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Obama, Kenya and Natalie Portman: Is Huckabee Letting 2012 Slip Away?

3 years ago
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TV and radio host Mike Huckabee is embracing his true inner talker. You can't buy the kind of attention he has attracted in the past week, and just when he's pushing sales of a new book.

Huckabee is also trying to stay on the public radar screen as a potential late entry into the 2012 presidential race -- and why not? The former Arkansas governor leads in polls of the nascent Republican field, both nationally and in the key states of Iowa and South Carolina.

But there's a price. The further Huckabee goes down the road he's on, the less seriously he's taken as a presidential aspirant.

Already he has departed the sober company of governors and former governors -- Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, Jon Huntsman -- and moved into a polarizing, stir-the-pot group that includes Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.

Huckabee's 2008 presidential campaign had a few unusual aspects, such as the co-dependency with Chuck Norris and his acknowledgment in a 2007 debate that he does not believe in evolution (along with his highly arguable contention that evolution is irrelevant to a national campaign). But back then his identity was rooted in his well-regarded decade as a southern governor. He was a pragmatist who raised taxes to pay for roads and schools in Arkansas, a bassist who championed arts education in the schools, a populist of humble origins who said in a TV ad that "most Americans want their next president to remind them of the guy they work with -- not the guy who laid them off." That ad also featured Time magazine calling him one of America's best governors.

Now, three years after quitting the 2008 race, Huckabee is a highly paid author and speaker with a syndicated radio show, a top-rated Fox News weekend talk show, a $3 million house being built in Florida, and a taste for cultural dust-ups. To recap his week: He said twice in a radio interview that President Barack Obama was raised in Kenya, and agreed that it made Obama anti-American, anti-British and a backer of the anti-colonialist Mau Mau Uprising ("his story," Huckabee wrote in the book, though it happened before Obama was born), the anti-Brit sentiment proven when he removed a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office and "boorishly" sent it back to Britain (except that it's still in the White House).

Huckabee doubled down in subsequent interviews on everything except the false "raised in Kenya" part -- which made the rest of his comments incomprehensible (Brits and Mau Mau revolts in Jakarta?) until he made clear that he still believed Obama was in thrall to the Kenyan grandfather he never knew, and the father he barely knew.

For good measure, Huckabee also revived the Murphy Brown unwed mother controversy by criticizing Academy Award winner Natalie Portman for being single and pregnant (for some reason Bristol Palin went unmentioned). Huckabee revisited that furor on Friday and tried to walk it back, saying he did not slam Portman and is glad she's engaged to her baby's father. But he also added that most single mothers are so poor their children would be "starving to death" without government programs.

Huckabee's casual talk of an anti-American president brought up in Africa, his repeated assertions about Obama's allegedly alien boyhood ("Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary Clubs, not madrassas"), even his judgment on a Hollywood star, are not extraordinary for a talk-show provocateur. Yet for a White House hopeful, they are worthy of note, as is the way he handled the situation -- escalating it rather than defusing it as the week went on. "He kept repeating the charges or saying something new that was controversial," said a Republican strategist who is not involved in the incipient 2012 race. "For once his powers of charm weren't successful."

Shockingly, the media is all over Huckabee's comments, and he is miffed. But surely he knows, from having run before, that presidential prospects are subject to presidential-level scrutiny. It's disingenuous for him to complain that the New York Times, the AP and other news outlets (including Politics Daily) are paying undue attention.

The mainstream media coverage is, to be sure, quite different from what Huckabee is encountering in conservative media as he pitches "A Simple Government," his new book. Conservative radio host Bryan Fischer, for example, said the book makes a "legitimate point" about Obama's Kenyan father and grandfather instilling "fundamental anti-Americanism" in Obama. Bill O'Reilly of Fox News likewise told Huckabee that the book made "a valid point" about the influence of Obama's Kenyan roots.

Huckabee says "left-wing" media would understand the case he's making if they'd read the book, and also understand that his Kenya "slip" was just that -- because he wrote right on page 183 that Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia. The liberal watchdog group Media Matters found that there's no reference to Indonesia on page 183 or anywhere else in the book. Beyond that, there's considerable irony in Huckabee deploying his book in his defense. If he had read Obama's autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," it would be hard for him to insist that Obama's Kenyan father and grandfather shaped his views.

In fact, Obama, 49, was born and grew up in Hawaii except between 1967 and 1971, when he lived in Indonesia with his mother, stepfather and half-sister. From the book: Barack Obama Sr. abandoned the family when Obama was 2 years old. The child saw his father only once after that, when he was 10 and Obama Sr. visited Hawaii for a few days. Obama Sr. died in a car crash in Kenya in 1982, while Obama was in college. Several years later he made his first visit to Kenya to meet that side of his family.

Obama also writes that he was in a Boy Scout troop in Indonesia (page 50) and he attended two parochial schools in Jakarta -- a Muslim school and a Catholic school (page 154). He did not attend a radical Islamic madrassa, despite rumors that surfaced in 2007 during his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. As for Rotary Clubs, as Media Matters pointed out, the Honolulu Rotary Club says right on its website that it was chartered in 1915.

Huckabee's strong poll showings against other Republicans and Obama rest in large part on his appeal to religious conservatives. But even before his detour into March madness, he was going to face challenges from primary rivals on his Arkansas tax hikes and the 2009 murder of four Washington state police officers by a man whose prison sentence Huckabee had commuted. Now he's in the process of squandering his leadership credibility and likable image.

The bottom line is that Huckabee spent the week rewriting history, twisting facts, tossing off comments with racial and xenophobic overtones, and then complaining that people noticed. He could stop the media attention at any time, and be free to be his best talk-show self, by announcing he won't run for president. But he hasn't done that -- because then the media would stop paying attention to him. Right when he's trying to sell a new book. And might run for president.

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Filed Under: Analysis

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