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The Man Behind
the Myth

The Man Behind
the Myth


Now a serious Republican presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee has had shifting stances that seem more calculated than compassionate.

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.


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.


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."


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."


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."


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."


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."

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