Being a longtime political writer in the little Southern state of Arkansas positions one for a couple of insights into presidential politics.
One is that we propel our candidates by the most superficial of judgments. The other is that we may as well do that, since there apparently isn't much political talent out there in the first place.
In 1992, the national political reporters came around to ask about Bill Clinton. They said they'd never seen such pizzazz as he exhibited rallying from the woman and draft problems in New Hampshire.
So I told them about this 12-year governor of Arkansas. Yes, he was a talented politician with an impressive mind and an engaging manner. But he was uncommonly indecisive and so averse to conflict that he'd tell everybody what they wanted to hear. He didn't so much lie outright as chop the truth into pieces. And there was that business about sexual misbehavior.
These national reporters would nod, take a few notes and then tell me I ought to have gotten a load of Mario Cuomo as governor of New York or been in Washington developing sources who could relate the failings of Bob Kerrey.
I would ask, “So are you telling me that Bill Clinton is the best the Democrats have to offer?”
And they'd say, “Yes — by far.”
Clinton went on to be president for two terms, performing the job more ably than he had executed the governorship of a small southern state. His only woes were bogus Republican charges about Whitewater and the self-infliction of his sexual indiscretion.
Now they're starting to come around asking about Mike Huckabee, also of our little town called Hope, our former Republican governor of 10 years. He's a glib Baptist preacher who, because of dissatisfaction with others in the field, is catching a bit of fire as a candidate for president himself.
It now appears that Huckabee might get up to second or even first in Iowa, and then, if Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney or John McCain or Fred Thompson can't catch on, who knows?
They're telling me that Huckabee is by far the best speaker in the field, the most likable, the best campaigner and a candidate with an intriguing philosophical dexterity that positions him to appeal simultaneously to the evangelical right and the center.
So I tell them that this same Huckabee has a history of ethical shortcomings, taking outside money for speeches from anonymous benefactors and accepting numerous and expensive gifts while in office. I tell them that this same Huckabee was given as governor to lofty rhetoric but not the essential hard work of policy detail. I relate that this same Huckabee can be petulant, huffy and irresponsibly hyperbolic against critics.
They nod and take notes and say I ought to talk to people in New York about Giuliani's ethics or to people in Arizona about McCain's temper. If I want to know about rhetoric not matching reality, they say, then I should talk to people in Massachusetts about the ever-evolving Romney.
After all, they tell me, Ronald Reagan wasn't all that much for policy detail.
Are they trying to tell me that Huckabee is the best the Republicans have to offer?
Not yet. But they're warming up.
Nobody asks about Hillary Clinton, first lady of our little state for a dozen years. That's because everybody saw her first-hand for eight years as first lady of the nation. So I needn't tell anyone about her eerie discipline, her lack of warmth as a campaigner and her hostility to critics. But most Democrats seem to have sized her up against Barack Obama and John Edwards and concluded she's the best the party has to offer.
In Arkansas, we can believe it.