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The line between tacky and crooked 

Mike Huckabee's most vigorous and able nemesis in Arkansas is the unabashedly liberal and uncommonly activist editor of the weekly free tabloid in Little Rock.

I've been knowing and admiring Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times for 30 years, since we were lads breaking in at the late, lamented Arkansas Gazette. He went to bat with higher-ups to make me a columnist. Then, when I up and quit one day, they made him the columnist. There wasn't any drop-off that I could tell, and I'm being kind to myself.

He's one of the smartest people I know. He's one of the most blustery. He's one of the most passionate. He's one of the most partisan.

I'm over here growing steadily less certain of things. Max seems to have come out of the womb certain and to have become more convinced ever since. He is capable of uncompromising disdain, most prominently toward the Huckster and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which killed his beloved paper.

Max and his wife, Ellen, the judge, are old friends of Bill and Hillary. Ellen and Hillary were in college together. That's just something we need to put out there.

Max has been brooding and stewing, not so much that Huckabee has risen to national prominence, since he probably figures Huckabee is about what the Republicans deserve, but that he's done it by charming many national reporters who haven't bothered asking anyone in Arkansas about the fatally flawed essence of this man.

So it happened that Salon, the popular liberal on-line magazine, invited Max to write something. Max did. It was his sassiest and brassiest and best. I invite you to read it at www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2007/11/13/huckabee.

Brantley acknowledges good and progressive elements of Huckabee's record. But then those personal failings get laid out — Huckabee's setting up a nonprofit organization to supplement his lieutenant governor's salary with anonymous donations; Huckabee's using the Governor's Mansion account for personal groceries; Huckabee's acceptance of gifts galore; Huckabee's wanting castrated rapist Wayne Dumond freed because of misplaced compassion and a paranoid distrust of all things having to do with Clinton, then not owning up to it; Mike and Janet's setting up a gift registry for themselves as they prepared to set up housekeeping post-Governor's Mansion.

My take always has been that Huckabee is altogether more tacky than corrupt. Much of what he pulled as governor and lieutenant governor was permitted by law and rule, but represented a sense of entitlement that people of more refined sensibilities would eschew.

What most separates Huckabee is his petulance and huffiness and hyperbolic squealing when he gets caught or challenged.

I happen to have received benefit of Huckabee's early thinking on these matters. This occurred either while he was lieutenant governor, or, more specifically, during that transition when he was preparing to replace Jim Guy Tucker.

He told me that ethics cannot be regulated by government and that procedures set up presuming to do so merely invite harassment by partisan political enemies. He thinks morality is your own business, yours and God's, and that politically appointed bureaucrats and partisan newspapermen can't possibly worm themselves credibly into that relationship.

My conclusion is that Huckabee has good qualities and deplorable ones. The good ones commend him for this national prominence, but the deplorable ones ought to disqualify him from the presidency.

The last person in whom I saw such contradiction and complexity went on to a presidency that showcased those very contradictions and complexities.

Am I equating the sins of these sons of Hope? I'll let a higher power compile those rankings. I'm saying that, politically, they inevitably amount to a kind of wash.

It's not illegal to receive oral sex from an intern, though it amounted to a kind of sexual abuse in a presidential case. It was not illegal, though perhaps it ought to have been, to be a governor letting a rich guy who is a personal friend outfit you in good suits.

What you choose to overlook and abhor depends on which partisan way you lean. You can disregard Mark Rich's pardon and obsess on Wayne Dumond's. Or the other way around.

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