Columns » Ernest Dumas

Quips aren't leadership

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Gov. Huckabee excels at the ceremonial duties of the governor--making speeches, broadcasting sporting events, cutting ribbons, jetting to the fabled cities of the East to clear Arkansas's sullied name, announcing new plants that are taking advantage of the state's lucrative tax breaks, lobbing press statements from his bass boat, hosting call-in shows, lofting verbal grenades at unsuspecting environmentalists and welfare lay-abouts. He has a gift and a rare ardor for those.

The ministerial functions of the office, on the other hand, are a trifle baffling to him. The executive chores of governing, so natural to his immediate predecessor, still seem foreign, and he has a short time to learn. Last week should have supplied a sharp learning curve for the

shoot-from-the-lip governor.

The risk for the governor and the peril for all of us is that he confuses the ceremonial ornaments with the job itself. Getting off a clever riposte is not the same as governing or leading, and it can be a hindrance.

Huckabee is not unlike any politician, or opinion writer for that matter, in wanting to deliver a good line, even if it's borrowed. But a smart public official will avoid the gratuitous insult for it may affect the ability to govern. Why antagonize those with whom you have no argument?

Searching for a good applause line with the Farm Bureau, the governor said "environmental wackos" were destroying farming in California.

The good news was that Arkansas farmers could pick up the slack because the wackos were not in ascendancy in Arkansas. It is almost beside the point that California agriculture is booming. Most Arkansans, conservative and liberal, sort of consider themselves environmentalists. They like it that their streams generally are purer than a generation ago; they hate clear-cut forests, industrial pollution and roadside waste. None had a quarrel with the governor about the environment.

Talking to reporters last week, Huckabee seemed to promise tough welfare-reform legislation. The federal welfare law requires states to move a quarter of the mothers on welfare into jobs by July 1. The governor will have legislation next month to comply with the law. No one had yet called him cruel and heartless. But he apparently anticipated that some would complain about the work requirements. One job may not be enough, he said. Like lots of other people who work long hours, the mothers moving off welfare may have to take two or three jobs to make ends meet. He said the government is not obligated to provide the good life to people.

State government is not the North Pole, he said in an applause line that was not altogether original, and he is not Santa Claus.

It is an old crowd-pleasing line, only a little milder than the standard right-wing lexicon--"chiselers," "handouts" and the like-but it is not a substitute for thoughtful policy and it is not likely to prepare people for one.

Finally, there was the governor's real learning experience when, in response to a reporter's question about the 53-day jail term handed to a government employee at Conway for not paying $1,200 in electricity and water bills for a woman and her 16-year-old daughter. Government officials, especially those in the beleaguered Human Services Department, are not in vogue. Huckabee seemed to cheer on the harsh jail sentence, saying the worker got exactly what was coming.

The next day the governor realized the error. Few people will sympathize with jailing a woman for two months, on dubious legal grounds, for husbanding the taxpayers' money. Huckabee said he was commenting on another case, not the Conway sentence and though the question was clear he indeed may have misunderstood. Whatever, he telephoned the woman; apologized profusely, called the woman's father to set things straight and then publicly apologized to her and announced that he supported her appeal of the unfair sentence.

It was an extraordinary gesture, and promising too. If Gov. Huckabee begins to think about the consequences for people instead of pleasing the peanut gallery, he'll be on the way to governing.

Print headline: "Quips aren't leadership" December 27, 1996.

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