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A Performance Too Good to Be True

Huckabee "I don't see how any fellow who wasn't an actor could do this job."
-- President Ronald Reagan

Fred Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee and ex-D.A. on Law & Order, is being cheered on in his bid for the presidency by a consortium of Republicans who believe that a little acting experience and a lot of conservatism will yield the second coming of the Gipper. But Thompson won only 3 percent of the vote in Iowa and zero percent in New Hampshire and is giving the least convincing performance of his career.

Though he may not win, the best actor by far among Republicans is Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and a Baptist minister. Like Reagan, he spent years on television (as a preacher) and a lot of time on the lecture circuit; he is comfortable in his own skin and committed to his material. And, unlike some of his competitors, he actually believes what he says. That also makes him the one to fear.

I didn't notice Huckabee until I saw him on Charlie Rose. He got my attention when he said he would help fix schools by making arts and music part of the core curriculum. I saw him a while later with Jay Leno and found him the same: engaged, candid, and connected. I didn't much agree with his views, but he had a certain affability. After Huckabee won in Iowa, Americans for the Arts, an advocacy organization in Washington, sent an email extolling his record and that of some Democrats. I was intrigued.

I mentioned in an offhand way that if it weren't for a few of his stances, I might actually vote for him. A colleague suggested I rethink that statement for a bit. So I went online, read some articles, the usual. Whoops.

Huckabee has refused to disavow comments he made to The Associated Press in 1992 calling for AIDS patients to be isolated. When pressed recently on the issue by Chris Wallace of Fox News, he dismissed any criticism as political correctness.

He told The Des Moines Register that the country has gone from "Leave It to Beaver to Beavis and Butt-Head, from Barney Fife to Barney Frank." Asked on Meet the Press if he was denigrating Frank, a gay congressman from Massachusetts, Huckabee dismissed his own remark as a "rhetorical device" even as he lamented the country's so-called "cultural shift."

When asked on Meet the Press if he thought people choose to be gay or are born gay, Huckabee responded: "I honestly don't know... . People are who they want to be, and we should respect them for that. But when they want to change the institutions that have governed our society for all the years of recorded human history, then that's a serious change of culture that we don't just make readily or hurriedly."

I don't like single-issue politics, and I'm certainly not shocked that an evangelical preacher believes that gays and lesbians shouldn't have the rights that accrue to heterosexuals through marriage and other means. But I am astounded by how it's so easy for me to be charmed when a political candidate does a little cross-marketing on the late-night talk-show circuit. And I know I'm not the only easy mark.

I'm fascinated by how the absence of a few questions here and the juxtaposition of a few statements there created for me a likable guy. I don't think it's happenstance that when Huckabee was asked by Charlie Rose about his views on evolution, he didn't deny his belief in creationism; he just changed the topic to C.S. Lewis and talked about the necessity of marrying faith to intellect. Like any good actor, Huckabee knows his audience.

When he attended the debate at Morgan State University, a historically black college in Maryland, Huckabee dressed down his fellow candidates who declined their invitations and declared that he wants to be president of the United States, "not the president of the Republican Party." How can he say that and deny basic rights to perhaps 10 percent of the population? By his own litmus test, Huckabee fails.

I suspect the governor is a guy who has done and said the right things from time to time and tries to do his best in accordance with his worldview all of the time. That makes him like the rest of us, but it doesn't qualify him for the presidency, no matter how winning his performance proves to be.   

-- Andrew Salomon


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