The Man Behind the Myth

By Bernice Yeung

Originally published on Advocate.com December 14 2007 12:00 AM ET

On the national
stage Mike Huckabee of Arkansas was best known as the
affable Republican presidential candidate who plays in a
rock band and dropped 110 pounds after a diabetes
diagnosis -- until his 1992 comments on AIDS
(“we need to take steps that would isolate the
carriers of this plague”) and homosexuality (it
is "an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle")
came to light.

But for those who
have watched Huckabee’s ascension from Baptist
minister to Arkansas governor to Republican
presidential candidate, his 1992 remarks were not
altogether surprising. Despite his undeniably winning
personality, Arkansas political observers along the
political spectrum have described Huckabee as someone
who could also be prickly, thin-skinned, and stubborn.
“In Arkansas, when he’d get a level of
inspection, he’d get out of sorts and whiny,”
says Max Brantley, executive editor of the liberal
Arkansas Times, who has covered Huckabee
for 16 years. “He’d blame the media and
then he’d lash out.”

Brantley adds
that the current flap, particularly Huckabee’s
unapologetic refusal to distance himself from his
’92 comment on AIDS, is representative of the
politician he has come to know. “I think it’s
a refusal to admit error and also a blatant and I
think repellent effort to play to the dominant voter
in the primaries who remains homophobic,”
Brantley says. “And he’s obstinate. As a
governor he was not a consensus-builder or a
negotiator. He’s absolutely sure he’s right,
and he never admits it when he’s wrong. He can
be mean and ugly if you cross him. He’s
secretive. He’s very similar to Bush with the
exception that he wasn’t born with a silver
spoon in his mouth.”

But Jay Barth, a
political scientist at Hendrix College in Arkansas who
has written about both state politics and gay and lesbian
politics, says that Huckabee’s 1992 comments
were likely the mark of a political newbie, which is
why those comments and their tone are so inconsistent with
his presidential candidate persona. “He
transitioned from being a minister, where he had a
certain freedom to share his views, to politics, where
it’s important to be more careful and think about the
implications,” Barth says. “I think that
over time, he did grow as a politician. That said, he
has always remained very much a performer. As a result, he
often goes for the cute and gimmicky line that,
especially on gay issues, sometimes leads to some
hurtful humor.”

What else has
Huckabee had to say about gay rights issues over the years,
and what does it reveal about the man behind the sound
bites? Here’s a round-up of some of
Huckabee’s public statements -- what emerges is a
portrait of a keen showman who has become adept at bending
his words in order to reach his audience but whose
policy positions are ultimately antigay.

ON BEING GAY

When he was asked
earlier this year on NBC’s Meet the
Press
whether he believes people are born gay or choose
to be gay, Huckabee responded, “I don't
honestly know. I really don't. I think there are --
there are people who would argue vociferously on both sides
of that. But I think that the point is, people are, are who
they want to be, and we should respect them for that.
But when they want to change the institutions that've
governed our society for all the years of recorded
human history, then that's a serious change of, of culture
that we, we don't just make readily or, or hurriedly.
It has to be done with some, some deep
thought.”

In 1992, Huckabee
also told the Commercial Appeal, a Memphis
newspaper, that he believes being gay is a ''lifestyle
choice'' that should not be ''encouraged or legitimized'' by
government actions. Still, he said he was against gay
bashing: ''I resent sometimes we get on our high
horses about what is right and wrong. 'We can never
lose sight of the fact our real desire needs to be what's
best for our people.''

Analysis: Despite
Huckabee's anti-hate crime rhetoric, Brantley, the
newspaper editor, says gay voters should still be skeptical
of him. “You could go down the line on issues
-- the marriage amendment, the state policy where the
board of his appointment prohibits foster parenting by
gay people, and what I view as animus against employing gay
people, it’s a viewpoint from someone who
doesn’t accept that gay people are part of the
mainstream,” he says.

ON GAY MARRIAGE

In both policy
and rhetoric Huckabee has been entirely consistent on
same-sex marriage: He is adamantly opposed to it. In 1997,
during his first legislative session as governor,
Huckabee signed one of the nation's first
“defense of marriage acts,” which banned
same-sex marriage in Arkansas. He later endorsed and
helped campaign for a state constitutional amendment
to the same effect, which Arkansas voters passed in
2004.

At the Values
Voters Presidential Debate in September, Huckabee
reiterated that he believed that “marriage is a
relationship between one man, one woman, for life....
I would support strongly, and lead -- not just support
but lead an effort to have a constitutional amendment to
affirm marriage as one man, one woman, for life,” he
said.

Just this month
he used more colorful language with TheBoston Globe when he said that "unless Moses
comes down with two stone tablets from Brokeback Mountain to
tell us something different, we need to keep that
understanding of marriage.”

And as the
governor of Arkansas in 2004, when advocating for the state
constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage, he
told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the bill
“isn't a ban on 'gay marriage' since for those
of us who believe in the biblical and historical
definition, there's no such thing as 'gay
marriage.’”

Analysis:
Political observers like Hendrix College’s Barth say
that although Huckabee supported the marriage ban, he
was not at the forefront of the movement, as he claims
to have been. “He now really does tout the fact
that he was leading the charge for a marriage amendment for
Arkansas, but that’s just not accurate." Barth says.
“The record indicates he supported it, but he
was not leading the charge. Those who were leading the
charge were those who were actually saying that Huckabee
was not conservative enough; it was a moment of interparty
politics.”

ON CIVIL UNIONS

Huckabee has
flip-flopped when it comes to civil unions. He recently told TheBoston Globe that he opposes them. "When you
create a validity and actually put a sort of government
approval on the behavior, I think that is a different set of
rules than, say, a person makes a lifestyle decision,
and that's choice,” Huckabee said. “I
understand if there is a same-sex couple, and again I don't
personally support that, but that's their business. The
power of attorney would give them a chance to visit
one another at a hospital, transfer assets. There a
lot of things that could be handled that don't require a
civil union."

But in August
2006 he told the Concord Monitor, a New
Hampshire newspaper, that as a “paradoxical
conservative,” he is against same-sex marriage
("That's not a marriage,"), although he supported
civil unions. New Hampshire has a more progressive
electorate than Iowa, not to mention highly sought-after
independents who can vote in either the Republican or
Democratic primary.

Analysis: Barth
says Huckabee’s shift likely has to do with political
strategy. “I remember when he said it in 2006, and it
struck me as a little surprising. My only guess is
that it was at a time where his campaign was trying to
figure out who was going to appeal to, whether he was
going to be a Christian right candidate or a compassionate
conservative candidate.

“He’s moved to the right decidedly with the
issues he’s emphasized,” Barth adds.

“When he
left the governorship, he was clearly in the moderate camp
among Arkansas Republicans. He’s shifted to the
right since he announced he’s running for
president. If anything, his trajectory has moved from the
right to a moderate position when he was governor, and now
he’s back to where he was in the early
‘90s.”

GAY ADOPTION

As governor,
Huckabee supported a state ban on gay couples becoming
foster parents. It is one of only three states with a
law of this kind still on the books.

When the American
Civil Liberties Union challenged the law in 2006, the
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that
Huckabee questioned the intentions of the gay couple serving
as plaintiffs in the case. "Was the purpose for their
filing suit because they felt very, very compelled to
become foster parents or because the ACLU used them as
the vehicle to make a political point in the court?"
Huckabee asked.

Earlier this
year, when NBC’s Tim Russert asked Huckabee to be
more explicit about whether gay couples should be able
to adopt children, Huckabee expertly dodged the
question: “That's a question that, that I
think, again, goes back to the heart of what's best for the
child. Unfortunately, so much of this argument has
been framed about what, what the same-sex couple
wants. But the real question needs to be
child-focused, not couple-focused. And, Tim, that's true for
whether the couple is same-sex or whether they're
heterosexual. In our state, as in most, the criteria
for adoption is always what's in the best interest of
the child. That ought to be what's front and center.”

Analysis:
Brantley says Huckabee is skilled at sugarcoating his
antigay comments. “He knows how to say
extremely offensive things without seeming offensive,
which is his greatest characteristic. But to think that
he’s anything but a cookie-cutter religious
right-winger is a terrible mistake. He’s
running on the vote from people who abhor gay people, but
he formulates things so it doesn’t sound as mean as
the other candidates.”

Adds Barth:
“He’s trying to stake out a position that is
clear in its conservativeness without being
hard-edged.”

ON DON’T
ASK, DON’T TELL

At a recent
Republican presidential debate, Huckabee again tried to
dodge a question about his position on "don’t
ask, don’t tell" by trying to steer the line of
questioning toward immigration issues, a topic he
feels more comfortable addressing. When pressed about
whether gays should be allowed to serve openly in the
military, Huckabee responded, “I think it's
already covered by the Uniform Code of Military
Conduct. I think that's what Congressman [Ron] Paul was
saying: It's about conduct; it's not about
attitude.... I just said I think it's a matter -- it's
not -- you don't punish people for their attitudes; you
punish them if their behavior creates a problem. And it's
already covered by the Uniform Code of Military
Conduct.”

He added that he
would not change existing policy. “I don't think that
I would. I think it's already covered by the existing
policy that we do have, in fact,” he said.

Analysis: As with
other issues, Brantley says Huckabee tends to soften
his statements, even though, in his action, he stops short
of backing meaningful protections for the rights of
LGBT people. “Every now and again he’ll
say something conciliatory like during the overturning of
the sodomy laws, he said that what people do in the
privacy of their own homes is their business.
He’ll bow in that direction, but it’s only a
bow.”

ON SEX EDUCATION

Huckabee has long
been a proponent of abstinence-only sex education, and
during his tenure as governor of Arkansas, public schools
phased out contraceptive-dispensing clinics. Though
his comments on the issue to the mainstream press are
tempered, as a guest on a Christian Broadcasting
Network program in May 2007, he told listeners:

"I am
disappointed that funding for abstinence education is not
likely to be renewed by the Democrat Congress. This reversal
only emphasizes how important it is for Republicans to
take back Congress and win the White House with an
authentic conservative in 2008. I miss the America I
grew up in where the Gideons gave Bibles to fifth-graders
instead of school nurses giving condoms to eighth-graders.
With so much at stake, it's important that we return
to the core values and guiding principles which have
made our country great.”

Though Huckabee
insists that he remains a man of conviction on the issues
(“Never let expediency or electability replace our
principles," he said in October 2007), his more
strident comments to Christian crowds illustrate his
ability to play to an audience. “Huckabee is a
performer, and as the audience changes, the
performance is tailored,” Barth says. “I
think it’s clear that what we’re seeing is
that during the Iowa caucus campaigning, there is an
audience there that wants to hear certain things, and
he is doing what he needs to win. This leaves us in a
wait-and-see mode as the audience changes through the course
of the primary, or if he were to be the Republican
nominee -- he may change either his positions or at
least the way in which he talks about the
issues.”