Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Huckabee as a clown

There is no history of anyone wisecracking his way into the presidency of the United States, or for that matter any other high office. But judging by the first debates and cattle shows Mike Huckabee intends to be a trailblazer. Buried at the bottom in the polls of likely Republican voters with 1 percent, the former governor has crafted a joke for each show and found an occasion to deliver it. It is his way of separating himself from the pack.

Each time it has won him laughter in the studio audience and mention in the news accounts. The one-liners have got him about his only notice. In the South Carolina Republican debate he got the big and about the only laugh of the evening when he jibed, “We’ve had a Congress that has spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop.” Edwards, one of the leading Democratic candidates, has been derided for paying $400 for a haircut. Huckabee was buoyed by the reaction to his wisecrack and last week set out to use it to raise badly needed campaign funds. He asked people to send him a donation at the price of their last haircut.

Everybody loves a clown, but jokes have rarely got politicians very far. The best of recent vintage was Kinky Friedman, who ran for governor of Texas last year on the slogan, “How hard can it be?” Entirely too hard, if he meant getting elected. But he was talking about running a state that George W. Bush once ran.

Bob Dole, the Republican presidential candidate in 1996, was good at one-liners, but they nearly always were of the self-deprecating variety that did not offend. People just didn’t like what he said or did when he tried to be serious. U. S. Rep. Morris Udall of Arizona, a Democratic candidate for president in 1976, and Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, who sought the nomination several times, enlivened every debate and every speech with original but always gentle humor. Crowds loved them but voted for the deadly serious men.

There is rarely anything gentle about Mike Huckabee’s humor, though he has on occasion poked fun at his own poor fund-raising. His jibes have a mean edge, whether the target is John Edwards, Hillary Clinton or Edward Kennedy.

The former governor’s cracks are risk-free now because no one is going to retaliate against a man who is 1 percent in the polls and shows little promise at the moment of rising much beyond it. One percent is a safe vantage point from which to launch missiles at anyone. Even Mitt Romney, the object of some of Huckabee’s early attacks, is not going to elevate a cellar-dwelling candidate by giving him the time of day.

But if Huckabee manages to break out of the herd of single-digit candidates, he has set a precedent that may serve him badly. His own official past provides rich material for precisely the kind of jibes that he loves, and he has invited it. They could popularize some of the Huckabee weaknesses that no one so far has exploited because he is not a serious factor in the race.

For instance, an opponent might crack that someone was “as excited as Mike Huckabee in a rich man’s haberdashery,” recalling the $23,032 worth of clothing Huckabee acquired in 1999 on Jennings Osborne’s clothing account. It was that year the governor sucked in $112,366 worth of gifts. Huckabee’s famous penchant for freebies, including the establishment of wedding registries for going-away gifts for the first couple last December, furnishes a limitless supply of thigh-slappers. Here is another: “I would sign that bill as fast as Mike Huckabee getting a rapist out of prison.”

This is not a game that offers long-term promise for our man. Huckabee should remember that scolds and jesters never get to rule.