Preacher Huckabee 

The best young politician in the Baptist Brotherhood adapts his pulpit skills to challenge Dale Bumpers

Mike Huckabee preaches against sin, liberalism, the deficit and Dale Bumpers.

Mark Morgan

Mike Huckabee preaches against sin, liberalism, the deficit and Dale Bumpers.

He's from Hope. He's a well-known Southern Baptist. He's articulate and fairly nice-looking. He's a young man in a hurry, to borrow a phrase.

He swept through his undergraduate college work in a little more than two years, doubling up to save money because his parents weren't well-off and he had to work his way through college doing radio shows and providing play-by-play for high school sports events, his first passion and calling.

He was smart enough to graduate magna cum laude, though not from an Eastern school, but Ouachita Baptist University. He was elected governor of Arkansas Boys State by a margin that he says was the biggest in the history of the program. Another Bill Clinton? In a way, yes. In a big way, no.

He's Mike Huckabee, 36, a bit paunchy and soft-looking, but ever pleasant. He's a Baptist preacher turned Republican politician, which is not a severe turn, certainly not in his case, and he wants to unseat US. Sen. Dale Bumpers this fall.

He met Bumpers in 1972. He was 16 and governor of Boys State; Bumpers was the real governor. Depending on how the race turns out, that meeting two decades ago may take on mythical, generational proportions akin to Clintons' shaking hands with John F. Kennedy at Boys Nation in 1963. Bumpers, you see, encouraged the young man to consider a career in politics, a noble profession.

Huckabee went the route of the Baptist ministry, via Southwestern seminary in Fort Worth. He preached at the Immanuel Baptist Church in Pine Bluff, where, in 1985, he baptized the first black member and stood his ground when eight other members walked out. He preached for six years at the 2,500 member Beech Street Baptist Church in Texarkana until resigning this year to make the Senate race.

He continued his broadcasting career on the side---one that began at age 14 when he got his license from the Federal Communications Commission and went to work part-time as an announcer and control board operator at a Hope radio station. He has a radio voice with a preacher's inflection. The young man definitely can talk.

The highlight of his life, he says, was doing the play-by-play radio call for a football game played in War Memorial Stadium. It was a couple of years ago when Texarkana, now his home, played for the state title. Today he owns a communications company that operates a non-profit, interdenominational cable television network emphasizing religious, community and sports programming in Texarkana and Nashville, Ark. But he knew all along he would run for office.

I, too, believe in a place called Hope," Huckabee tells about 30 supporters at the Western Sizzlin in Monticello. The difference between me and Bill Clinton is that I actually grew up in Hope." Well, there are more differences than that. Clinton supports gay rights. Huckabee, who says he has counseled many people who came to him and thought they were homosexual, calls homosexuality "learned behavior." He says he tells gay-leaning people the same thing he tells men who come to him for counseling about extra-marital sexual urges. You've got to control yourself."

Clinton has emerged as the nation's great hope for continued abortion rights. Huckabee, while decrying the sloganeering" that dominates the abortion debate on both sides and saying he opposes the tactics of Operation Rescue, says abortion is wrong and that Roe vs. Wade needs to be repealed because the US. Supreme Court contrived a right of privacy to protect it.

Clinton advocates school health clinics that could distribute contraceptives. Huckabee likes to tell audiences that he longs for the old days. When I was in school, they handed out Gideon Bibles; now nurses hand out contraceptives." (In fact, only three schools out of hundreds in Arkansas distribute contraceptives.) Abstinence is the only real solution to teen pregnancy, he says.

Huckabee says Clinton does not represent the Southern Baptist religion, though he disapproves of the independent Baptists from Texas who have demonstrated outside Clinton's church, Immanuel Baptist in Little Rock. Those people shouldn't mix religion and politics that way, he says. The way to mix religion and politics, he says, is his way: run for office on your value system and let the voters decide.

Asked if he believes the Republican Party more properly represents Christian values than the Democratic Party, he says, "I have to be careful answering that," but eventually answers it this way: "Yeah, I do."

But Huckabee is not running against Clinton. In fact, when asked if he fears that Clintons popularity in Arkansas will drag down all Republican candidates in the state this fall, Huckabee says, "Maybe, but I don't think so. I've had people tell me they intend to vote for Clinton and me. Suits me."

He's a politician. To him a vote is a vote, even if it's cast in a nonsensical way. To that extent he's like Clinton. And he's like him in another way, too. Clinton is adept at playing all sides, spanning gulfs. In 1989-90, when the Southern Baptist Convention was threatened with civil war because of a fight between fundamentalists who were purging moderates, Huckabee was twice elected president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention because he was the best politician in the brotherhood: He was the only Baptist preacher around whom both sides rallied.

"The most bare-knuckled, hard-fisted, heads-up politics I've ever encountered, and that includes this race, so far, was my two years as president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention," he says. "People who call me a newcomer to politics don't understand the Baptist church." It turns out that he was as fundamental as the fundamentalists, but as seemingly tolerant as the moderates.

He has a good sense of humor. At a rally in Monticello, a sign advertises Huckabee sunglasses, but none is displayed. Where are they? "Don't bother me with the concessions---I'm the big picture guy," he says. He's running against a respected man of 68 about whom he has good things to say: congenial, honest, sincere, a fine gentleman.

So why run against Dale Bumpers? I had a growing conviction that we are losing our country economically and morally, and we're losing it to career politicians to whom politics is a game and who have been princes of privilege so long that they don't think about that 70-year-old woman living in a back seat of a station wagon or a guy sleeping under the bridge."

He says Bumpers is a swell guy who has been rendered out-of-touch by 18 years as a prince of privilege. "That's 18 years of here's your parking place, here's your dental care, here's your medical care, here's your pension, 56,000 a year if you are retired this year while people are out there paying into Social Security all their lives for 800 a month. That's 18 years of making laws from which you are exempt—the OSHA regulations, the National Labor Relations Act, the civil rights laws, the Social Security law, the disabilities act. Essentially, the problem in this country is political careerism and Bumpers is a part of it."

Also, there is Bumpers voting record. Too liberal. Out of touch. Not representative of the people of Arkansas. Huckabee even brings up Bumpers vote for the Panama Canal treaty. He says he has these basic disagreements with Bumpers:

• He favors a balanced budget amendment. Bumpers voted against it in 1986 when it failed by one vote. (Bumpers' campaign manager, Nate Coulter, says Bumpers prefers tough, responsible budget cuts rather than tinkering with the Constitution and that Huckabee opposes each of 350 billion worth of cuts that Bumpers has advocated.)

• He favors a presidential line-item veto. Bumpers opposes it.

•He favors term limits to stop what he calls careerism. Bumpers opposes them.

•He opposes abortion and public funding of it. Bumpers disagrees.

•He opposes gun control, any form. Bumpers has favored some bans on specifically identified assault weapons not a generic definition of assault weapons that arguably might extend to sporting weapons and a five-day waiting period for purchasing a handgun.

•He wants congressional reform---fewer staff members, limiting out-of-state contributions (Huckabee hammers Bumpers for the nearly half-million in out-of-state contributions to his campaign) and doing away with the congressional pension plan because Congress wasn't supposed to be a career. "Let them pay into Social Security and open IRAs like the rest of us," he says.

The Arkansas Baptist Convention has 495,000 members. It would seem an extraordinary political base, but Huckabee insists it doesn't exist. "There are more Democrats than Baptists," he says. I wish all the Baptists would vote for me, but they won't."

Nevertheless, it is impossible to watch Huckabee as a politician without seeing strong parallels to Huckabee the preacher just as it is impossible to separate his religion from his politics. His campaign schedule is rife with guest sermons three times a week at Baptist churches across the state, on Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings and Wednesday evenings. He says his eschews politics in these sermons, and usually collects a fee of 100, which, he insists, is the extent of his personal income while campaigning.

He says he did not solicit the guest appearances for campaign appearances, but that upon leaving Beech Street, he notified the state headquarters that he was available for what the Baptists call pulpit supply, meaning substitute preachings for vacationing regular ministers. But he acknowledges that congregations twice took up love offerings after his sermon for his campaign. His speeches at political rallies are essentially political sermons. At Monticello, he laces his 30 minutes with anecdotes and self-deprecating humor.

Instead of railing against sin and quoting the Bible, he rails against the budget deficit and the insulation of Congress and quotes statistics from the Republican campaign handbook. He speaks extemporaneously and flawlessly, fast and fluid. He's not fire-and-brimstone in his style; he's more restrained. But he holds interest in the way a professional speaker can hold interest. In fact, he has done after-dinner speaking.

Then there is his fundraising technique. Fred Barnes, the contributor to The New Republic, found it so innovative that he predicted one Friday evening on "The McLaughlin Group" that Huckabee would upset Bumpers, which got him hooted by Jack Germond, Eleanor Clift and Morton Kondracke. Apparently, Barnes was unfamiliar with the concept of passing the collection plate in church after the preacher talked about God's loving a cheerful giver.

In the spring, Huckabee held 18 of what he called "poor man's dinners." Supporters were appointed table captains and asked to bring regular people, not traditional political donors, to the dinner. The tickets were for the price of the meal, period---$10 and below, usually.

Huckabee would give his sermon, or speech, and close with an appeal for money---whatever anyone could afford. He drew 1,000 people to the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock, 800 in Texarkana, 700 in Springdale, 300 in Conway. Altogether, he netted about $300,000, nearly all of which has been spent on computers, printing, office costs, yard signs, bumper -strips (which he calls "auto decals" to avoid using bumper) and travel. He'll have the dinners again in the fall.

It was money that garnered Huckabee some bad publicity. His recent Federal Election Commission report reflects that he is paying his wife, Janet, $2,000 a month, and that he had paid $7,500 to his own company, Cambridge Communications.

He and his wife reacted angrily, appearing overly sensitive. Some described them as whining and politically naive. Huckabee explains it this way: The great unfairness in politics is that incumbents such as Bumpers can raise a half-million dollars from out-of-state sources, mostly political action committees, and sit around earning interest on a war chest, and then be matched by challengers only if those challengers are rich men.

Huckabee is not a rich man. He says he has no stocks or bonds, only savings for retirement and college educations for his three children, and that he owns one house on which there is a large mortgage. His honoraria for preaching and his wife's $2,000 a month, for which she does actual campaign work, is the extent of their income through November, apart from a couple of collections from congregations to which he has preached, he says.

He considers it the ultimate unfairness to be criticized for fundraising improprieties when he is at such a disadvantage and is trying to raise money from nontraditional sources. He says the payment to his own firm was to reimburse it for buying computers and audiovisual equipment on credit when his campaign didn't have the cash.

And, typically, he is defensive about Janet, his wife, who appears rather strong-willed and is most always at his side on the campaign trail. Shortly after they were married, she was diagnosed with cancer on her spine. She is now fully recovered.

This story originally appeared in print with the title, "Preacher Huckabee: The best young politician in the Baptist Brotherhood adapts his pulpit skills to challenge Dale Bumpers" on August 8th, 1992.


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