For Democrats, and reportedly for the Obama White House, Mike Huckabee has always seemed a deadly combination: A hard-right, anti-gay, antichoice social conservative tempered, it seemed, by a humanity and humor lacking in other potential Republican presidential candidates. He’s hard to pigeonhole as a nut job or an extremist because his personality lacks the prickly rigidity that so often defines the right—Southern Baptist minister that he is, Huckabee nevertheless plays Keith Richards bass riffs like a groupie.
During the last round of GOP presidential primaries, Huckabee was one of only a few contenders who didn’t have a “scheduling conflict” preventing him from attending a PBS debate at the historically black Morgan State University. Meanwhile, his rivals had a field day criticizing the former Arkansas governor for such mortal Republican sins as raising taxes and being mildly tolerant of immigrant children. More recently, Huckabee has dismissed the birther argument and has defended Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign against wingers who insist she’ll sic the hot-dog police on them (though the once obese Huckabee could hardly not defend FLOTUS, given that he’s been preaching the same health advice for years).
His relative flexibility, folksy demeanor, and non-Martian “likeability” drove a media characterization that’s shaped the Huckabee coverage: A small-c, Main Street conservative, Huck may be “too nice” to get the Establishment nod, but as second place on the ticket he could help win over the crucial religious right/Sarah Palin base. This media narrative has proven as durable as “Bush the cowboy” or “McCain the maverick”—at least it did until last week.
That’s when Huckabee, to the surprise of most everyone, started squawking that President Obama grew up in Kenya, where he was influenced by his father’s and grandfathers’ anticolonial Mau-Mauism to despise the British Empire—and, by implication, all white power.
Only after being called out did the Fox News host say he “misspoke” on the growing up in Kenya part (he later claimed he apologized, though that, too, isn’t true). Then he blamed the media for attacking him, and simply relocated the lie from Kenya to Indonesia. “Most of us,” he told far-right radio talker Bryan Fischer, “grew up going to Boy Scout meetings and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary Clubs, not madrassas.” (Of course, Obama was born and grew up primarily in Hawaii, spending only the years between ages 6 and 10 in Indonesia—where, by the way, there were Rotary Clubs and he was a Cub Scout. In fact, according to the Boy Scouts of America, “The BSA is the second-largest Scouting organization in the world. The largest is in Indonesia.”)
Huckabee even managed to trash his relatively decent stand on Obama’s birthplace. “What I have never done,” he said,“is taken the position that Obama was born in Kenya or Indonesia or anywhere other than Hawaii, where he claims to have been born.” That little “claims” is of a weasely piece with John Boehner, who says he “believes” that Obama is an American-born Christian because he takes the president “at his word.”
To be an electable Republican today you don’t have to be racist, you just have to convince racists that you’re not going to make them feel uncomfortable. You have to genuflect, speak ambiguously, and hope that independent voters forget all that by the general election.
It’s at times like these that you can really appreciate Chris Matthews’s doggedness at exposing dog whistles, as he did all last week, particularly in Wednesday’s segment, called “The lie that won’t die.” “It’s one thing to be a rube. It’s another one to pretend you’re a rube, and playing to the rubes,” Matthews said of Huckabee. “This isn’t about ideology—it’s about bearing false witness. It’s in the Bible, check it out, Huckabee.”
All this garbage started last year with Dinesh D’Souza’s repulsive headliner for Forbes, which maintained that Obama’s “anti-business” policies could be explained only by his “Kenyan anti-colonialism.” That other presidential flirt, Newt Gingrich, had hailed this nonsense as the “most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama" and “the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.” “What if he is so outside our comprehension" that he can be understood “only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior?” (The media long ago should have retired its characterization of Gingrich as an “intellect,” but, remarkably, you still hear it.)
But here’s a simpler theory: The right spews this bizarre “anticolonial” claptrap because it gives them a chance to say “Mau Mau,” which conjures a more fearsome threat than the N-word itself.
Is Huckabee trying to prove he can be a good hatchetman as a Veep candidate, or is he just letting his freak flag fly? It’s hard to say—or anyway, harder to say than “Mau Mau.”