adequately support his essential claim in the Republican race, that he is nearly as socially conservative as the most hidebound of his opponents but he has a heart that makes him want to use the government to improve the fortunes of society’s vulnerable, children, the elderly, the disabled and immigrants.
As governor, he was unusually charitable to prisoners, and the most famous of his intercessions, for Wayne Dumond, caused the death of a couple of women in Missouri. He got the state parole board to release Dumond, who was in prison for raping a Forrest City girl, and Dumond was convicted soon afterward of murdering a woman in Missouri and was a suspect in the death of another. He died in prison. Huckabee would maintain that he had nothing to do with Dumond’s release although he had advocated it and expressed his satisfaction to Dumond himself. He has blamed his predecessor, Jim Guy Tucker, and even Bill Clinton, whose relative was the rape victim.
Someone apparently passed along to Russert free-lance reporter Murray Waas’ documented Arkansas Times account of Huckabee’s pleading with the board in a secret meeting to release Dumond. Russert asked Huckabee if he had talked to the parole board. Huckabee first said he had not talked with the board about Dumond.
“You never mentioned Wayne Dumond?” Russert asked with obvious incredulity.
“No,” Huckabee said, adding then “they brought it up to me.” He said they asked him if he thought Dumond should be paroled and he replied that he thought the rapist’s case should be given “you know, a serious look.”
That is not what the board members said. They said Dumond was the purpose of the private meeting and that Huckabee brought it up.
A bigger lie, this one a serial prevarication, was this: “I was the first governor in the history of my state to ever lower taxes, the first one in 160 years. We lowered a total of 94 different taxes and fees.”
That kind of claim is easily proven false. To name a few tax cuts before him: Clinton in 1991 eliminated income taxes on tens of thousands of low-income families; Dale Bumpers did the same in 1973. Clinton cut capital-gains taxes. Gov. Ben T. Laney eliminated all state ad-valorem taxes, reduced inheritance taxes and gave a homestead exemption for local property taxes.
By claiming to have cut taxes 94 times, Huckabee fixed a standard for what is a tax cut: every little exemption, credit, deduction or tax break of any kind. By that standard every governor the past 60 years cut taxes numerous times. No session of the legislature passes without a dozen or more such cuts.
But tax increases have far outweighed tax cuts in magnitude, and they did under Huckabee, too.
The major tax cut that he claimed, the omnibus income tax cuts for working families in 1997, was the program of Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who resigned before the legislative session where it was enacted. The legislature rejected Huckabee’s plan but he signed the bill patterned on Tucker plan and thus can claim some credit for it.
Challenged on tax increases, Huckabee told Russert that the Arkansas Supreme Court forced some and that the voters had voted to raise highway taxes. Actually no, voters approved a bond issue in 1999. Half the road taxes, those on diesel, were to be levied even if the bond issue failed.
Let’s call another of his claims on Meet the Press, that he was a great champion of protecting the environment, a mighty stretch. He began his tenure deriding “environmental wackos” in a talk to the Farm Bureau and ended it fighting to let poultry companies poison the Illinois River, which downstream Oklahoma is trying to stop.
He’s no George Washington for sure.