The Magazine

Vox Huckabee

The Republican as class warrior.

Dec 31, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 16 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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Aboard the Huckabus

I'm riding across Iowa in a tour bus carrying members of the press assigned to cover Mike Huckabee, after whom the bus is named. Huckabus: Is there a candidate whose name has inspired the creation of so many new words? Think Huckaboom (for the candidate's surge in the polls, which has him leading the Republican field in Iowa) and Huckabust (for the candidate's impending demise, predicted by some hopeful observers). Huck is the root from which you can invent your own Huckaword. This marketing-savvy campaign hardly minds the many uses of Huck. Even the unflattering ones remind people of a certain candidate for president. You're going to remember the name Huckabee--a precondition, if you think about it, for giving the candidate your vote.

On this cold and overcast day in late December, in a blitz of cities and towns between Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Huckabee actually makes his surname a critical piece of his closing argument. He observes that in the Declaration of Independence the nation's Founding Fathers did "something pretty amazing," for they recognized that "the intrinsic value and worth of every human being lies in their uniqueness as defined by God." It's not something they get from "their government or their ancestry or their ethnicity or their net worth or where they live or the last name they have."

As he has throughout the year, Huckabee grounds his pro-life position in the Declaration's recognition of the inalienable right to life. But now, in the heat of the campaign, with the Iowa caucuses just days away, he also uses the Declaration to argue that, in light of its recognition that all men are created equal, any man (or woman) can become president. Even someone like him, the son of working class parents in Hope, Arkansas, the first in his "entire male lineage" to graduate from high school, much less go to college. He put himself through college in just "two years and three months," since four years would have cost too much.

Now, as it happens, there are some who don't recognize that any American can become president. One "Republican muckety-muck," as Huckabee called the unfortunate former Bush aide Dan Bartlett, "made the comment that nobody would ever elect a guy with the last name 'Huckabee.' It was a name that sounded too much like a hick." Bartlett didn't quite say that--he actually praised Huckabee as "the most visionary" candidate while noting that he had the "negativity of something he can't change like his given last name." Huckabee says he doesn't care about what Bartlett said. But plainly he does.

"To me," he tells the rally in Marshalltown, "'Huckabee' sounds like an old-fashioned, hard-working family that believes that if you work real hard in this country you can get somewhere. If that doesn't mean anything anymore, then the Founding Fathers were wrong. But I don't believe that. I believe they were right. I think you are worth as much as anyone else."

As the case of Bartlett shows, Huckabee is not shy about criticizing members of his own party. He couldn't care less, it seems, whether he wins many votes (at least in Iowa and the early primaries) from the Republican "establishment" (his term) or from the Republican rich (often one and the same). And he makes humorous reference to his name to distinguish himself from those Republicans.

"Many of you will have noticed that I grew up with a last name that opened a lot of doors," he says. Lowering his voice, speaking as though he were an admissions officer, or the guard at a fancy club, he continues, "'Well, he's a Huckabee, we better let him in.'" The crowd loves it. He continues: "In my family, 'summer' was never a verb"--the way it is for some. "We summered in hay fields, chicken yards, and all kinds of stuff."

The battle for Iowa is between Huckabee and Mitt Romney, who has criticized Huckabee on numerous matters--among them illegal immigration (the Arkansan is too soft), national security and foreign policy (he's naive about Iran, too impressed with diplomacy, dared criticize Bush), and his 10-year record as governor of Arkansas (raised taxes, spent too much, pardoned too many). The conventional wisdom in the press is that, notwithstanding Iowa's famous reputation for penalizing those who run negative campaigns, Romney may have halted Huckabee's remarkable surge and may have a shot at winning.