Columns » John Brummett

Looking for meaning in Huckabee reruns

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Judgment and ethics emerge as attributes to ponder now that Mike Huckabee might become president. For the moment, fresh national media reporting condenses this discussion to a pair of old Arkansas dramas.

Before getting to those: There was a dustup over the weekend about Huckabee's backward and perhaps not altogether abandoned thinking on gays from 1992. As a failed candidate for the U.S. Senate that year, Huckabee seemed to want to quarantine AIDS sufferers.

That shouldn't hurt him in the Iowa Republican caucuses, which, don't forget, offered a sufficient kook-right base to award a first-place plurality to Pat Robertson in 1988. At the least it will offset any of Huckabee's problems with that base owing to his glimpses of compassion and reason on illegal immigration.

So back to the two dramas: One centers on Wayne Dumond, whom Huckabee wanted out of prison, and who, once out, raped again and killed. The other is Action America, the secretive nonprofit organization that Huckabee set up while lieutenant governor to raise private funds with which he paid himself to give speeches.

Now Newsweek parachutes into the state and gets a couple of former Huckabee allies to reveal that one of the previously undisclosed donors to Action America, to the tune of $40,000, was tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds.

As required by law, Huckabee always reported his income from Action America, which ran about $71,000 in less than two years. But he would never identify the persons or groups actually donating the money to this nonprofit entity. That put an elected public official in the rather brazen position of being secretly underwritten.

Huckabee's detractors cite these matters and call him a crook or a near-equivalent. Huckabee defenders say he is a righteous man victimized by overheated and unfair partisan criticism.

But Huckabee is neither a crook nor a victim. He is a man with a pronounced chip on his shoulder stemming from a lower-middle-class upbringing and perpetual underdog minority political status in a largely one-party state.

Sometimes he uses his humble origins and outsider status as justification for his own questionable behavior regarding gifts and income. And he lets his religion, which provides his genuinely compassionate side, to lead him into overly simplistic, overly combative and overly dramatic moral judgments and declarations.

In Dumond, Huckabee was compassionate toward a man he believed to have suffered too much through an inordinately long prison sentence and getting castrated by masked intruders.

Huckabee saw corrupt “Delta justice,” a supposed oxymoron that Republicans and media cynics like to use contemptuously in regard to the good ol' boy culture of eastern Arkansas. And he saw the Dumond affair as all mixed up in supposed Clintonian political machinations, in part because Dumond's victim was a distant cousin of Bill Clinton.

For good measure, Dumond was claiming through a preacher colleague of Huckabee to have found Jesus. So you had the redemption factor, always powerful with Huckabee.

As lieutenant governor in 1994, Huckabee didn't have any money and he had three kids staring down college. His political ambition had landed him in that nothing part-time office paying only $24,000.

He probably should have thought about the financial inadequacies before running. Perhaps he did; maybe he had the scheme in mind all along.

He had pals round up benefactors to pay him on the side through this so-called Action America. The payments were for what he called a legitimate professional private-sector purpose — his own speechmaking.

The issue is whether R.J. Reynolds would have shoveled money to a speaker who was not in elected public office. The issue is cashing in the public trust.

Huckabee pointed out that Democratic lawyers in the Legislature, Mike Beebe among them, disclosed only their general income through their law firms without listing specific clients. What was the difference?

It was a decent if not compelling question. But Huckabee's professed morality did not persuade him to be better. Instead he invoked as cover the prevailing behavior of others.

The Dumond matter raises worthy questions about Huckabee's ability or willingness to think beyond what his moral and partisan instincts tell him. The tobacco issue raises equally worthy questions about the chip on his shoulder and a rationalized sense of entitlement.

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