NEW YORK-"Is accompanying Willie a little scary?" I was kidding Mike Huckabee about the upcoming highlight of his Fox News television show on April 18: Music legend Willie Nelson singing, with Huckabee playing bass guitar. "Way beyond scary," the former governor and presidential candidate replied. "It's terrifying."
Huckabee's Saturday, April 18, workday began badly at 7:45 a.m. He had lost his Fox ID card the previous evening and a security guard wouldn't let him into the Fox building, even after a co-worker said, "You know this guy. He could have been president." Finally a Huckabee show staffer arrived, chaperoned him through security, and reassured him: She had once lost her card as well. Huckabee grinned and said, "Good. I didn't want to be the first idiot to lose my pass."
Given Huckabee's hectic schedule, it's remarkable that he doesn't lose many things. After he criticized Barack Obama in a brief live segment of FOX & Friends, we walked over to a Starbucks at 8:30 a.m. He drank regular black coffee-"I don't get into the fru-fru stuff"-and reviewed his recent schedule on the road: Missouri, Florida, a different speaking venue every night. He has the top frequent flyer status at four airlines, and after using miles for a vacation trip to Ireland and some electronics, he still has hundreds of thousands left over.
Huckabee also tapes three short ABC radio network pieces each night, carrying with him the equipment to turn any hotel room into a studio. He has multiple Ziploc bags, each with one day's supply of socks, underwear, and sundries that he throws into a rolling suitcase. He said he can "make it" on four to five hours of sleep per night, but in the week ending April 18 had to settle for two or three.
At 9:15 a.m. Huckabee began writing and reviewing material for his weekly show, which is taped on Saturday afternoon and initially shown Saturday evening at 8 p.m. Eastern, with ratings higher for that time slot than those of CNN, MSNBC, and CNBC combined. A staff meeting that morning included discussion on "what we'll ask Willie, what we won't ask Willie," as executive producer Woody Frasier put it: "Nothing serious with Willie, just some light talk about his career."
After the meeting Huckabee did more writing and a little rehearsing. Each Huckabee show includes a segment where Huckabee plays his bass guitar with a band that rotates in Fox staffers-about 30 so far-but this time he was the sole amateur playing with Willie Nelson's band and Nelson himself. At 1:30 he worried to staffers: "Never played either of those songs before in my life. One rehearsal. Six chord changes" in one of the scheduled songs.
The taping itself began at 2:40. By all accounts Huckabee writes his own opening lines that include commentary on current controversies: On April 18 he made a strong conservative populist pitch with only one jarring note, a reference to an American "ruling class" that would not play well among many GOP voters and also seems factually inaccurate, given the fluidity of our economy and the rise from poverty of individuals such as Huckabee himself.
Huckabee also interviewed two parents of a Columbine High School graduate on the 10th anniversary of the infamous killings. Then he turned to Charles Grodin, the 79-year-old actor-turned-liberal-crank who played off the Columbine shooting to push strict gun control. That segment showed the limits of the soft-format show: Huckabee comes off as a really nice guy, which all his staffers and my own observation indicate that he is, but he let Grodin run with rhetoric instead of slowing him down by asking "the four deadly questions"-What do you mean by that? Where do you get your information? How do you know you're right? What happens if you're wrong?
Yet Grodin soon gave way to Nelson, who along with another music legend, 83-year-old Ray Price, mellifluously sang "Faded Love" and "Crazy." (Nelson wrote the latter in 1961 and Patsy Cline made it famous a year later.) Huckabee accompanied on his bass guitar: Afterward, he said "I made a few bobbles but covered them pretty well."
Between the songs Nelson eviscerated the staff's plans to have only light patter from the singer: Huckabee asked him about biodiesel fuel, and Nelson went on about how he ran his $100,000 Mercedes on vegetable oil, how the government should pay 100 percent of the production and labor costs of farmers, and so on.
But who cares? The music's the thing, and no one looks to Nelson for public-policy brilliance. The 76-year-old singer does have brilliance of another kind: After the show he graciously signed autograph after autograph and planted his feet for photograph after photograph with members of the audience, lingering longer than many major league rookies do. And from 4 p.m. until the last autograph- or photo-seeker left, Huckabee was the same, remembering names, relishing compliments on his guitar work, and moving forward in what may be his attempt to rally a new coalition of not only the right but others who see what's wrong with the radical change of 2009.
Saturday is the stable part of Huckabee's weekly schedule. Huckabee spends Saturdays with his show and most other days-to quote the title of a song Nelson wrote and recorded in 1979-"On the Road Again." The week after April 18 included a day and a half back in Arkansas with his wife, Janet, followed by speeches in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and New Jersey.
Huckabee hasn't backslid all that far on his well-publicized 100-pound weight loss, but he's about 20 pounds over his marathon running weight. That's in part because his flat feet make him vulnerable to the knee problems that have reduced his exercising, but the new orthotic implants he now has for his running shoes leave him optimistic about running more. Food for Huckabee these days is often catch-as-catch-can-he was prophetic at one point when he grabbed a wrap and said, "As soon as I put this in my mouth, they'll call me to the set"-and that's not good for diets.
I asked him about some past and current governmental fat:
WORLD: Does the GOP have any credibility on bailouts, and if not, how do Republican leaders regain credibility?
HUCKABEE: Well they didn't have any last fall, since it was our administration and appointees and even Republicans in Congress going along with it. Republicans need to repent. There are some real sins of commission that were committed, and it will be hard to regain credibility if we don't stand up and tell it like it was.
WORLD: If John McCain had stood up against TARP last year, do you think he would be president?
HUCKABEE: I think he might have been. I do believe the turning point in the presidential election last fall was John McCain's suspending his campaign, going to Washington, and in essence melting into the body of the Senate. He meekly raised his hand and said, "Me too."
We also spoke of some Christian conservative political tactics:
WORLD: Where do you think some of the Christian conservative leaders went wrong in 2008?
HUCKABEE: They became more enamored with the process of politics than with principles and convictions. I saw pretty firsthand a lot of people saying, "We don't think you can win. We like everything you stand for and you are one of us, but we're not going to support you because you can't win." My assessment was when Christians decide to get involved as Christians and then abandon the issues by which they are essentially motivated, they might as well be the Republican Women of Poinsett County or something. They become ineffective as issue players.
WORLD: In your recent book Do the Right Thing, you chastise the Arlington Group in particular as a group of conservative Christians who didn't get behind you. Looking back, do you think things would have been different if they had?
HUCKABEE: The honest answer is I don't know. It might have done more harm than good. It could be that I would have been perceived as a "wholly owned" subsidiary of the Christian conservative movement.
WORLD: What do you do now regarding the Arlington Group and others? Can you gather them behind you at this point, having had this unexpected success?
HUCKABEE: The Arlington Group pretty much dissipated. I think they splintered and split and many of them took issue with each other because they felt that they had failed to do what originally they had compacted to do, which was to early on interview candidates, pick a candidate, and then coalesce behind that one candidate and try to unite the strength and force that they could. They failed to do that.
WORLD: You picked up some other support.
HUCKABEE: By the end of the campaign many people who had been stand-offish were openly supportive of me. The real strength of the campaign for me was not a group of sequestered leaders, like a robed council; it really was just ordinary people out there: homeschool moms and dads and truck drivers. That was the strength of the campaign, and I'm grateful that it was.
WORLD: How do you break out of the Christian "box"?
HUCKABEE: I don't want to break out of the box if that means people think I'm somehow abandoning my faith. If my faith is the reason people say, "I'm not going to vote for him," then good, don't vote for me, because I'm not going to abandon who I am to get your vote. . . . When I was governor people asked me, "Is it hard being a governor and a Christian?" and I said, "No, it's actually easier. I don't have to wake up every day and decide what I'm going to believe today." If I get defeated, I get defeated. That's part of the deal. I'd rather be defeated and go to my grave with some sense of consistency of conviction than that I had to win every last office in America including the presidency but had to sell my soul to do it.
We talked some about international policy issues:
WORLD: What would you do about Iran right now?
HUCKABEE: We need to remember that the Iranian people are not our enemies; the Iranian leadership is not at all indicative of the total attitude. You may have forgotten this, but on the night of Sept. 11, 2001, when there was dancing in the streets in Arab capitals all around the world, in Tehran they lit candles. The Iranian people do not inherently hate Americans. In fact, there is a deep sense of angst within many Iranians because they had a long-time relationship with the American people. With the takeover of radical Islamic factions, the leadership makes Americans think that that is who they are. I have nothing but contempt for Ahmadinejad-and he's the puppet, he's not the power, it's the ayatollah behind him-but there are a lot of Iranians who would like to see something other than what they live under now.
WORLD: How does that translate into policy?
HUCKABEE: We need to be tough with the leadership and make it clear that they are not going to have nuclear capacity. They've made enough threats against Israel and the rest of the free world that that's not an option. It's not a matter of playing chicken with them; it's just a harsh military reality: They're not going to have nuclear power.
WORLD: If you were president, would you authorize a strike against Iran?
HUCKABEE: It would be a little presumptuous on my part to announce what I would do. I would look at all the options, but I would make sure they didn't have nuclear capacity.
WORLD: What about Israel and the Palestinians? Any hope there?
HUCKABEE: I've been to Israel 10 times; I've also been to virtually every other country in the area. This may put me in such a small minority, but I think this two-state solution is nonsense. If we're trying to get these two warring factions to occupy the same piece of real estate with two political entities layering over each other, that's absurd. We wouldn't tolerate it and they're not going to tolerate it. We shouldn't try to prolong the sense of that happening. [Israelis] not only have a right to existence, which is a fundamental agreement dating back to the early 1900s in the Balfour Declaration, but a right to a secure homeland. The tiny sliver of real estate they occupy, surrounded by people who are hostile to them, is really a very vulnerable place for them. Hoping for this two-state solution is simply not practical.
WORLD: Any thoughts on Pakistan?
HUCKABEE: I got pilloried by some of the secular press and particularly the "harrumph" crowd in D.C. because in the fall of 2007 I did an article for Foreign Policy and gave a speech in D.C. saying that the real threat was not Iraq but Pakistan, and the next terrorist attack would be conceived and launched there. I was considered an idiot lacking any knowledge of foreign affairs, and now everyone says, "Of course, we all knew this." If we were to get a package today from Osama bin Laden, it would be postmarked Pakistan.
And some other matters:
WORLD: Four of the last five Republican nominees have been people who ran before and lost, and then came back and ran again and won. Will you run again?
HUCKABEE: I think everybody assumes that I'm going to run again, but the honest answer is I don't know. I'm not being coy, because I might. But at this very moment, it is not on my mind and it's not something I sit around thinking about. I'm extraordinarily busy doing my show. . . . I'm doing three commentaries a day five days a week, for the ABC radio network. I'm speaking all over the place.
WORLD: Your speechmaking schedule sounds like the itinerary of someone who's running.
HUCKABEE: Yes, but I'm running to catch up from all the years I spent being a governor. I'm having a great time; I'm doing things I love to do. I'm raising money for pro-life groups. . . . My PAC is busy helping candidates that are involved in races. My attitude is that I may never run again, and I'm OK with that. It may be that my role is to help other people through the PAC.
WORLD: How much money have you personally lost since last September's stock market crash?
HUCKABEE: The good thing for me is I didn't have a whole lot. Every now and then there's an advantage to not having a whole lot of resources. I'm starting now for the first time to make more than I ever did in public service.
WORLD: What's your favorite joke about politicians?
HUCKABEE: Probably the five most feared words for Arkansas politicians: "Will the defendant please rise?" It's really too true to be funny.