Huckabee rocks the GOP candidate image
Where aw-shucks meets off-kilter: A 50-something preacher-turned-presidential-contender can be cool.
When aides to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told the high school here that he wanted to play bass guitar with its band during a recent campaign stop, Mark Cripps grew uneasy.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
As the longtime band teacher, Mr. Cripps knows how many rehearsals it takes for the teen musicians in this tiny west Iowa town to nail a song. Now a stranger of dubious musical talent – a GOP presidential hopeful no less – wanted to sit in on a couple of numbers with no run-through.
Cripps, a stocky man with the world-weary look of band instructors everywhere, wasn't taking any chances.
"I've got my bass player standing in the wings," he said, pacing nervously in the Woodbury Central High auditorium, as his students tuned up, awaiting the arrival of the Huckabee entourage that October morning. "I instructed the kids: No matter what happens, hang with the job."
Then Huckabee bounded on stage in boots and jeans, grabbed an electric bass, and bowled through "C Jam Blues," a song he'd never played before. His performance was more bravado than finesse. He bent back mid-song to consult with the 12th-grade bass player, who was standing behind him looking ill at ease. But there were no dropped beats, no goofed chords, and Cripps looked genuinely surprised.
"He knew how to ... I don't want to say 'fake it,' but 'survive it,' " Cripps said, as the news crews packed up. Cripps thought he might have even glimpsed politics in the governor's guitar shtick. "He was coming to show you, 'I can do this, I can take charge.'
As Huckabee tells it, his cash-strapped parents bought his first electric guitar from a J.C. Penney catalog for Christmas 1966, after "months of begging." Huckabee was 11. (What is it about Hope, Ark., that inspires would-be presidents to pick up an instrument?)
"The young man played until his fingers almost bled," Huckabee blogged last year, referring to himself in the third person. His teenage bands played sock hops, talent shows, and Saturday night "country music jamborees," and went by names like The Misfits and The Sanction.
"Perhaps you expect that he went on to become a famous and successful musician, gracing the album covers of Grammy-winning recordings," Huckabee blogged. "Not quite."
Huckabee says there is one reason his band, Capitol Offense, made up of wonky former staffers from the governor's office, has opened for the likes of Grand Funk Railroad, Percy Sledge, and Willie Nelson: "If you're the only governor in America with a rock-and-roll band, you get invited to some pretty good gigs."
Performing, he says, helped him overcome stage fright and prepared him for the fishbowl of politics. "For sure, I would have never made it to the Governor's Mansion without music."
Now he's hoping to ride rock 'n' roll to the White House. Huckabee may be known to diehard supporters as the former Southern Baptist minister who sees economic salvation in the abolition of the income tax. But his guitar-plucking has helped cast a popular image as the GOP candidate of "Main Street" – that, together with his diet book ("Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork") and his appearances on "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized Huckabee's stance on taxes. He supports the abolition of income tax and the establishment of a flat sales tax.]
Huckabee suggests that a candidate's agility in pop culture is as good a test as any of presidential mettle. "Stephen Colbert gave me the Colbert bump, and that's why I'm doing really well right now in the polls," he told the students, only half-jokingly, of his appearances on the show. "I think you learn more about people by watching how they handle things like 'The Colbert Show' than something that's very tightly scripted."
With his comb-over and dimpled grin, Huckabee is less hipster than cool older guy. He's your favorite uncle, the one with the Eric Clapton concert T-shirt and a gift for one-liners, eager to show that not long ago he was a kid, too. Were there a spectrum of Hollywood wholesome, he'd fall between Jimmy Stewart and Kevin Spacey: a place where aw-shucks meets off-kilter.