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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Though his wife signed the letter, too, and by all accounts espouses the same clear views, it's also true that, as he suggested, submissiveness has never really been Janet Huckabee's best event. She unsuccessfully ran for secretary of state in 2002, while her husband was a sitting governor, in a move widely perceived as overreaching. She's also got a long memory, a strong will, and a history of pushing back forcefully against real and imagined adversaries. Adversity has made her tough: She quit college after a year to help support him, and was working as a dental assistant when she started having severe back pain at age 20. "Everybody thought it was a slipped disc," Caldwell recalls, but it was spinal cancer—and required treatment that doctors warned her might leave her unable to walk or bear children.

In his book Character Makes a Difference, Huckabee describes his wife as handier than he is—at changing a tire, for instance—as well as physically tougher and braver: "I will take non-physical risks, such as running for office or taking a job that may not work out; Janet will take physical risks—climbing cliffs, parasailing, racing cars or stalking bears." She also went back to college in her 40s and, when her husband isn't running for president, works for the American Red Cross.

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Arkansans have been surprised at how little her booming voice has been heard on the presidential campaign trail, almost as if Huckabee's team was trying to hide her. "My impression is that she does not have much voice in this campaign," says Hoyt Purvis, a political commentator and professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas. "It does appear there's been a conscious decision; is it that she might prove to be an embarrassment? A lot of people have asked that. For whatever reason, she's stayed in the background, and I suspect that's been hard on her." And on us, given the unfortunate dearth of political spouses who have jumped out of planes, trapped bear, or openly mocked their grown children. (She once likened their oldest, John Mark—no, he's not the one who killed the dog at camp—to a radio signal that fades in and out, so that you only catch every third word: "You tune in a radio and every now and then you'll hit a frequency and think, 'Man, I wish I could get that,' and you don't quite get it, but every now and then you get it? Well, John Mark is kind of like that.")

In fact, in a country in which the Bushes were rewarded for acting down-home, and the Kerrys punished for being their windsurfing, polyglot selves, most of the criticism of Janet is so class-based, it would turn out to be great PR: She likes her pie, is middleweight boxing champ Jermain Taylor's biggest fan, and, with the help of her Baptist decorator, made a hash of the Arkansas governor's mansion, jettisoning draperies to let the light in and stowing antiques in favor of faux. She slams doors, packs heat, and, like most of us, will never be confused with Jackie Kennedy: "Janet is not White House material; I doubt she's learned which fork to use," says one of her Little Rock detractors, who was apolitical before Mrs. H. made him apoplectic. "She's such a big old horsy woman, she has no grace. I've seen her chew gum on television!" So it's a shame she doesn't give more speeches and interviews, because what a lot of Americans would say to a person of such poor comportment and little breeding is: Come and sit here, by me.

Janet may not like the media but, oh, the media would like her, the anti-Teresa Heinz, just as they do her husband. (See how excited ABC's Claire Shipman was—"This was a big deal!"—when Janet shared how early in their marriage, Mike sold his guitar collection to buy her a washer-dryer, so she wouldn't have to wash poopy diapers at the Laundromat?) With all of the other Republican candidates' wives mum, too, for various reasons, handing a speaking role to such a plain-talker was, alas, too high a risk. But underfunded as Huckabee is, hiding a woman who has "earned media" written all over her, and who so clearly is in touch with the concerns of ordinary voters, may turn out to have been the worst campaign decision since Rudy wintered in Florida.

Melinda Henneberger is a Slate contributor and the author of If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians To Hear.

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