Behind former Gov. Mike Huckabee's warm smile, inclusive rhetoric, and gee-whiz populism lies an ethics record that would make a Clinton blush. His greedy, cheesy money grabs as governor in Arkansas were a preview of today's greedy, cheesy money grabs.
As part of what The New York Times called "unconventional ways to fund a campaign," the newly minted GOP presidential candidate recently pitched a dubious medical treatment via infomercial.
"Let me tell you, diabetes can be reversed," Huckabee says. "I should know, because I did it. Today you can, too."
No you can't. The American Diabetes Association and the Canadian Diabetes Association caution consumers against treatments like the one sold by the company Huckabee represents.
But that's not all! Huckabee is allowing his mailing list—the names and email addresses of his political supporters—to be used to peddle cancer cures based on Bible verses.
In Arkansas, we called him "The Huckster." As veteran Little Rock columnist Max Brantley wrote for Salon in 2007, the former Baptist preacher "revealed an enduring weakness as glaring as that other Arkansas governor's fondness for women."
Huckabee seems to love loot and has a dismissive attitude toward ethics, campaign finance rules, and propriety in general. Since that first, failed campaign, the ethical questions have multiplied.
In the 1992 contest with [Dale] Bumpers, Huckabee used campaign funds to pay himself as his own media consultant. Other payments went to the family babysitter.
In his successful 1994 run for lieutenant governor, he set up a nonprofit curtain known as Action America so he could give speeches for money without having to disclose the names of his benefactors. He failed to report that campaign travel payments were for the use of his own personal plane.
After he became governor in 1996, he raked in tens of thousands of dollars in gifts, including gifts from people he later appointed to prestigious state commissions.
In the governor's office, his grasp never exceeded his reach. Furniture he'd received to doll up his office was carted out with him when he left, after he'd crushed computer hard drives so nobody could ever get a peek behind the curtain of the Huckabee administration.
Until my paper, the Arkansas Times, blew the whistle, he converted a governor's mansion operating account into a personal expense account, claiming public money for a doghouse, dry-cleaning bills, panty hose, and meals at Taco Bell. He tried to claim $70,000 in furnishings provided by a wealthy cotton-grower for the private part of the residence as his own, until he learned ethics rules prevented it. When a disgruntled former employee disclosed memos revealing all this, the Huckabee camp shut her up by repeatedly suggesting she might be vulnerable to prosecution for theft because she'd shared documents generated by the state's highest official.
But wait! There's more. "Three decades after the Huckabees' wedding," Brantley wrote, "his wife registered at department stores so their new home, post-governor's mansion, could be stocked with gifts of linens, toasters, and other suitable furnishings."
Say what you want about Bill and Hillary Clinton's ethical corner-cutting after they left Arkansas (or scroll my diatribes here), their conduct in the 1980s and early 1990s never approached Huckabee's depths. They didn't use the governor's office as a personal ATM. They didn't trade on the public's trust.
Gov. Bill Clinton registered historic ethics reform.
Gov. Mike Huckabee registered at Target.
What's worse is the pious, prickly way Huckabee addresses these issues. Just this week, CNN host Jake Tapper asked the candidate if he lost credibility by lending his name to shady marketing efforts.
"I never signed that letter," Huckabee said of the email selling cancer cures. "It's a huge email list that I developed over many years. And we did, in fact, rent it out to entities."
"But my gosh, that's like saying, 'You run some ads on CNN, do you personally agree with all the ads that run on CNN?' I doubt you do," he said. "I'm sure there's some for maybe, I don't know, catheters or adult diapers, they're not products you use or you necessarily believe in. I don't hold you responsible for that."
Tapper called out Huckabeee for the false equivalence.
"We're talking about medical devices on one hand, catheters and adult diapers, and you're talking about something I think a lot of people would consider to be hucksterism in terms of Bible verses curing cancer," Tapper said.
Hucksterism. The perfect word for Huckabee's conduct—and a warning against his concept of leadership and management. While Huckabee can claim legitimate accomplishments in Arkansas (he raised taxes for schools, highways, and children's health; he welcomed into the state refugees from Hurricane Katrina and the children of immigrants), there is a side of this complicated man that political reporters often miss or ignore. Kinda like the Clintons.
On CNN, Huckabee finally told Tapper, "I didn't actually run that part of my company." Listen closely and you might hear an embattled, scandal-scarred President Huckabee defending himself: "I didn't actually run that part of the country."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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