Columns » Max Brantley

The first 10 days

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Gov. Mike Huckabee has always been strong on form--a polished speaker with a friendly manner. The new chief executive hasn't wasted time demonstrating substance, either.

I'm not thinking so much of Huckabee's performance during Jim Guy Tucker's four-hour resignation waffle July 15. Huckabee was eloquent and firm in "crisis," but his impeachment threat was essentially hollow. It probably couldn't have been accomplished before Tucker got what he wanted--a final verdict on his acquittal motions.

The duly sworn governor impressed the next day with a policy speech to a Little Rock civic club. It included, of course, the trinity of bedrock conservative Republican orthodoxy--lower taxes, leaner government and family values. But it was a speech of evolution to his political goals, not revolution. Newt Gingrich, take note.

More impressive still was the day-old governor's appearance on a call-in show with Steve Barnes on Arkansas Educational Television. The viewers' questions, and Barnes' follow-ups, were pointed. Huckabee was funny, informed and newsy, particularly when it came to gambling. I'm paraphrasing, but his message was that if existing race tracks keep trying to expand gambling, no one should blame opponents for trying to wipe out gambling in Arkansas altogether.

I liked what he said about the Governor's School. He enjoys the interchange with brainy students, he says, even when it's hostile. And he doesn't mind that students' beliefs are challenged in the program. He only asks that they hear from all sides.

He's halfway home on honoraria, a defining issue. He has decided not to accept paid preaching jobs in state. He's undecided on out-of-state appearances. I hope he'll agree, in time, that these higher dollar appearances before political interest groups carry an even greater appearance of profiteering from office.

But there was no indecision on one important matter. He's enrolled his kids in Little Rock public schools. The previous governor didn't and you couldn't blame any newcomer for doing otherwise, given the skewed media images.

Huckabee also sounds like a man very nearly committed to be governor for a while, not to jump ship for a Senate race in 1998. More credit due.

Has Tucker's temporary insanity rubbed off on this persistent Huckabee critic? Not hardly.

The first 10 days weren't flawless. For one thing, he should declare amnesty on the Tucker last-minute appointments, not use party officials to foment bickering. He also could mute the Reaganesque rhetorical flourishes. He says we should crack down on fathers for child support, but forgets to note that we are. He says able-bodied people should not receive welfare checks unless they are caring for children, but forgets to say they don't. He says he'll insist on courteous state employees, but forgets to add that most are.

He's a quick study. He may win me over completely yet.

Print headline: "The first 10 days" July 26, 1996.

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