September 24th, 2018


Huckabee, Christie, and Paul --- Oh my

Andrew Ferguson

By Andrew Ferguson

Published Feb. 13, 2015

Boy, that didn't take long. Over the span of a few short days in late January and early February, three members of the top tier of Republican presidential candidates demonstrated why they'll never be president. They didn't do anything to disqualify themselves directly, just revealed the traits that will make them appear unsuitable to most voters by the time the campaign really heats up, say, when the presidential election is a mere 18 months away. As it is, all three of them—Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, and Chris Christie—can pack it in right now and save months of time and tons of money. They'd be doing themselves a favor, and us too. 

Consider first the case of Mike Huckabee. He is a former preacher, TV talk show host, and governor of Arkansas. Huckabee seems to want to cement his image in the public mind not as a successful governor of an unsuccessful state but as a preacher and a talk show host. It is a deadly combination. The part of him that is talk show host will, as talk show hosts do, comment on everything that swims into view, especially if it's none of his business. And the part of him that is preacher will comment in a way that will annoy anyone who doesn't share his pious background, which in this age of galloping secularism strikes most people as increasingly esoteric. 

Huckabee is on a tour promoting a book called G0D, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, in that order. He appears on shows whose hosts and audiences agree with him on almost everything. This too is deadly. The hundred-thousand-plus sales that result from such saturation publicity lull an author into thinking he has many more followers than the hundred-thousand-plus who had the time, inclination, and money to buy the book. More likely it means that he's exhausted his market and has goosed everyone who agrees with him and his book into buying it. Which in turn means that everyone who didn't buy his book doesn't agree with him. This segment of the population numbers roughly 320 million. 

The book is pretty good, by the way, written in smooth and jokey prose. Who besides Dick Durbin can hate a book that matter-of-factly calls Dick Durbin a "windbag"? There's enough material in its pages, however, to make even some Huckabee sympathizers squirm. In the first few chapters the waste-matter metaphors are laid on a little thick: lots of "sewage" and "filth" are (daintily) discussed. You don't have to like New York—everyone who likes New York has already moved there, thank God—to be a little unsettled by his denunciations: 

it's crowded, loud, hurried, intense, and it just seems like its streets are filthy. Even when the trash gets picked up, you always want to burn your shoes after you've walked the New York streets because of all the "stuff" that is ever present on the sidewalks. 

Travis? Travis Bickle, is that you?

Huckabee's book is now most famous for his denunciations of such sewage-workers as the lip-synching dancer Beyoncé and her repellent husband. Good for Huck! But in his book he uses this as an occasion to comment on how the president and first lady are failing in their role as parents, allowing their teenage girls to listen to the "toxic mental poison" of contemporary music. Bad for Huck: Any parent who is trying to bring up a kid in the crappy culture of 21st-century America faces the same dilemma as the Obamas, and many of them have uneasily resolved it in the same laissez-faire fashion as the first couple. The proper response to such a parent, if any is called for, is sympathy. But no response is called for, since Huckabee wasn't asked.

Our preacher/TV host/governor tried explaining these and other untoward remarks in ways that he evidently hoped would satisfy the moralizers of the mainstream liberal press, and in so doing he only fell deeper in the "stuff." Toward homosexuality, for example, he took what he surely thought would be deemed an enlightened position: He compared it to the use of profanity or alcohol—not a mortal sin, in other words, just a harmless vice; thus managing to alienate partisans of homosexuality and their most dedicated enemies, who may think it's a vice but don't think it's harmless. 

There will be much more of this unpleasantness till the unavoidable day when Huckabee withdraws from the race or explicitly chooses not to run. As a talented and competent former governor he might be a plausible national candidate. First, though, he would have to put a sock in the talk show host and the preacher, and the odds are long. Only a certain kind of voter wants to be governed by a professional controversialist. And that voter doesn't have a lot of friends.

Huckabee manages to avoid hostile interviewers, usually, but they seem to seek out Rand Paul, who over the last few weeks has shown himself unskilled in dealing with them. With his impeccable libertarian credentials, he has posed as a different kind of Republican—uniformed in the post-hipster rig of jeans, dress shirt, and poorly knotted tie, nonjudgmental in all important matters and a bicycle rider by choice. Such people inevitably make overuse of Twitter, and they fall helpless before its awesome power to expose its users' most unappetizing weaknesses. 

Enslaved by the need to tweet, Paul and his campaign have shown themselves to be unaccountably and prematurely combative. When his potential rivals Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney had a private but well-publicized meeting, Paul tweeted out a picture of a friendship band inscribed with their names, suggesting that the two former governors were adolescent sweethearts. In the tweet, "friendship" was spelled "frienship," but it's Twitter and who cares. Even the misspelling couldn't disguise the whiff of envy, though: I didn't want to go to your stupid meeting anyway because you guys are probably in love . . . Later Paul linked to a mock recording his campaign had got up, depicting sweet talk between Bush and Hillary Clinton. It wasn't quite as funny as a Saturday Night Live skit, if you can imagine such a thing. But the lady who imitated Hillary was very good. Maybe it's his mom.

It's no surprise that a candidate who chooses Twitter to engage his adversaries would be uncomfortable with the longer, more demanding form of a six-minute TV interview with a CNBC cupcake. In this case the interviewer took no time in riling Paul over awkward comments he had made about the responsibility of parents to vaccinate their children. Perhaps he was caught off guard by the revelation that TV news readers can be obnoxious. His inability to control the interview made him petulant. "Calm down here a bit, Kelly," he said. He put his fingers to his lips: "Shhhhhh . . ." Stop asking these stupid questions. It's hard to imagine what candidate Paul will do when he's faced with such interrogations several times a day for months at a time. The interviewer asked about running for president, and Paul said, "Part of the problem is that you end up having interviews like this where the interview is so slanted and full of distortions that you don't get useful information. I think this is what is bad about TV sometimes." Back to Twitter.

A thin skin has been a feature of Chris Christie's public life, as well, and over the last several weeks it has been much in evidence. On a "trade trip" to London he made vaccination comments as artless as Paul's, and provoked a similar controversy. His press aide announced that the three remaining press conferences scheduled for his trip would be canceled, because the governor would be taking "no questions." The next day, as he came within shouting distance of reporters, one of them called a question. Christie turned and said (snarled? growled?): "Is there something you don't understand about 'no questions'?" 

History records no case in which a Republican hurt his reputation among fellow Republicans by yelling at a reporter; it is always assumed that the reporter deserved it just on general principle. But that's not all that was revealed about Christie in the last few weeks. In London he didn't appear a hardworking public servant losing patience with bleating reporters; he had the air of a plutocrat irked that the little people weren't doing what they were told.

The impression was fortified by a New York Times story that appeared a few days earlier. It itemized the governor's taste for luxury, especially when it is paid for by someone else, usually wealthy political allies: elaborate family vacations disguised as trade missions, gilded hotels rooms at $30,000 a night, first-class tickets to concerts and sporting events, and a preference for private jets that feature "exotic wood interiors and a Rolls Royce engine." The governor's high life isn't illegal, as even the Times admitted, and it isn't unusual. A seldom-remarked fact of American politics is that people in positions of governmental authority—senators, cabinet officers, governors, ranking members of the House of Representatives, Republicans and Democrats alike—live a life utterly removed from that of the people they rule, with cars and drivers and private jets on call, sumptuous meals and skyboxes stocked with excellent liquor, all for free. They will tell you it's to make the people's business run more smoothly, but they also think it's fitting compensation. Why else would they put up with the rest of us?

Many observers noted the difficulties that Christie's lifestyle would have for his reputation as a populist. Another item from the Times story may in the end be more ominous.

"King Abdullah of Jordan picked up the tab for a Christie family weekend at the end of the trip. The governor and two staff members who accompanied him came back to New Jersey bubbling that they had celebrated with Bono, the lead singer of U2, at three parties . . ."

Does America want a president who bubbles for Bono? It's hard to square such behavior with greatness, or even competence, much less good taste. Did FDR bubble for Bing—did Reagan moon over Madonna? The revelation will revive the most harrowing piece of reporting in the Christie literature, in which a writer for the Atlantic magazine accompanied the governor of New Jersey to several concerts given by Bruce Springsteen. The writer stood by as Christie hopped up and down, as best he could, and waved his beefy arms, and mouthed the words to Springsteen's tuneless anthems, and then tried, without success, to score a meeting with Springsteen himself. The jets, the meals, the concerts, the parties with celebrity pop musicians—we have at last learned that Christie is neither a populist nor a plutocrat, but a man striving to live out the fantasies of a teenage boy.

The fantasy will come to an end long before he reaches the White House gates. We are a forgiving people, but there are many qualities Americans will not accept in a president. They wouldn't, we can assume, want a professional gambler, a sex offender, a fashion designer, or a collector of 19th-century dollhouses. No race car drivers, stand-up comics, or Esperanto-speakers need apply. Neither, just as reliably, do they want a prig, a prickly, unconvincing hipster, or a 52-year-old man who still plays air guitar. 

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Andrew Ferguson is senior editor at The Weekly Standard, where this first appeared, and the author of Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College.