James H. Wallis in 1935 wrote a cynical primer for office seekers, which he dedicated to Niccolo Machiavelli. The important first step, he said, was for parents to arrange for the ambitious child to be born in a log cabin or, that failing, the next worst dwelling that would allow the future politician to boast of his roots in poverty.
Failing even that, Wallis advised, make the deprivations up.
The last Arkansas politician to boast of a log-cabin heritage was Orval E. Faubus, who when he was running against the millionaire Republican Winthrop Rockefeller in 1964 described the icy winds whistling between the logs on January mornings and curdling his red-eye gravy before he could sop it up with a biscuit.
Mike Huckabee is Wallis' most devoted disciple in the presidential race. More even than John Edwards, the tribune of the working stiff, Huckabee brags about the hardships of growing up destitute. It is a big part of his skyrocketing success this fall as the different kind of Republican who understands what it is like to struggle to pay the rent and the light bill. In one of the outrageous exaggerations that always characterize his campaigns, Huckabee said last week that he was the only candidate for president this season who ever had to work for a living. Teaching, soldiering, farming, lawyering and construction apparently are not work, at least not on the level of toil that is pastoring a Baptist church.
But the most celebrated and repeated lines from Huckabee's standard stump speech are about his “dirt-floor upbringing,” as the Des Moines Register described it, and outdoor toilets. You can't find any quotes from Huckabee about living on a dirt floor himself or having to use an outdoor privy, but rather most often he talks about being a generation removed from dirt floors and outdoor toilets. It's usually followed by the laugh line about having to use Lava soap and not learning until he was in college that bathing did not have to be painful.
Never mind the precise language that it was his mother, not him, that had to live in these unsanitary conditions, the impression is that he lived that way, and it is often reported that way.
Sometimes Huckabee gets more precise: His “mother's family” was one generation removed from dirt floors and outdoor toilets. That means that his maternal grandmother or someone in her family lived someplace for a time that had dirt floors and a privy. If that is true, the dirt floors would be extraordinary but not the outdoor plumbing, which was common in rural Arkansas until after World War II. Out on Champagnolle Road in Union County we enjoyed plank floors but did not have indoor plumbing, electricity or telephones until my adolescent years, and I did not consider us poor or deprived.
But Mike Huckabee endured none of that as a child. Despite the romantic descriptions of hardship, Huckabee grew up in a red-brick home on East Second Street in downtown Hope. It was not in the country club subdivision but it was middle-class Hope. His father was a fireman and an auto mechanic on his days off and his mother worked for the energy company. They bought him an electric bass guitar when he was 11 and he went to a private college.
Huckabee's populist bombast, so rare for a Republican since the days of Bob LaFollette, George Norris and William Borah, endears him with mainstream writers on the left and middle who have written hymns about his compassion and reasonableness, and it seems to resonate with evangelicals, who tend not to be rich. It is at least going to win the Iowa caucuses.
But populist rhetoric more often than not is a pose disguising royalism. After 15 years in politics, it is still hard to say whether there is any conviction behind Mike Huckabee's talk or he is just another Republican who subscribes to the doctrine that the best politics is to capture votes from the poor and money from the rich by promising to protect each from the other.
He has not offered a single proposal as a presidential candidate that would help lower-income people — certainly not his tax plans. While he has at times condemned Republican interest in cutting taxes for the rich and big business, he also promises more of that and defends all the Bush relief for the wealthy and corporations. Sooner or later he will have to say which it will be.
His record makes it no clearer. As governor, he repeatedly took credit for Democratic reforms from tax relief for lower incomes to the minimum wage while bashing Democrats as tax raisers and big spenders. He took money from big tobacco in 1993 and 1994 to call Bill Clinton's national health insurance plan “socialized medicine,” his characterization of current Democratic proposals, but as governor he expanded socialized health care (Medicaid) more than just about any state by embracing Democratic legislation.
You can't always have it both ways, preach to the poor and cater to the rich, and get credit for both. On the other hand, maybe you can.