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.
When I ask Mike Huckabee's best friend since second grade what his buddy's marriage tells us about the kind of president he'd be, Lester Sitzes III, a dentist in their hometown of Hope, Ark., answers, "Those two folks were virgins when they got married, I can tell you that.''
And though this straight-to-the-promised-land response is unexpected, it's not off-point: The couple's covenant marriage actually seems a highly relevant guide to what the candidate has assured us would be a Bible-based executive branch. His wife, the former Janet McCain (no relation to John), grew up in Hope, too, and she and Mike have been together since high school, where he led prayer sessions in the school auditorium and she attended them, if she didn't have basketball practice. Their first date was cheeseburgers at the local truck stop, and they got married when they were 18, in a ceremony at the bride's home. Her sister played "Here Comes the Bride'' on the piano as she came down the stairs, wearing a white eyelet dress her mother had made for her, and in lieu of a real ring, the groom slipped a soda can tab on her finger.
But Sitzes, who was the best man that day, May 25, 1974, says everything you need to know about Mike Huckabee really goes back a little further than that, to his drama club turn as the narrator in Horton Hatches the Egg. "Mike playing Dr. Seuss was like Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow; he was so good we won state on the strength of that performance. If you're around Mike now, you'll hear him say, 'I say what I mean and I mean what I say.' Well, I hear that and think, That's Horton! 'I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant's faithful, 100 percent!' " He's told this story to reporters before, he notes, and to sadly little effect—but never to a one-time drama camp portrayer of Mayzie, the lazy bird who skips off to live it up while Horton sticks around and hatches her progeny." So you will appreciate this,'' Sitzes says, grateful to have found a taker at last: "Mike is Horton, and he's been true to his wife and never had any kind of—there will be no Monica Lewinsky or Gennifer Flowers—because Mike and Janet are what they are."
Perhaps it's predictable, in our up-is-down political funhouse, where war heroes are made to look like cowards and vice versa, that the right's recent knock on the former Baptist minister is … that he is somehow insufficiently committed to the one-man, one-woman thing—not personally, but as a matter of policy. In 2003, after the Supreme Court struck down the sodomy law that had criminalized homosexual sex in Texas, Huckabee said on his monthly radio show, Ask the Governor, that the decision in Lawrence v. Texas "probably was appropriate" since any law that "prohibits private behavior among adults" would be difficult to enforce. As Huckabee's campaign took off last month, economic conservatives panicked at the prospect of an actual theocracy, as did liberals who'd been pretending we already live in one. So they dusted off an old Arkansas Democrat-Gazette news account of Huckabee's shrug over the Lawrence decision, under the headline, "Huckabee Says Sex Lives of Adults Not State Affair,'' to undermine him with his Christian base. Ann Coulter crowned the effort, winkingly calling him "one of those pro-sodomy, pro-gay marriage, pro-evolution evangelical Christians.'' (Pro-evolution? Yes, because he thinks it should be taught in schools, along with creationism.) Rush Limbaugh, who calls him "the Huckster," and on one occasion "Clintonesque," put out the word that Huckabee is "not a conservative" at all.
For Huckabee's Republican critics, the unforgivable sin is not that he's wishy-washy on traditional marriage—oh, not true—but that he also wants to drag all kinds of other Christian arcana into the public square, with his relatively moderate stands on education and immigration and downright progressive, Jesus-y views on how we're to care for the least among us. And in this, his detractors on the right are correct: Fiscally, and in his attitude toward social funding and even criminal justice, Huckabee has a record any DLC Democrat would be proud of. (And Huckabee never speaks ill of Bill Clinton, either, perhaps realizing that the "next man from Hope" narrative would be diminished were he to do so.) In his book From Hope to Higher Ground, Huckabee includes a whole chapter called "STOP the revenge-based criminal justice system." He writes about how racial inequities are built into the system, and he approvingly quotes one prison official who told him, "We lock up a lot of people that we are mad at rather than just the ones we are really afraid of," and another who "astutely observed we don't have a crime problem, we have a drug and alcohol problem."
So, when Janet Huckabee joked that she'd like to build a Habitat for Humanity house on the White House lawn—she's hammered nails for such homes in 20-some states already, and slept under bridges with homeless people once a year to bring awareness to their problems—Republicans in Arkansas were half-afraid she wasn't kidding. Because back home, the Huckabees' empathy for the luckless is one thing that has never been in doubt: "Janet's very headstrong and, even more so than he, contemptuous of critics, and has a chip on her shoulder,'' says John Brummett, an Arkansas News Bureau columnist. "But if a tornado hits your house, one of the first people in your yard is probably going to be Janet Huckabee. And when Arkansas got evacuees from Katrina—and by all accounts Huckabee did masterfully—she decided, accurately, that these people were exhausted and the last thing they needed was to sit in line and be processed, when they could be processed on the bus." Then she got on the bus with some of them and pitched in on the paperwork.
In a way, such efforts are a natural extension of their 20 years in the ministry. "I know there are people who would be concerned about him having been in the ministry and think that's a little bit creepy,'' says Huckabee's sister Pat Harris, a seventh-grade teacher in Little Rock. "But having been in the ministry, he and Janet have also seen all kinds of things about life; his phone would ring in the middle of the night and up they'd go, to the hospital or the morgue or the jail. Because he was on TV, a lot of these calls were from people who weren't in his church and very often they weren't believers, but the rubber had met the road and they needed somebody." The Huckabees' shared faith defines both of them, and their relationship. And it would be an understatement to say it influences their politics: Their faith makes their views on religion and government indistinguishable. "Those who believe God created humans have a different worldview from those who believe humans created God," Huckabee writes in Character Makes a Difference. "Politics are totally directed by worldview. That's why when people say, 'We ought to separate politics from religion,' I say to separate the two is absolutely impossible."
Melinda Henneberger is a Slate contributor and the author of If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians To Hear.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.