Testing the Limits of Charm

There was a time in America where everyone loved Gomer Pyle – a character played by Jim Nabors in a sit-com that ran from 1964 through 1969, when America finally seemed to have tired of the supremely unaware and rather dimwitted guy from the rural and unsophisticated Deep South, who was really a hero, and a wonderful person, because his heart was in the right place. It was the triumph of the uneducated bumpkin, a triumph over the educated and thoughtful and rational folks, who thought things through and thought that they knew so much – week after week after week. And after the summer of Woodstock, in the middle of the worst turmoil over what we thought we were doing in Vietnam, CBS cancelled the show. Dumb folks who got everything wrong just weren’t that charming anymore. The show had been a spinoff from The Andy Griffith Show that had shut down a year earlier – so the Mayberry thing had finally run its course. The producer, Sheldon Leonard, moved on. He went home and counted his money.

But the idea didn’t die. In 1994 Tom Hanks gave us Forrest Gump – the top-grossing film in North America released that year. And at the Oscars it won Best Picture – and Best Actor for Hanks and Best Director for Robert Zemeckis. And Gump, as played by Hanks, was also the total innocent – he knew nothing about much of anything, and he was too dumb, perhaps borderline retarded, to learn anything. But loved his momma and had a good heart – and he met everyone important, and became important, and became the nation’s hero, and he changed the world. He bested all the best and the brightest – precisely because he didn’t know a damned thing about anything. That touched a chord – it was a wish-fulfillment fantasy for those who really do know they’re not that bright and never really will be, and who long ago realized that they really don’t know much about the world and never will. In this film someone just like them wins, big. It’s probably the most virulently anti-intellectual film ever made. Knowledge, wisdom and experience, and any kind of thoughtfulness, lose out, as, we are shown, they should. Sarah Palin fans probably pop that movie in the DVD and watch it once a week.

And we have our loveable Gomer Pyle guy, Michael Dale “Mike” Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas (1996 to 2007) – now of Fox News. He’s an ordained Southern Baptist minister – he proudly holds a degree in Bible studies from Ouachita Baptist University, in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. He doesn’t believe in evolution and is sure every word in the Bible is literally true, even if he admits that he, as a mere moral, doesn’t understand it all. And he’s an awfully nice fellow, like Gomer Pyle – he even looks a bit like Jim Nabors. He’s also a good-natured naive country-boy, with that childlike innocence and that Arkansas accent – and he loves his momma, plays a pretty good country-rock electric bass, and he is sure to run for president again.

And that charm is refreshing – you can sell that. Ross Perot was charming in his way – until people figured out he was bat-shit crazy. And John McCain was charming in a self-deprecating way, full of good humor and taking what seemed to be unexpectedly open positions – until he turned out to be an angry old man, and nasty, and erratic, and petty, and bat-shit crazy in his own way. He wanted that female Forrest Gump to be his vice president, and to step in and lead America if he were to fall. Charm can carry you far, but only so far. CBS can pull the plug – they can cancel the show. It happened with Gomer Pyle.

And will it happen with Huckabee? In a radio interview on Monday, Mike Huckabee said that President Obama was raised in Kenya and as a consequence of this Kenyan upbringing, had obviously been indoctrinated with anti-Western views by his father and grandfather and their stories about the Mau Mau uprising of the early 1950s.

What? Steve Kornacki covers the story here:

“The Steve Malzberg Show” is the type of radio program that any Republican looking to run for president or sell books (or both) pretty much has to appear on.

So it wasn’t surprising that Mike Huckabee, who is peddling a new book while flirting with a White House bid, called in on Monday afternoon. Nor was it surprising that Malzberg, who doubles as a columnist for the far-right site Newsmax, eventually brought the conversation around to his doubts over whether President Obama is, in fact, legally qualified to serve as president. What is surprising – maybe even shocking – is how Huckabee handled this.

After accusing Obama of failing to produce adequate records about his own education, health and birth, Malzberg asked Huckabee, “Don’t you think we deserve to know more about this man?”

And golly, Huckabee jumped right in:

I would love to know more. What I know is troubling enough. And one thing that I do know is his having grown up in Kenya, his view of the Brits, for example, is very different than the average American.

And Kornacki points out the obvious and the silliness which followed:

The president did not grow up in Kenya, or anywhere near it. He spent most of his youth in Hawaii, with a four-year detour in Indonesia between 1967 and 1971. There was no correction from Malzberg. Huckabee then went on to deride Obama for returning a bust of Winston Churchill to Britain – an action, he noted, that makes perfect sense when you consider that Obama grew up in Kenya, “hearing that the British were a bunch of imperialists who, uh, persecuted his grandfather.”

And Malzberg jumped in:

Oh, he despises the West! He despises the Brits. And I think he could take it all out on Israel. And that’s why he despises Israel. He’s not too thrilled with our history, either.

And then he asked Huckabee about the big question everyone should ask Obama – “‘Why did you go to court and spend millions of dollars to prevent from having to show your birth certificate if you have one and it’s there – why not show it?” And Huckabee muses that “the only reason” he doesn’t think there’s a birth certificate smoking gun thing is because the Clintons would have found it and used it in 2008 if there was one.

Kornacki:

It’s hard to listen to the entire exchange and not conclude that Huckabee is simply – and appallingly – ignorant on the basic facts of the president’s life story. This doesn’t sound like a cynical attempt to send signals to the Republican base from a politician who, deep inside, knows better; this is a man who matter-of-factly believes that Obama was raised in Kenya – and who uses that belief to justify all sorts of zany theories about the president’s motives and sympathies in the conduct of foreign affairs.

How does Huckabee, who has been on the national stage for four years now and who may be the front-runner for the GOP nomination if he decides to run, not know that Obama wasn’t raised in Kenya?

But there was the correction Huckabee’s spokesman gave to ABC:

Governor Huckabee simply misspoke when he alluded to President Obama growing up in “Kenya.” The Governor meant to say the President grew up in Indonesia. When the Governor mentioned he wanted to know more about the President, he wasn’t talking about the President’s place of birth – the Governor believes the President was born in Hawaii. The Governor would however like to know more about where President Obama’s liberal policies come from and what else the President plans to do to this country – as do most Americans.

Kornacki:

The problem here is that Huckabee didn’t just say that Obama was raised in Kenya – he made specific reference to the Mau Mau Revolution, claiming that Obama, by virtue of his upbringing, would have a very different understanding of it than Westerners. That’s much different than accidentally saying “Kenya” when you meant to say “Indonesia.”

That’s some story, or so Kornacki thinks:

This story isn’t about whether Huckabee specifically subscribes to the view that Obama wasn’t born in the United States; maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. The issue here is that Huckabee has just demonstrated that his main critique of President Obama’s foreign policy is rooted in a belief that is demonstrably and laughably false. What other objections to Obama’s policymaking does Huckabee have that are based on beliefs like this?

But Huckabee is a charming fellow, although Time’s Joe Klein doesn’t think so:

Huckabee was never an entirely plausible candidate for President – could we actually ever elect a man who has his doubts about evolution? Whose comments about Israel seemed to indicate a literal interpretation of the Bible and the Rapture myth? But he always struck me as a good guy, more concerned about working-class America than most of his rivals. These comments, however, and his subsequent lie that he really meant Indonesia not Kenya, really show a demented, perverse sensibility, and they demonstrate some of the ugliness at the heart of Obama hatred.

I’m talking about the Mau Mau comment, especially.

When I was growing up, Mau Mau was shorthand for: Extremely Scary Black People. The brutality of the Mau Mau rebellion was legendary (and, who knows, perhaps even accurate). It became a term of art in the sixties: to mau-mau was to intimidate white people. (As a young reporter in Boston, I covered a would-be black militant group that called itself, with brilliant irony, De Mau Mau.) To associate Barack Obama with the Mau Mau rebellion is to feed all the worst, paranoid fears of Glenn Beck’s America – and, as any sane person knows, completely ridiculous.

But Kornacki isn’t finished:

You might think this episode would seriously diminish Huckabee’s standing on the national political stage. Certainly, it’s easy to make the case that it should. … Huckabee has now demonstrated that his critique of the president’s conduct of foreign policy is rooted in his belief in something that is utterly and laughably untrue. You might expect this level of ignorance from a talk radio host or even a House backbencher – but from a man who, if he runs, could be the favorite for next year’s Republican presidential nomination?

There’s also the matter of how Huckabee’s comments enable Birther sentiment.

And he cites Jonathan Bernstein here – it doesn’t matter that Huckabee didn’t literally endorse the idea that Obama wasn’t born in the United States. What he was doing was encouraging the view “that Barack Obama isn’t a real American.” And yes, a majority of Republicans think Obama was not born here – but Kornacki adds this:

And yet, a day later, it’s beginning to look like Huckabee will walk away from this relatively unscathed. Sure, he’s taken plenty of heat, but he’s got his defenders, too. … So Huckabee will probably be able to stick to his script of simply saying “Kenya” when he meant “Indonesia,” then dismiss anyone who dwells on the issue as a politically motivated liberal. And in a few weeks, maybe he’ll say something unexpectedly gracious about the Obamas – as he has done several times recently – validating the benefit of the doubt that plenty of media members are still willing to give him. He’ll still be the “likable” Republican.

This, in turn, should prevent any significant damage to Huckabee’s standing within the GOP. As the recent Birther poll demonstrated, there’s no real risk that Huckabee’s actual comments will cause a backlash among Republicans. The only threat is that the comments will cause such a sustained firestorm that Republicans begin to see Huckabee as they increasingly see Sarah Palin: someone they like but won’t back for president. Assuming Huckabee stops spouting theories about the roots of Obama’s anti-Western philosophy, he’ll probably be fine.

Or maybe not:

In his first new statement, on his official website, Huckabee blames the media – and the New York Times in particular – for hyping “a simple slip of the tongue” and suggests that a double-standard is in place, since Obama was allowed to slide for once saying during the 2008 campaign that he’d visited 57 U.S. states. …

The difference between these two episodes should be blindingly obvious. In Huckabee’s case, he didn’t merely say that Obama was raised in Kenya and then correct his statement; he said it repeatedly and used it as the basis for an attack on Obama’s worldview, even conjuring a scene from Obama’s supposed Kenyan childhood in which his grandfather indoctrinates him in anti-Western thought through tales of the Mau Mau uprising. This is no “slip of the tongue.” Huckabee clearly was under the impression that Obama had grown up in Kenya and had spent time pondering what this could mean in terms of his foreign policy.

Obama, by contrast, only said made the 57-state screw-up once. He never repeated the claim and he didn’t go on to discuss all of the troubling implications these seven new states could pose for the union. If you watch the video, it’s pretty clear that Obama, presumably worn down from months of campaigning, meant to say that he’d been in 47 states, with one more still to visit (he then explains why he’s not counting Alaska and Hawaii). It’s hard to see how this was anything but a slip of the tongue – just as it’s impossible to see how Huckabee’s Mau Mau musings were one.

And there’s this:

Appearing on the radio show of Bryan Fischer, a prominent social conservative, Huckabee again played the victim, pretending that he was being unfairly targeted for simply “misspeaking.” But then he took it a step further. Prompted by Fischer to comment on the “fundamentally anti-American ideas” that may have been planted in Obama’s head by his “virulently anti-colonial father,” Huckabee said “And I have said many times, publicly, that I do think he has a different worldview and I think it is, in part, molded out of a very different experience. Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary Clubs, not madrassas.”

There’s no other word for this comment but “ugly.” And it exposes a side of Huckabee that doesn’t often get much attention: his backward attitude toward Arabs and Muslims. Huckabee – who was born in segregated Hope, Arkansas – has won well-deserved praise for his willingness to confront the demons of his home region and to address racial issues with unusual sophistication and grace. But when it comes to Arabs and Muslim, everything changes. The Huckabee who sneered today at the idea of growing up around madrassas is the same Huckabee who has, for instance, called for the transfer of the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories to other Arab countries and who subscribes to the “clash of cultures” view that Islam is incompatible with Western life.

Huckabee may have a winning personality and be the conservative that Democrats can’t help but sort of like, but this is edgy stuff. Kornacki holds that calling for ethnic cleansing in the Middle East and talk about the scary Mau Mau guys is not that charming.

And as for that bit about the Clintons, Kevin Drum says this:

That’s brilliant! Huckabee wants to appear sane, so he can’t be a Birther. But he probably doesn’t want to lose the Birther vote either, since a big part of his base believes the Birther conspiracy. So how does he explain not believing it? By pointing to Obama’s certificate of live birth? By mentioning the birth notices in the Honolulu papers in 1961? By quoting the director of the Hawaii State Department of Health?

Nope. He shows the nutballs that he’s one of them by appealing to their even more rock solid belief in the supernaturally malevolent powers of the Clintons. Because that’s a genuinely tough call: should you believe that Obama was born in Kenya, or should you believe that Hillary and her gang of Arkansas thugs aren’t quite as demonically ruthless as you thought? Decisions, decisions. Either way, though, bravo to Huckabee for inventing such a terrific dodge.

And Joan Walsh’s comments on this matter open with this:

Mike Huckabee’s been trying out for the role of the reasonable, avuncular GOP wingnut, in advance of a likely 2012 presidential run. When mean-girls Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann savaged Michelle Obama’s healthy-eating campaign last month, the cuddly, Smurfy Huckabee, who’s publicly struggled with a weight problem, defended the first lady. Even in his outrageous interview with right-wing-radio knuckle-dragger Steve Malzberg, Huckabee probably thought he was being a voice of comparative reason, quelling Birther madness by saying that if President Obama truly wasn’t born in the U.S., those vicious Clintons would have run him out of the 2008 race (and maybe into an early grave with Vince Foster) – so he thinks the president was probably born here.

It’s that charm, you see – everyone likes the guy. But Walsh adds this:

I absolutely believe Obama’s upbringing is fair game – but the emphasis on the anti-colonialism of the father he barely knew shows the right’s obsession with the president’s race, not his politics. In fact, the political views of Obama’s white mother, anthropologist Stanley Ann Dunham, are far more relevant to the president’s development than those of his activist-turned-alcoholic Kenyan father. Ann Dunham is the one who brought her young children to Indonesia, where she wrote her doctoral thesis on the culture and economics of Java’s rural metalworkers. She built a career around rural development, microfinance and women’s welfare. You could probably fairly describe her views as “anti-colonial.” But almost no one ever talks about her progressive political work, and its influence on her son. You could still probably red-bait the president with the Middle American Dunham’s compassionate, globalist politics, but that wouldn’t be nearly as damaging or scary as pointing to his black Kenyan father. Plus, how would you get to use the term “Mau Mau”?

Huckabee should be ashamed of himself.

And there is Adam Serwer:

The point of Huckabee’s “Obama grew up in Kenya sympathizing with the Mau-Mau’s” remark is to tell a story about Obama’s life that never actually happened. Obama’s personal history, as told by the man himself, renders him a creature of American liberal politics, not foreign anti-colonial revolution. If you’re going to use Obama’s personal background to gauge his politics, that’s fine, but it doesn’t seem like it’s asking too much to insist that people use his actual personal background to do so.

It comes down to this:

Huckabee is pretending that Obama was raised by his father and grandfather in Kenya, and has a visceral hatred of Winston Churchill, when in reality he was raised largely by his white grandparents in Hawaii. Huckabee is proposing (tentatively) that the only reason to believe the president is not lying about his birth certificate is because the evil Clintons would have exposed him otherwise. He’s suggesting that the liberal politics he embraced are, therefore, as David Frum wrote, of the “Kenyan anti-colonialism” thesis, “motivated by anti-white racial revenge.”

But Obama’s actual life wouldn’t confirm any of this. So conservatives have invented an alternate universe in which Obama’s absent father raised him in Kenya to hate the British and that his entire administration is therefore an elaborate scheme for racial payback. The fiction is so pervasive that Huckabee appeared to think it was actually true. He had heard it so many times that he found himself repeating it with no self-consciousness whatsoever.

It really is Gomer Pyle meets Forrest Gump – and the idea that dumb people who get everything wrong will rise to the top and be our heroes and leaders. Hollywood has presented that to us twice.

But see two of Andrew Sullivan’s readers:

My own family came to the US from Ireland and Scotland. My great-great grandparents left Scotland to escape the Highland Clearances. An entry in the Bible they brought with them says, “We must go to America or stay here and die.” The bitterness they felt over leaving their beloved Highlands was passed down through five generations so that as a child I was taught that the British had persecuted my family and that if they had stayed in either Scotland or Ireland, they and I wouldn’t be alive. Huckabee apparently doesn’t know that “Americans” are from or are descended from people who once lived in British colonies – people who do not share his view that the British Empire was some nifty thing.

Another:

I seem to remember something from grade school about thirteen colonies and the Revolutionary War. What is wrong with these people?

And there is the matter of those Balinese Mau Mau folks. Maybe it’s time to pull the plug on the new Gomer Pyle show.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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