Of all the right-wing figures who have promoted Mike Huckabee’s extraordinary political rise from a backwater church to the national pulpit of a presidential campaign–and there are many–perhaps none know the former Arkansas governor and current Republican presidential front-runner better than Jay Cole. A Baptist minister based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with a right-wing radio talk show of his own, Cole has been instrumental in inspiring Huckabee’s rise over more than two decades. Indeed, when Huckabee was the governor of Arkansas, it was Cole who persuaded him to arrange the release from prison of a convicted rapist, Wayne Dumond, who had become a born-again evangelical in prison–the most controversial act of Huckabee’s career, which still dogs him on the campaign trail.
I spoke to Cole by telephone a week before Huckabee’s surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses on January 3. He was supremely confident that his saintly friend would prevail over the hosts of darkness. “Mike is one of the finest and most gracious individuals God has ever placed on Earth,” Cole told me in his thick Southern drawl. “Not only does he have speaking ability, he has the Lord looking over him.”
Some mainstream media pundits have attributed Huckabee’s rising fortunes to his likable demeanor. New York Times political correspondent Adam Nagourney has praised Huckabee’s “easy-going, self-effacing, jaunty style” as his chief political asset. The Times‘s liberal commentator Frank Rich explained Huckabee’s ascent in similar terms, comparing the sudden swell of support for his campaign to the phenomenon surrounding Democratic senator and presidential front-runner Barack Obama. “Both men [Obama and Huckabee] have a history of speaking across party and racial lines,” Rich wrote. “Both men possess that rarest of commodities in American public life: wit. Most important, both men aspire (not always successfully) to avoid the hyper-partisanship of the Clinton-Bush era.” Rich, who only weeks earlier had predicted the imminent self-destruction of the religious right, now viewed Huckabee as a welcome departure from the divisive Republican candidates of the past.
But the Huckabee Cole has known and loved for decades contrasts sharply with the sunny figure the media’s leading lights have conjured up. According to Cole, Huckabee has connected with voters–specifically, evangelical voters–not simply because he is a charismatic speaker, but also because he shares their apocalyptic world view. As Cole told me, “To date there’s well over 139 prophecies that have come to pass exactly as the Lord says. Mike believes those things. Anyone with any Bible knowledge would have to say that this looks like the time. We’re so close to the Lord’s return.”
During the period when Huckabee rose through the ranks of the Arkansas Republican Party to the governor’s mansion, Cole became one of the state’s most popular right-wing radio personalities. Cole volunteered to me the sectarian views that made his radio show a favorite of Arkansas’s far-right fringe. Taking a potshot at Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon, Cole compared the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to the Ku Klux Klan. “As you know from history, their original intent–[Mormon founding fathers Joseph] Smith and Brigham Young–was to take over the United States of America,” he said. “They weren’t just far behind the KKK in their efforts.”