Columns » Max Brantley

The leopard's spots

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I was celebrating my 30th wedding anniversary in San Francisco when I noticed something amiss while surfing the web in the lobby of our hotel.

A relatively routine gubernatorial news release hadn’t turned up on our Arkansas Blog, though it had been published elsewhere. I asked Warwick Sabin about it when I returned home. He said I needed to talk to Alice Stewart, Gov. Mike Huckabee’s press secretary. That’s when I received her curt statement that the Arkansas Times would no longer receive press services — e-mailed news releases, notices of press conferences, answers to questions, etc.

I still don’t know what triggered the blacklisting. But the anecdote illustrates a critical weakness in Mike Huckabee, now a candidate for president. His judgment often fails him, not a ringing endorsement of a man who would carry the nuclear football.

His shunning of the Arkansas Times perhaps gave him a bit of pleasurable payback for our criticism over the years, true. But how else did he benefit? The action, widely covered in the press, underscored his reputation for having a thin skin and spread it to a national audience. An attack by the state’s highest politician merely raised our stature. And finally, he encouraged us to work even harder to break stories about him and his administration.

Consider some of the Huckabee news scoops we produced: The sale of his lake house; the purchase of his new home in North Little Rock; the dual gift registries at department stores to score loot for his new home; the $6,500 worth of china and crystal from the charity that’s supposed to improve the Governor’s Mansion; his questionable use of a Virginia PAC to raise unlimited campaign contributions; his solicitation of $100,000 sponsorships to his Christmas gala; the first itemized report on gala contributors; the first published mention that he’d removed hard drives from computers in his office, and, the capper, a two-day jump with the exclusive news that he’d announce his candidacy on Meet the Press.

It’s for Huckabee to ponder how much of this would have been published had he not cut us off. He certainly gets credit for sending many antagonists racing to us with tips.

Now he faces other judgment calls that turn on more than his selfish desire for vengeance. Can he cleanse his jokey shtick of unpresidential bathroom humor? Can he swear off his unflattering gift-seeking and not show such a passion for perks? Can he bring in talented advisors he’ll respect on big topics such as foreign affairs, or will he continue to presume there’s no judgment on earth better than his own? Can he admit inevitable errors or will he continue to insist on his infallibility, as in the case of Wayne Dumond? Can he learn to work with press who criticize and question?

The biggest question is this: Does he understand it will take more than a warm demeanor and the careful dodge he uttered on Meet the Press to win votes in a country obsessed by George W. Bush’s disaster in the Middle East? A tepid endorsement of the president’s decision to put 20,000 more Americans into the meat-grinder (he’s for it except when he’s against it if it means sending the National Guard) is not leadership. Tell us, Mike. Which side are you on?

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