Cover Story
James Allen Walker for WORLD

On the road again

Giving speeches, taping television shows, and making music with his friends: a day in the life of Mike Huckabee, once and (maybe) future presidential candidate

Issue: "On the road again," May 9, 2009

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.

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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.

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