It occurred to me midway through Mike Huckabee's remarks on his infamous commutation of the sentence of the eventual cop-killer. I was wrong to write that he had declined to take responsibility. In answer to a question, he was telling a packed room at the Clinton School of Public Service that 108 years in consecutive sentences for the crimes Maurice Clemmons committed as a teen were excessive.
He said a privileged white youngster with a good lawyer would have done much less time, if any, for the same spree. He said he'd do the same thing again if confronted with identical facts and circumstances. You can't take much more responsibility than that. And he's absolutely right about class and race.
More precisely, he wants to shift blame. Authorities in both Arkansas and Washington had opportunities subsequent to the parole to keep the main detained, but let him go. But Huckabee seems to be getting weary of that. Wrangling on political blame seems insensitive to the horror of the shooting deaths of four policemen.
Indeed, he simply cut us off in a press conference. No more questions on this commutation, he said. So what I did was wait around for the book-signing line to clear out, then confront Huckabee with a copy of his new book of Christmas stories to seek his signature and permission to follow up.
He greeted me with a feisty, combative friendliness and signed the book this way: “At least we both love dogs.”
Then, as his wife and daughter and son and daughter-in-law hovered, he said to fire away. I challenged him on what he'd said publicly — that his religion-based affinity for the notion of personal redemption was not the motivation in his hyperactive record of shortening prison sentences.
He said oh, OK, it is true that his faith affects everything he does. But he objected to this idea that, because he's a preacher, he was a sucker for professed prison conversions.
He said only God can forgive and redeem, but that a governor at least can affect justice.
He quoted Alexander Hamilton, who argued that we needed the power of presidential pardons because sometimes the criminal justice system makes mistakes and it is efficient for one man to have the sober responsibility to correct them.
Actually, though, Hamilton seemed to be suggesting that a president so empowered would use the unilateral authority sparingly. Huckabee used his gubernatorial power more frequently than several other contemporary governors combined.
I am now wondering if what motivated him was more a distrust of our court system.
Huckabee argues that his commuting a sentence was no different from a prosecuting attorney making a plea bargain. But that's not so.
The prosecuting attorney is elected to make such judgments on a full-time basis. He is ostensibly a professional trained in these matters. He confronts crimes at street-level and deals with caseload pressure.
A governor's pardon power is to be more passive, a backstop for the most egregious or unusual circumstances. But Huckabee seems to have disposed that power with a kind of glee — or vigor, at least — to make himself into a super-judge.
He does carry a bit of a chip on his shoulder about any entrenched establishment, whether that be the Democratic culture of Arkansas or the Wall Street economic conservatives of the modern Republican Party.
Anyway, to quote Hamilton as saying we would not want a criminal justice system that couldn't be corrected is a luxury that probably shouldn't be extended to a governor who carried out the death penalty.
You can't correct the killing of the wrong man. Nor can you correct the killing of one who got the death penalty when another man got life in prison for essentially the same murderous act.
I asked Huckabee if he now was more sensitive to what the Republicans cynically did to Michael Dukakis in 1988 over Willie Horton.
He didn't answer. He counter-punched. He ridiculed liberals who supposedly are all about compassion, but who want to use this tragedy against him merely for payback.
Yes, I said, modern politics is all about partisan payback anymore.
“You think I don't know that?” Huckabee asked. He said he'd been the victim.
I said he'd been a perpetrator, too.
“Me?” he replied, a little sheepishly, perhaps.