Mike Huckabee has really flat feet, it turns out, and this, says lifelong friend Lester Sitzes, explains a lot.
For one thing, it explains why young Huckabee was never exactly a speed demon. The Hope lad loved baseball, though, and was not without talent. He had a certain persistence–a kind of unflappableness. So it came to pass that on a fateful day at age nine or so, Huckabee was playing catcher for the Little League All-Star team when he broke his hand.
To hear his sister, Pat Harris, tell it, this incident all but explains why Huckabee will soon be sworn in as the next governor of Arkansas.
Instead of playing with the team, Harris says, her brother got a chance to call part of a game for a local radio station. Apparently, he was pretty good, for over the years to come he would spend hundreds of hours calling games over the Hope radio airways. Huckabee developed a smooth, resonant voice, and became comfortable enough with off-the-cuff speaking that he started to get involved in school politics, she says. He lost one race in junior high, but that only fired him up more. He became, she says, “Mister-run-for-it-and-get-it,” winning the student council presidency and the prestigious governorship of Boys State.
The gift of gab–and a profound spirituality–then led Huckabee to start preaching church sermons when he was only 16. He was in great demand whenever a pastor wanted a day off, but his sermons were often downright coarse. (See “Q&A”) After college, he became an ordained Baptist minister, and then moved on to lead the Arkansas Southern Baptist Convention. In 1992, his love for politics drew him, against the advice of many, to join the Republican Party and jump into an ugly race for U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Dale Bumpers. When Huckabee lost, he was financially and emotionally wiped out. He had no job, no prospects, and, he says, fewer friends, since many were put off by his Republicanism, and many of his other “friends” didn’t want to be connected with a loser.
But a few real friends–like Sitzes, a dentist in Hope–pulled Huckabee through. Huckabee picked himself up and entered the race for lieutenant governor, a post vacated when Gov. Bill Clinton resigned to become president and Jim Guy Tucker moved up from the number-two spot. Capitalizing on a fervent statewide network of supporters, many of whom shared his religious convictions, that he built during the Senate race–one man completely covered a vintage Mustang with an oddly beautiful arrangement of Huckabee bumper stickers–he out-maneuvered Democratic opponent Nate Coulter to win the office.
Since then, he has surprised, if not frustrated, watchdog liberal critics by mostly refraining from pressing religious issues in office, though, not surprisingly, his convictions form a basis for many of his policy positions. There have been exceptions, such as Huckabee’s early, and repeat, declaration of “Christian Heritage Week” during stand-ins as governor.
Then, in a historic development a few weeks ago, Gov. Jim Guy Tucker was convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy in the first Whitewater trial, and announced he would resign the office July 15. Huckabee was gearing up for a new Senate race to replace the retiring David Pryor, but quickly dropped out to devote his energy to governing. Now, the hopes and dreams of Arkansas Republicans for a vibrant two-party system in the nation’s most Democratic state weigh on the shoulders of this 40-year-old man.
“We were raised up in a really good Christian home, “says Huckabee’s sister, Harris: “Two parents who both worked. My dad [Dorsey Huckabee] was a fireman. He also on his days off ran a generator and alternator business. My daddy could do anything, the big rough-calloused-hands kind of guy that you would expect. My mom [Mae] managed an office. If anything, we grew up understanding that you had to work for anything you got.”
In March, Dorsey died of cancer. Mae lives in a nursing home in Texarkana.
During high school, Harris became friends with a talented, tomboyish all-district basketball player named Janet McCain. “One of the most real people you’d ever meet,” she says. Harris liked Janet so much that she tried to get her to go out with her brother. Janet and Mike hung around together in a tight group of friends, but didn’t date until their senior year. Finally, it happened one night after she played in a ball game that Mike had “called” on the radio. “Everything in Hope was closed, so we went to Fulton to the truck stop and had supper,” Janet said.
“Mike was a leader in our class,” she says, explaining her growing attraction. “He was a funny person. He was a fine Christian person.” Today, she is continually amazed by his mental energy and the force of his personality.
“I call him a machine,” says Janet. “He’s abnormal. He’s extremely driven. His brain never shuts off–it really never quits.” This is often difficult for Janet to deal with, she says, because she is a laid-back person by nature.
Occasionally, though, Huckabee does relax. “He likes to read, he loves to fish,” says Janet. “We go to Lake Greeson. He can just ride up and down in his boat. He goes on the Arkansas River for catfish, but he’d rather fish for bass. He cooks a lot. He likes to make jambalaya, and he likes to make chili.”
Judy Garrett went to school with the Huckabee’s, played basketball with Janet and now teaches biology at Hope High. She remembers Mike Huckabee as an extremely focused young man with strong principles who helped instigate a “Christian Club” while he was in high school “You always knew what he stood for,” she says, “but he wasn’t stuffy-shirt about it or straight-laced. He was fun back then, too.”
Huckabee played in several rock and roll bands, she said–pretty good ones–and though she can’t remember exactly, she suspects that Creedence Clearwater Revival was the music of choice. One of the groups was named the Bois D’arc Boogie Band.
Huckabee was on the debate team, and was also known as a fine young actor, playing the starring role of Charlie in the senior play, “Flowers for Algernon,” and, on another occasion, turning in a bang-up performance as Dr. Seuss. His penchant for acting now manifests itself in the deft impressions he does at public speaking appearances.
During high school, Huckabee developed a reputation as a practical joker. “You always had to be careful,” said Harris. “He would set you up.”
Sitzes remembers a young science teacher right out of college that Huckabee liked to kid. “They made announcements on the intercom system during our science period, and we used to say the little man in the box on the wall has something to say,” Sitzes said. “The teacher would insist that there was no little man in the box,” but Huckabee, somewhat absurdly, insisted.
“Somebody brought a GI Joe to school,” Sitzes says, “and we put it up on the intercom box with his hand in the air, waving. Later, she got into this discussion with us about how there is no little man in the box on the wall. Mike said, ‘yes there is.’ And she said ‘no, there isn’t.’ Then Mike said, ‘look!’ and there it was. That day, she herself wrote on the board 100 times, ‘There is a little man in the little box on the wall.’ “
“Everybody was his friend,” said Sitzes. “He made you want to do things, kind of like Tom Sawyer making you want to whitewash the fence. I tried to be like Mike. Nobody can be like Mike, but you want to be anyway.”
Expectations were so high for Huckabee in high school that most people were deeply disappointed when he decided that he wanted to be a preacher at the tender age of 16. “They thought, what a waste,” said Sitzes. “Adults said, ‘that boy really had a future in politics; it’s too bad he threw it away.'”
Mike and Janet continued to date when they enrolled at Ouachita Baptist. “Mike was a hard worker,” she says. “He carried a full load at college, had a job [pastoring at a small church and working at a radio station] and dated me … so I always thought he was very talented.”
Mike and Janet married after the end of their freshman year, with Mike decked out in a powder blue tuxedo, white shoes, and Beatles hair. It was young Christian bliss. But within 16 months, the couple’s world crashed down when Janet was diagnosed with cancer of the spine at age 20. She was suffering from back pain that was traced to a slipped disk, but doctors later discovered that a tumor was the underlying cause.
“They didn’t think she was going to live,” said Harris. “Then the doctor said that she might not survive, but that if she did, she would probably be confined to a wheelchair, and she probably wouldn’t be able to have any children.”
Janet says none of this really sunk in at the time because she was young, athletic, and felt indestructible. But her husband understood all too well. On the day of the surgery, Janet says, “Mike told the doctor, ‘I just want you know that you are not going in there by yourself.’ The doctor even came out earlier than he thought, and it scared Mike because he thought I’d died.” Luckily, though, the doctor managed to remove all of the cancer.
Janet and Mike became closer than ever. For six weeks, he drove her from Arkadelphia to Little Rock every morning for radiation therapy, and then they would drive back to Ouachita for classes. Janet’s cancer has been in remission ever since.
“When you can endure something like that,” Janet says, “it makes you feel like we should be able to handle the smaller problems.”
Despite these trying circumstances, Huckabee graduated from Ouachita after barely more than two years–a stunning academic feat. The family then left Arkansas (Janet never finished college. “I always meant to,” she says, “but I just kept having babies.”) and moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where Huckabee enrolled in Southwest Seminary and took a job as director of a Christian advertising agency. While they were there, Janet gave birth to their first child, John Mark, who is now 20 and will be a sophomore at Ouachita Baptist this school year. Son David will be 16 this summer, and daughter Sarah is 13.
In 1979, the family moved back to Arkansas, and Huckabee did more communications work. The next year, Immanuel Baptist Church in Pine Bluff asked Huckabee to come down and be a supply minister for a day because their pastor had resigned. When his sermon went well, they asked him if he would consider taking over as pastor. Politely, Huckabee told them no. But Huckabee eventually agreed to hang around through the winter as interim pastor, and as he got to know the church, he started to see its potential. “It had a handful of senior adults left, and had been through a 20-year process of decline,” Huckabee says. “Of course, I was a media guy, so I brought a very different set of understandings on how to grow a church than a typical pastor would. So we started doing what were for that time and that community some pretty outrageous things for a church: bus bench ads, radio spots on the number one station … and I started a little program called Positive Alternatives.
“This church had convinced itself it couldn’t grow … couldn’t do anything significant And I knew that the real change needed was an attitudinal change. We went from 160 in attendance to over 650 by the time I left five years later. We started a television station, which is still on full-time.”
Huckabee went on to pastor from 1986 to 1992 at Beech Street First Baptist Church in Texarkana, and to serve as president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention from 1989 to 1991. He was firmly ensconced in the religious world, but as the ’90’s dawned, an old secular desire was stirring within him.
One night, Janet says, the two of them were lying in bed when Huckabee said, “Do you know what I think?” And she said, “Yes. You think God wants you to run for the U.S. Senate.”
“How do you know these things?” Huckabee asked, and Janet responded “God speaks to more of us than just you.”
Huckabee was in for an education.
As a key player in Bumpers’ campaign against Huckabee–and later as Huckabee’s opponent in the lieutenant governor’s race–Nate Coulter had a unique view of Huckabee’s political development.
“In ’93, he made a frontal assault on Bumpers for having voted with the majority to fund the National Endowment for the Arts,” Coulter says, “and he used that general vote to imply that Bumpers had favored the [Robert] Mapplethorpe exhibit. He used it in a commercial that was very inaccurate and misleading and essentially accused Bumpers of being a supporter of pornography. It justifiably riled Sen. Bumpers, and I think turned off voters. By the time he was running against me eight months later, he had learned to make an attack on the Democratic Party and President Clinton, but never used my name. He accused me, indirectly, of being the candidate of the political machine.”
But in general, Coulter was impressed.
“I think Mike Huckabee is a moderate at heart,” says Coulter. “The early signs [of his transition to governor] are that he is by nature not a bomb thrower. Being shoulder-to-shoulder with him in a campaign setting, when the red light on the camera went off, the tone of Mike’s comments to me changed and his personal warmth took over. But when the camera light went back on, he would feel compelled to fire up his supporters and take my hide off.
“I think he got elected in ’93 because of a more extremist element of his coalition,” Coulter says, “and he has to decide if he’s going to turn his office over that that element.”
Right now, Huckabee is feeling the stress as the eyes of the state shift to his incoming Republican administration, and his office swarms with aides working on the transition.
“He’s averaging three or four hours of sleep a night,” Janet says. “But typical is probably four or five.”
The whole family, in fact, is going through a tough time as the Huckabee’s prepare to sell their longtime home in Texarkana and move to the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock. Janet says it will be difficult for her to adjust to the mansion. “I’m a very independent person,” she says. “Having people do for me and dealing with security–those kinds of things I will have to get used to.”
The Huckabee’s haven’t decided what to do about schooling for their two teenage kids, but Janet says her husband has called the Little Rock School District for information on the various options available. They’ve been in public schools in Texarkana.
Meanwhile, the public wants to see whether the flat-footed Little Leaguer from Hope is fast enough—and tough enough—to play hardball at the state capitol.
Print headline: “From Little League to the political big leagues Mike Huckabee, the state’s next governor, always had a knack for politics.” July 12, 1996.