In two church basements in Arkansas, in several parishioners' attics, and in old Mrs. Bobo's knife drawer, there is a secret that Mike Huckabee is trying to keep—dozens and possibly hundreds of old VHS tapes and audiotapes starring the young Huckabee, a trove that he has managed to protect from opposition researchers and the press during months of presidential campaigning.
The tapes date from the 1980s, when Huckabee was a young Arkansas pastor intent on making a name for himself. At the tiny Immanuel Baptist Church in Pine Bluff, and the slightly less tiny Beech Street First Baptist Church in Texarkana, Huckabee broadcast sermons and other programs over his own TV station. If anyone ever missed a Sunday, no problem. Huckabee taped every homily and gave them out, free, at the church office.
Now, the Huckabee tapes have become the 2008 campaign's version of the Pentagon Papers, or the Lost Ark. Even as his campaign drifts to its end, the mystery remains. The Huckabee campaign won't give them up, and his former parishioners, ever loyal, won't budge. (I did get one, one, measly tape, about which more later.)
Never mind that Huckabee sells himself as the honest, affable, straight talker with nothing to hide. Never mind that his shows and sermons had such innocent titles as "Positive Alternatives" and "A Better Walk." Never mind that during his 15-year public career, Huckabee has already handed his enemies more outrageous statements than could fit in your average fundraising letter. Still, the prospect of America seeing young Pastor Huckabee unplugged makes the campaign very nervous. Which only leaves a reporter ever more hungry to know why. What incredible things did Huckabee preach back in the day?
The mystery of the Huckabee tapes began in December, when reporters for Mother Jones started calling around for them. The campaign rebuffed the inquiries. Staff at Immanuel Baptist said they couldn't find any tapes, and Beech Street said most of the archives had been destroyed during a remodeling. I came to the story in mid-January and began my own hunt. When I tried Burns Barr, the current director of the Beech Street TV station, he told me they did indeed have plenty of tapes left and "nothing to hide"—remember that phrase!—but if they let all the interested national reporters descend on their tiny church, "it would get a little bit crazy." The campaign, he said, hadn't directed them not to give out the tapes but hadn't given them permission to, either.
Thus began my long-distance treasure hunt in rural Arkansas. Since I did not cover the 1992 Clinton campaign, Arkansas rules are foreign to me. I learned pretty quickly that the pastor is like the drug lord: Everyone protects him, and there's a price to pay if you don't. Don Ruggles is a helicopter pilot who used to fly Huckabee around. Every time I called him, his wife would scream, "Hang up the phone! You can't trust those people!" Ruggles ignored her, because he'd flown many reporters around over the years and found them an amiable bunch. He said he had a fine tape collection and was happy to turn it over to me, "but I think I ought to check with Mike." Twenty-four hours later, he e-mailed me:
I heard from Mike late last night and he said he was somewhat unsure about releasing information to various reporters, so I took this to mean that at this point in time, we should not release any of his tapes or sermons.
He never said yes or no, so perhaps I can contact him again today and get a more definitive answer. I can assure you that he nor any of us here in Texarkana would have anything to hide, but at the same time I know you understand the concern about data being used in various methods.
Disappointed, I followed more distant leads, dead-ending with reluctant parishioners and colleagues. Eventually, I found 84-year-old Martha Bobo, whose late husband had run the TV station at Pine Bluff. Bobo's voice was raspy and barely audible over the phone. It turned out she'd just gotten out of the hospital after a throat operation and had trouble talking. My first thought was, "Poor Bobo." My second was, "Perfect! At least she won't feel like calling the campaign." Bobo just adored Mike and remembered with great fondness his wife Janet's freshly baked buns. She said she had lots of tapes stored in boxes and in her kitchen drawers, and she would be happy to share them. We arranged a date.