After more or less faithful attendance at 19 national party nominating conventions and after having worked in or covered the last 11 presidential campaigns, I have concluded that, try as you might, it is all but impossible not to personally like some candidates much more than you like others.
It’s an occupational risk. But whom you like more almost always has a lot less to do with the candidate’s positions or policies than with his sense of proportion and, especially, his sense of humor. In more than 45 years, I have never known a presidential candidate whom I liked more or enjoyed more than the 1976 runner-up to President Jimmy Carter, the late Arizona Democrat “Mo” Udall.
A confession: I like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the conservative runner-up to John McCain for the 2008 Republican nomination. Like Udall, Huckabee is witty and unpretentious, two qualities missing from the driven, self-absorbed individuals who see in their mirrors the fifth profile needed to complete Mount Rushmore.
As a self-identified “conservative who isn’t mad at anybody,” Huckabee could kid openly about his home state’s political corruption by stating “the five words most feared” by an Arkansas politician: “Would the defendant please rise?”
But I liked his political candor, too. At a Republican presidential debate in November 2007, when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, reflecting the anti-immigrant fever of most GOP candidates, attacked the Arkansas state program that enabled the children of undocumented immigrants to apply for college scholarships, Huckabee stuffed him: “I’m standing here tonight on this stage because I got an education. If I hadn’t had the education, I wouldn’t be standing on this stage. I might be picking lettuce. ... In all due respect, we’re a better country than to punish children for what their parents did.”
Just last week, at an afternoon coffee with reporters hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, I heard Huckabee break with Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and other conservatives who have bashed first lady Michelle Obama’s healthy-eating-anti-obesity campaign: “She has been criticized unfairly by a lot of my fellow conservatives. It is out of a reflex rather than out of a thoughtful expression. We don’t have to believe that everything the other side proposes is immediately and altogether bad.”
So you can imagine my surprise — make that shock — when I heard that Huckabee, while promoting his latest book, A Simple Government, on conservative Steve Malzberg’s radio show last week, said of President Barack Obama: “And one thing I do know is his having grown up in Kenya, his view of the Brits for example (is) very different than the average American.” Huckabee’s spokesman said Huckabee “simply misspoke,” that he had “meant to say the president grew up in Indonesia.”
That, too, is wrong. Other than spending four years of his early life in Indonesia, Obama grew up in Hawaii. He never lived in Kenya and did not visit that country until he was in is 20s. His “view of the Brits” was certainly not influenced by a Kenyan father who abandoned him when he was an infant and whom Obama met but once when he was 10 years old.
I refuse to believe that Huckabee was playing any sort of race card politically in that radio interview. But I am mystified by a) how wrong he was on his facts about the life of the man whom he might run against in 2012, or b) how grossly careless Huckabee was with his facts.
Not the level of performance you would expect from such a likable, sure-footed, top-tier presidential candidate. Explanations would be both welcome and appreciated. It all may simply mean that Huckabee, the front-runner in 2011, is just not going to run in 2012.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.