The fascinating marriage of Mike and Janet Huckabee.

Explaining political marriages.
Jan. 29 2008 2:46 PM

Shoots Bear, Submits to Husband

The fascinating marriage of Mike and Janet Huckabee.

Read more of Slate's First Mates series about the marriages of the presidential candidates.

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But the Huckabees also seem to relate to the have-nots because they know what it feels like to be looked down on. Class resentment runs through their comments and writings. When Lt. Gov. Huckabee became Arkansas governor in 1996, after Jim Guy Tucker was had to resign after a fraud conviction, "Dozens of hate-filled letters were sent anonymously," Huckabee remembers, while "others, proudly signed, proclaimed that we lacked the 'class' to live in such a fine and stately home. My wife was viciously attacked for everything from the manner in which the azaleas were trimmed to the fact that we had made the governor's mansion smoke-free and removed alcoholic beverages. … One would have thought that we had turned off the water, put old cars on concrete blocks on the front lawn, hung laundry on the fence, and raised chickens and hogs in the backyard!" (They did famously move into a triple-wide trailer while the mansion was under renovation, and hung a sign on it that said, "My other home is the Governor's Mansion.") Huckabee also goes on at some length about how hurtful "snobby elitists" have been to his wife over the years: "For her, one of the most difficult aspects of being Arkansas' first lady was the inevitable confrontation with some of the snobby elitists who had always been on the side of the culturally correct in Little Rock." On one of the rare occasions Janet has spoken out on the presidential campaign trail, she jokingly suggested it was only her faith that kept her from strangling some of them: "There's times you just want to wring somebody's neck, and only by the grace of God we don't."

Both of the Huckabees grew up in modest circumstances themselves; Mike's dad was a firefighter with an eighth-grade education, and Janet McCain's single-parent home made her future husband's family look like the Bushes by comparison. According to Sitzes, after her mom had her fifth child, her father "shagged out and went down to Louisiana'' to work as an oil rigger, leaving Janet's mother to be the Horton in their family. She had a job as the Hempstead County clerk, but with five kids, money was so tight that their big treat of the week was buying a single large soda, putting a scoop of ice cream in it and sharing the one Coke float between them every Sunday night.

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Janet was a standout as an athlete—the star of her basketball team, and a girl who more than held her own in pickup games with the guys. Though Hope is a small town—population 10,467, at last count—she and Mike attended different churches—he Garrett Memorial Mission Baptist and she First Baptist—so they didn't know each other well until high school. (They also didn't know fellow Hope native Clinton, who is nine years older and had moved to Hot Springs by the time they came along. Though Clinton's mom did work as a nurse for the doctor who delivered Mike, and both Bill and Mike attended kindergarten at Miss Marie Purkins' School for Little Folks, where there must have been an emphasis on oratory and daily EQ skill drills.)

In Mike and Janet's sophomore year, she became friends with his sister, who was two years ahead of them in school. "I was working on the yearbook and covering sports,'' including girls' basketball, "so I got to know Janet that way, and she started coming over to the house,'' says Huckabee's sister Pat. "And before long, I had lost my little friend, and they were toddling off holding hands. Mike and Janet have a similar sense of humor—both like to play practical jokes—and from the beginning, she was a good audience for his Billy Graham impression." (Years later, when he was governor and his repertoire of impersonations had expanded to include President Bill Clinton, Clinton called Huckabee, who assumed it was a friend playing a joke. "And so Mike does the Bill Clinton voice right back to him," his sister says, "until he realizes it really is Bill Clinton. I don't know if Clinton remembers that, but Governor Huckabee does.")

For all they have in common, though, Mike and Janet are temperamental opposites. She excels at leisure, while he can't sit still, is a big list-maker, and the first to arrive at any event. He keeps perfect order in his sock drawer and compulsively lays out his breakfast the night before, so when he gets up at 4:30 a.m. he can shave a few minutes off his morning routine. "Mike's the one who is—I don't want to say the word anal," his sister says, "but Janet is more fun-loving."

Mike was born-again at age 15, preached his first sermon at age 16, and was all but running the local radio station by then as well. And he was already serious about a future in both the ministry and politics, especially after attending Boys State, where he was elected governor, during the summer before his senior year. Rick Caldwell, who met Huckabee at Boys State, also became a minister at a young age and married Mike and Janet. He got to know them as a couple the year before they married, when they were all freshmen at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. "My wife and the governor would talk about serious world events, and Janet and I would be planning our next fun thing to do. But I remember sitting with him in our dorm room and talking about what we wanted to do, and he said, 'I want to be involved in something that helps people improve our nation.' This was pre-Christian Coalition, but even then he had a sense of destiny," a destiny in which church and state converge, as do public and private life. The center of both is the marriage relationship, in which the wife's submission to the husband is meant to reflect the church's—and the Christian's—submission to Christ.

At a recent debate in South Carolina, Huckabee was asked about his views on marriage, expressed for all to see in a full-page USA Today ad he and his wife co-signed in 1998, thanking the Southern Baptists for putting out a message that "a wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the leadership of Christ." Carl Cameron of Fox News wondered if that position was "politically viable" for Huckabee now, given that so many women voters in both parties see it otherwise. He did not answer the question, but his response was: "First of all, if anybody knows my wife, I don't think they for one minute think that she's going to just sit by and let me do whatever I want to. That would be an absolute, total misunderstanding of Janet Huckabee." That ad "really was spoken to believers, to Christian believers. I'm not the least bit ashamed of my faith or the doctrines of it. I don't try to impose that as a governor and I wouldn't impose it as a president. But I certainly am going to practice it, unashamedly, whether I'm a president or whether I'm not a president." At the debate, this was a big applause line.

Later, he told fellow Baptists that, yes, he still believes that's how marriage works, but added that that belief "has nothing to do" with his qualifications as a candidate. Yet since he has so forcefully promised to put traditional marriage at the center of our society, bring government in line with God and the U.S. Constitution in line with "the Word of the Living God," his views on men, women, and marriage are absolutely germane.