Columns » Ernest Dumas

Politician Huck, R.I.P.


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Everywhere but at Fox News, his employer, they were writing Mike Huckabee's political obituary Monday, only 24 hours after the discovery that a man he had freed from the state penitentiary in 2000 was wanted for executing four police officers in a Tacoma, Wash., suburb.

It may be time to publish it. Two dead women, the brutalized victims of Wayne Dumond, were survivable. Six bodies won't be, particularly since all the cops had small children.

None of the obits of Huckabee's demise listed the cause of death, excessive Christian piety. That is how Huckabee himself will frame it some day. It is a charitable view of things but as good an explanation of the former governor's fall as any.

Huckabee seemed to sense that this might be it, so he prefaced his first account of his commutation of Maurice Clemmons' 108 years of prison time by almost taking himself out of the 2012 presidential race. The Republican establishment that ridiculed him last year would have to come begging before he would run, he implied. It was a pre-emptive strike. If he were not a presidential candidate, the media might be less inclined to spotlight his responsibility for the new murders. There was, after all, plenty of blame to be dispensed.

It didn't work. Even Fox News had to report on Huckabee's role, although not with its usual hype of celebrated crimes. His fellow commentator, Bill O'Reilly, had him on his show but wouldn't permit even a mild mea culpa from Huckabee. You're blameless, O'Reilly assured him. The real culprits, O'Reilly said, are the judges in Washington state who didn't keep him locked up and prosecutors in Arkansas who let him slip by after Huckabee let him walk. Huckabee accepted the exoneration. An earlier statement on Huckabee's website said flatly that Clemmons should be held accountable if he murdered the officers, as if someone were arguing that the murders should be excused.

National politics for the former pastor has been a tightrope that he has coursed skillfully, and now he has lost his footing. His single strength and his legacy as governor was his compassion, his devotion to extending medical care, social services and educational opportunity to the poor and even to “illegal immigrants,” all at the considerable expense of taxpayers. The teabaggers, were they to be fully aware of his record, would call him a socialist, as indeed some of his establishment Republican critics did.

Huckabee still managed to capture a large part of the Republican base, religious fundamentalists, by emphasizing how much he hated abortion, exhibiting his religious devotion more openly than anyone else dared and by displaying symbols of piety like the famous background cross in his Iowa commercials. He learned quickly that the right was not interested in Christ's social teachings but worshiped a meaner divinity. Huckabee stopped talking about how he had extended government health care to hundreds of thousands of children and many adults, about extending the hand of Christian charity to poor immigrants and about raising taxes and government debt for education and water and sewer services to unserved communities.

So it is appropriate irony that his piety would doom his political career just as, owing to his appeal to evangelicals, polls began to show him as the leading Republican contender for 2012. Compassion for criminals, especially black ones, is not their idea of a good Christian or a president. Huckabee commuted the sentences of 167 convicts, including one famous rapist and quite a few murderers. Gov. Mike Beebe by comparison has commuted one sentence.

One man whom Huckabee released was a businessman whose wife made well-placed political contributions, and he had Dumond released because he thought Bill Clinton connived to have the rapist kept in prison too long and maybe falsely convicted, but for the most part he seemed to act out of genuine charity. It was important to have a preacher intercede for you but Huckabee could find God's guidance on his own. He rarely gave explanations for his commutations but when he did he was apt to invoke Jesus. When he commuted the sentence of one death-row inmate he quoted the Savior: “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these my brethren you have done it to me.” Clemmons might have been psychotic but he wasn't dumb. He wrote the governor that he had found Jesus and that he was praying for Huckabee's intercession. Huckabee sent him a personal letter notifying him of his reprieve, as he did Dumond.

If Huckabee was strong on forgiveness he was always queasy on responsibility, perhaps because if Jesus had anything to say on it beyond a brief caution about bearing false witness he didn't get it into the Bible. As he did with Dumond and with other criminals who went back to crime after he freed them, Huckabee blamed others: the two state boards that he had appointed to advise him on commutations and to parole inmates, prosecutors, a judge who supported the commutation, judges and prosecutors in Washington, people in the media. On O'Reilly's show, he reduced the number of crimes for which Clemmons had been serving time in 2000 from the eight on court and prison records to only two.

There may be hope for the governor. The residing expert on such matters is Roger Ailes, who masterminded the Willie Horton ads that doomed Michael Dukakis in 1988. Horton committed assault, armed robbery and rape while on a weekend furlough from prison, a program that Dukakis supported. “The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it,” Ailes famously said. He can give Huckabee sage advice, too. He hired Huckabee at Fox and his office is upstairs. He's reportedly a good Christian, too.


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