Central Arkansas venues have a full week of commemorative events planned
"The things I do to be First Lady of Arkansas."
Janet Huckabee says these words with a smile at the goofiness of her current situation.
The 42-year-old wife of Gov. Mike Huckabee is kneeling, in borrowed jeans, T-shirt and running shoes, in a barren patch of the Crater of Diamonds State Park. A late-spring cold front is whipping in from the north, chilling those in short sleeves.
An intermittent rain is pelting Janet Huckabee, who's gamely trying to act the part of a happy diamond hunter for a TV crew filming a tourism commercial.
Between takes, a uniformed park ranger stands at attention by the First Lady's side. He's holding an umbrella to keep her dry. See, there's no change of clothes at hand. It's a lucky thing that the TV crew could come up with clothes on the spur of the moment at all for Mrs. Huckabee, who tops 5'10 in heels and who admits, "I haven't worn a size six since I was a baby."
Luck holds. Janet Huckabee is a natural before a camera, a toothy smile beneath green eyes and strawberry blonde hair, which she keeps in place with a quick brush of her hand. A few takes, the TV crew pronounces the result perfect, and another tourism commercial--coincidentally showing both Arkansas and the governor's wife to great advantage--is headed for editing.
Don't doubt that Janet Huckabee has enjoyed herself. A drive of more than two hours still lies between her and a dinner appointment at the Governor's Mansion. But first she dashes across the dirt for a chat with veteran diamond prospectors. She exclaims over their finds, inquires about their methods and then, after another of the day's two-minute wardrobe changes, is back in her green-checked dress for the drive home.
A day with Janet Huckabee is a day full of such vignettes, perfect for pen and camera, yet palpably unscripted. Her commentary, if influenced by her famous husband, is her own.
There's a naturalness about Janet Huckabee that you don't always feel about her husband, a gifted performer at pulpit and podium.
Says her mother, Pat Stephens of Hope, "She's just a natural girl from the natural state in the natural state. Whatever you see is what you get."
What you get, the people of Arkansas are learning, is a jet-skiing, parasailing, bear-hunting, river-floating, cop car-cruising, bike-riding, 9-millimeter pistol-packing (carry permit applied for), Mansion-redesigning First Lady.
The girl just wants to have fun. And she does, with abandon. The last thing you'll do in the company of Janet Huckabee is sit still.
This month, she has put her penchant for fun to work for Arkansas tourism, with a series of high-profile visits to vacation destinations and supporting TV commercials.
Janet Huckabee's initiative won't be, like previous first ladies, the arts or child immunizations or education or making peace with a bunch of Russians. It is to be herself and enjoy Arkansas.
She figures that if she can encourage the people of the state and outside visitors to enjoy Arkansas as much as she does, that will be good for Arkansas. And, it goes without undue emphasis, what's good for Arkansas is good for the man in the governor's chair.
You have to like the First Lady's chances of succeeding. Her unaffected style is tailor-made for an unaffected state, the kind of first lady who knows that her son's pickup shares the same chassis with the big Suburban she used to whiz around in.
She's comfortable in public appearances, friendly and not preachy. But spend a day with her--from a White Hall elementary school to Old Washington Historic State Park to the Crater of Diamonds State Park and back to the Mansion--and you'll hear plenty of politics. About local control of education. About how "80 percent of the people in Arkansas" share her opposition to same-sex marriages.
There is in her the same confident command of the mainstream that her husband demonstrates. The difference is her openness and resilience in the face of opposition, maybe born of competitive athletics that sometimes gives way to a sulk in her husband. (Not that she'd ever agree to such characterizations about her husband.)
Janet Huckabee's recent run in the headlines for a spat over Governor's Mansion decor seems likely to resolve itself in her favor, on sympathy for the newcomer if nothing else. It won't be the first time.
In the 1993 special election for lieutenant governor, Democrat Nate Coulter learned the risks of attacking Huckabee, the Republican nominee, through his wife. The issue was payment of campaign money to Janet Huckabee for staff work in her husband's losing race for Senate in 1992. It was the first of several instances in which Huckabee finances, and a seeming preoccupation with money and perks, became enmeshed in his political life.
But the Coulter ads went too far, or so many voters seemed to feel. They may have even tipped a narrow race in Huckabee's direction. It was a critical outcome, putting Huckabee in position to become governor when Jim Guy Tucker resigned last year.
That incident might be instructive in the great Mansion flap, a dispute ultimately about who will control the public building--a group of insiders mostly appointed by other governors or the people, the Huckabees, who live there.
Mrs. Huckabee has shown some rare defensiveness on this issue, but she remains confident the public will in time see it as she does--as "silliness."
It seems a safe bet, not that Mrs. Huckabee would wager, any more than she would allow alcoholic beverages on Mansion grounds. To all but the trained eye, the Mansion looks about the same as ever--different only to fussy Clintonites, interior decorators and preservationists who have fired at the novice First Lady from the protection of anonymity.
The average guy, if he pays attention at all, probably isn't much concerned about the silk flowers substituted for more expensive cuttings of fresh flowers. He's more likely to take his cues, favorable ones, from the bass boat, jet ski, dog house and pickup the Huckabees have parked out back.
That I find myself in the company of the First Lady for a couple of days might seem something of a surprise. The Arkansas Times has been a frequent political critic of her husband. As a result, he rarely speaks to writers for this newspaper. But the First Lady's staff responded immediately to a request for an opportunity to spend a day on the road with her, and also scheduled a follow-up interview at the Mansion.
"I guess I wanted to see if I could find out why you feel the way you do," Mrs. Huckabee offers by way of explanation. Hers is an abiding curiosity.
"My favorite thing to do," she says, "is meeting people and learning about people in the state of Arkansas. I like to see what they do and learn why they live where they live, whether it's in a little white house or a doublewide. I like to know why they want to make handicrafts for a living. Or why they work in a little grocery store. Or whatever."
Janet Huckabee and I share a common birthplace, Lake Charles, La., so it gives us a little something to talk about as we set out.
She was born July 16, 1955, the fourth of A.B. and Pat McCain's five children. She moved to Hope, Arkansas, when she was 1, and her parents divorced not long after. Her father, an intermittent factory worker, went back to Louisiana. Her mother became the sole support for the five kids, working as a legal secretary and in the county clerk's office, ultimately being elected twice as county clerk after death created a vacancy in the office.
"I don't know how she did it," Janet Huckabee says of her mother's single parenting. She can't recall that she lacked for anything. Her mother was at every basketball game (Janet was a 20-point-a-game high school forward). There were summer camp, college (though shortened by her marriage), a childhood full of bike rides and school activities and church.
Janet Huckabee lived outside Hope in Oakhaven, a subdivision of neat two-story clapboard houses once occupied by officials of a World War II proving ground. She attended a different elementary school from her future husband, the fireman's son. They attended different churches as well. She was in a Southern Baptist congregation; Mike Huckabee was then a Missionary Baptist, though he'd eventually become a two-time president of the Arkansas Southern Baptist Convention.
Mike and Janet didn't get acquainted until junior high. Their romance started several years later after they got to know each other in a group of kids that often ate lunch together.
"We started dating our senior year. Our first date was going bowling in Emmett, unless you count the time when we went with a couple of friends to eat at the truck stop in Fulton after one of my basketball games."
Both went off to Ouachita Baptist in Arkadelphia. Janet's college days--which she says may have led to a career as a coach--came to an end at the end of their freshman year. They decided to marry at age 18, as her mother had before her. And, also like her mother, she became a breadwinner.
Mike stayed in college, needing only one additional class to complete a degree in two years. He worked at a local radio station and also served as pastor at a small Baptist church. Janet worked as a dental assistant to help pay their bills.
In September 1974, Janet Huckabee thought it was the hours she was spending on her feet as a dental assistant that were causing her back pain. "But it did not get better and it did not get better."
The next year, she visited doctor after doctor, eventually seeing an orthopedist who diagnosed a slipped disc. Finally, after more tests, he found a malignant mass growing around the spinal canal.
"Within a day, I had spinal surgery for a rare kind of tumor and then six weeks of radiation therapy." More than 21 years later, there has been no recurrence. "It's something that's always hanging over my head, but you can't live in fear. The Scripture tells us God didn't give us a spirit of fear, but the power of a sound mind. I believe that. I don't want to ever have cancer again, but I try not to live in fear of cancer."
Janet Huckabee focuses on the experience's impact on her husband. "Mike probably had a more difficult time than I did. He was pastor in a church, taking a full load in college and driving me back and forth to a hospital every day for six weeks, from Arkadelphia to Little Rock. We'd get up early every morning, to try to be the first ones there to do our treatment, so he could get back to go to class."
She adds: "He graduated in two years, with honors. I'm real proud of that fact."
That pride is no less evident today.
Weaknesses in her husband?
She struggles but can't think of one.
"I kind of think he's a perfect man," she says.
His best qualities?
"I really feel like he has a real ability to communicate. I don't mean just in front of the TV or radio. But one on one. He has a real ability to discern what people are saying and thinking and then communicates that back to them."
Mike Huckabee honed those communication skills in the years after OBU. He went to seminary in Fort Worth, where Janet again worked as a dental assistant, "for a Jewish retired Army dentist." Mike worked for James Robison, the broadcast evangelist, where he learned more about radio and television.
Ultimately, Huckabee dropped out of seminary short of a degree. Says his wife: "A teacher told him, 'You're going to learn more from experience than you'll ever learn from a textbook.' "
So Huckabee returned to Little Rock, worked for the Paul Jackson evangelical association and then, after rebuffing three offers, finally accepted a fourth call to be pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Pine Bluff.
This was a more momentous decision than many know, Janet Huckabee says.
"He wanted to run for Fourth District Congress against Beryl Anthony," she remembers. "He decided to stay in Pine Bluff."
Today, Janet Huckabee thinks this was "God's plan all along." She knew her husband would run for office eventually.
"He was always a leader," she says. "Read his high school annual. Read what people wrote then. They said, 'I know you're going to be governor.' "
Along the way, the Huckabees moved to Texarkana and Beech Street Baptist Church. And it was there, after Huckabee's first major political involvement--in the very political world of the Southern Baptist Convention--that the couple got its indoctrination in secular politics, a crushing defeat by U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers. She says the lessons from the loss were invaluable. But her husband had resigned his pastorate to make the race and finances were a struggle. Janet Huckabee went back to work at a Texarkana hospital, where she held jobs as an intensive care unit monitor and then a pharmacy assistant. She worked up until a week before the tumultuous change of gubernatorial power last July 15, the lieutenant governor's salary, augmented by speaking fees, not enough to maintain homes in two cities and travel between.
Janet Huckabee figures her years as a pastor's wife was a perfect training ground to be the wife of a politician.
"Being governor is a lot like being a pastor. You visit a lot of people. You raise a lot of money. You're in the public light a lot. You're on TV a bunch. You have to smile sometimes when you don't want to. But in some respects it's different. In the ministry, you're used as an example. In politics, everyone tries to find ways to push you off the pedestal. Still, if you were going to school to be a First Lady, the place to do it would be a Baptist Church ministry. You know, it can be political at times."
Janet Huckabee's generally not complaining, but she's had a bruising initiation, however prepared she may have been by church politics.
In Republican circles, and within the dedicated grassroots organization that Mike Huckabee has built, the joy at his ascension was nearly boundless.
"Everybody kept asking, 'Aren't you excited?' "Janet Huckabee recalls. "This may sound really strange, but being governor really wasn't on my list of things to do last year. My mother said, 'Aren't you the least bit excited?' I said, 'No, I just haven't had the time.' "
Janet Huckabee had to close out a job. Make arrangements to move out of their Texarkana house. Cope with dislocation on the part of their children, who didn't want to leave home. Find new schools. Prepare for a new church (it eventually became the Church at Rock Creek, a casual, contemporary sort of Southern Baptist congregation with lots of music in the service and a governor on bass guitar.)
Also, she points out, "The way we got in office, someone had to get out. It was hard to get excited about something I didn't ask for, couldn't plan for and that was the cause of unhappiness for someone else."
Mike couldn't be much help, contending with the sudden shift of power in Little Rock while Janet packed boxes. "He's not much good at that kind of thing, anyway," she says.
Then there was the Governor's Mansion, which seemed more like a hotel than a house, with servants for a woman who once earned a living cleaning houses. Her daughter, Sarah, now a ninth-grader at Pulaski Heights Junior High, and son, David, now an 11th-grader at Parkview Magnet, had difficulty adjusting to their new home, though both are doing well now.
(Sarah was a member of a state champion mock trial team and is headed for Central High School next year. David won a Parkview award for acting. The oldest son, John Mark, who turns 21 in November, is a communications major at OBU and, by the way, chairman of the College Republicans and an elected class representative.)
Getting moved was difficult enough. There was also the matter of becoming First Lady, with all the different expectations of what that can mean.
"There's no rule book to go by," the First Lady says. "Everything I do and everything I learn, I learn on the job."
Mrs. Huckabee couldn't comfortably look to the previous First Lady, Betty Tucker, for guidance. Hillary Clinton and Betty Bumpers are off in Washington. She had help from Gay White, wife of the last Republican governor. Mark Pryor also volunteered his help. He remembered being a kid in the Governor's Mansion, a time that included a difficult stretch for his mother, Barbara, who participated in a critically panned movie and, almost unbelievable in retrospect, set off a statewide buzz with a new frizzy hairdo.
If Janet Huckabee can be faulted today, it's less for missteps than for not fully understanding how other First Ladies have been lightning rods, too. And not just for their hairdos. Betty Bumpers became known as a peacenik. Hillary Rodham's maiden name was just the beginning of friction. Betty Tucker was a business partner with her husband in deals that wound up scrutinized by an independent prosecutor.
By comparison, Janet Huckabee's Mansion redecorating has been trivial. But trivia makes news when your husband is the governor, just one of the lessons she's learned in the middle of a jam-packed schedule.
She finds a huge irony in all this.
"There are three things I don't like to do--have my picture taken, give speeches and sit at head tables."
In the course of our one day on the road together, she's photographed dozens of times by still and video cameras. She makes a speech to 500 school kids, speaks to several dozen state parks employees at lunch and speaks before cameras for two separate commercials that will be seen by tens of thousands of viewers.
She even sits at one head table of a sort, in the old tavern at Old Washington, where she's the guest of honor for a country-style lunch (and where she digs happily into the buttery mashed potatoes and fresh blackberry cobbler).
All this prompts her, more than once, to repeat a trademark line:
"God must have a sense of humor. He made me First Lady of Arkansas."
Prediction here: the people will be laughing with her.
Print headline: "The First Gal What you see--a fun-loving, down-home Arkie with a sure political touch--is what you get with First Lady Janet Huckabee." June 6, 1997.
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