Huck’s Gone

Academics are odd sorts. It was late winter in 1969 and a long drive through central Ohio into Columbus, to meet with the Woodrow Wilson Foundation folks – a panel that was interviewing a bunch of us college seniors. Only a few hundred college seniors in the country were going to win their fellowship that year, and get what would be essentially a free ride through graduate school. Cool – and even getting the interview was a big deal. But there was no point in being nervous. The chances of being chosen were remote, and there was really no way to prepare. They had your academic record, and knew what you’d been doing, but they could ask you anything at all. Would they ask about all that work on current linguistic theory about the nature of implied meaning as it applied to the minor satires of Jonathan Swift? Probably not – they’d probably try to see how good you were at thinking on your feet, and ask about Ibsen or something. How do you prepare for that? And three of four tenured big-gun scholars stuck in slushy Columbus, in the middle of damned Ohio, on a Saturday afternoon, were sure to be in a foul mood.

And of course they didn’t ask about Swift. The big question this time, about which you were expected to expound for a time, was whether, really, there was such a thing American literature. Wasn’t it all just an extension and elaboration of British literature, a continuation of an ongoing tradition? Please discuss, with examples.

Sigh. Fine – that’s what they wanted, and that’s what they got. Hemingway had said all modern American literature comes from Huck Finn – everyone says that. Mark Twain created a new American voice – casual and colloquial and real to this place and nowhere else – just like Dryden unlocked the fusty and labored dramatic language of the late seventeenth century and damn near invented modern English, and just like Wordsworth freed British poetry from its fey affected frills. Now and then someone simply decides to be direct, and not muck about being all fancy-pants about things. And Mark Twain was our guy for that. There is a distinct American literature, really, and Twain’s Huck Finn made it possible, freeing us from other times and other places. Hemingway had it right.

So that was that. And winning the fellowship was cool. But the question wasn’t that hard. It was the late sixties and being direct, without elaborate bullshit, was becoming the norm – it was kind of a hippie thing. Tell it like it is. Later we would call this authenticity. And after all, the whole idea that Americans, whatever their intellectual and moral and social shortcomings, are at least totally no-bullshit authentic, was then and is now something we say about ourselves when we screw things up really badly. That excuses everything. We’re all like Huck Finn – not that smart, not knowing that much about anything, often involved in questionable activities – but sincere, direct and authentic. We’re not formal like the Brits, or subtle like the French, or rigorous like the Germans – we’re just out there, who we are, casual and open and direct. The world is supposed to love us for that. They don’t, but that’s their problem, isn’t it?

And you can sell that – at least politicians try to sell that. It’s an odd sort of populism – the idea that you position yourself as one of the people, not in any way smarter and better than anyone else, and thus you should run things, because, really, you’re just an ordinary guy who doesn’t pretend to get all the subtleties, and certainly not one who thinks long and hard and with any sort of intellectual rigor. And people like that sort of thing. The votes roll in. We vote for Huck Finn.

But the odd thing is that the current master of that sort of thing, Mike Huckabee – with the nickname Huck, of course – on Saturday, May 14, decided he’d rather not run for president this time, even though he was ahead in the polling for his party’s nomination, on and off. See Huckabee Opts against 2012 White House Bid – “Mike Huckabee said Saturday there would be no sequel to his surprisingly strong 2008 White House bid, in which he won the Iowa Republican caucus and finished second in the primaries to Sen. John McCain.”

He decided to keep his show on Fox News and just bag it – his heart just wasn’t in it – or perhaps he sensed running against Obama – whip-smart and cool under pressure and a subtle thinker – was a lost cause. Crude populism may have its limits in a world that now seems far too complex for comfort.

And an interesting reaction comes from Tim Stanley, who says the Republican Party will regret Mike Huckabee’s decision not to run:

This is bad news for the Republicans and bad news for American voters. While the liberal and European media always painted Huckabee as an evangelical nut, the truth is that he’s really an old-fashioned Southern huckster of the most likeable and moderate variety. The GOP may have just lost its most credible, human candidate.

To be clear, Tim Stanley, PhD, is a research fellow in American History at Royal Holloway College – he’s writing from the UK, where he is currently working on a biography of Pat Buchanan. So this is an outsider’s view. But that may make it more valuable, as over here we may be too close to things. We’re looking at the trees and Tim Stanley, from afar, is looking the forest we cannot see. And Stanley offers this:

The case against Huckabee was that he complied with every American Right-wing stereotype going. Born in the same Arkansas town that produced Bill Clinton, the teetotal Mr Huckabee preached his first sermon at 15 and was married by 19. He pursued a career in Christian Broadcasting and rose to be president of a religious TV station. He was elected lieutenant governor of Arkansas in 1993 and became governor in 1996 when the incumbent was convicted of fraud. When the governor’s mansion was redecorated in 2000, Huckabee’s family lived in a trailer parked on the front lawn. He ran well for president in 2008 by appealing to the GOP’s religiously conservative base. He was adamantly pro-life and anti-gay marriage, and he gave hypnotically vague answers on the origins of man. His reputation for wheeling-and-dealing earned him the sobriquet “The Huckster.”

But at least he was human – a born-again evangelical Mensch, to bump words up against each other that really should never meet. But it fits:

Huckabee’s redneck image was the very reason why he did so well in 2008. His genuine experience of poverty struck a chord with middle-class families struggling in an era of recession. He loved telling crowds that growing up he was forced to use cheap, itchy soap. “It wasn’t until I went to college,” he said, “that I realized showers are not supposed to hurt.” He played bass guitar and looked comfortable in jeans. Best of all, he fought a public battle against his waistline. Huckabee found a way of blending politics and lifestyle entertainment that gave him a unique rapport with ordinary voters – you’ve got to love a politician who can write a bestseller with a title like Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork. He followed this up with a collection of Christmas stories and a chat-show.

And he’s not like Donald Trump or Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin at all:

Huckabee was a presidential candidate pitched for the Oprah Winfrey generation. He is a conservative, but – unlike most conservatives – he doesn’t seem angry about it. The average rightwing politician comes across a little primal. Michele Bachmann doesn’t blink and Rush Limbaugh probably eats liberals for breakfast. In contrast, Huckabee has always defused partisan tensions with wit.

A conservative who isn’t angry – how can that be? That does make Huckabee the odd man out. And maybe he’s not running because he knows that to satisfy his party these days he’d have to work up a perpetual seething anger about everything, every hour, every day, all the time – and he knows himself well enough to realize he just couldn’t do that. He wasn’t up to the task, and really, you cannot be who you are not. His party moved on. He didn’t. He couldn’t.

And Stanley suggests you watch the way he answered this pointed question about evolution in 2008:

Any other conservative would have responded to the challenge with fury or a Biblical testament. The Huckster brought things to the basics of what makes life worthwhile: God loves us, man is at the centre of His universe, and that’s why we have to learn to get along.

Even for those of us who find the first two of those three notions absurd, the third is appealing. You may not agree with him, but he’s a good man.

But there were real political problems too:

Huckabee was a frontrunner because he boasted surprising credentials as a moderate. In fact, it’s why some ideologues hated him. As governor, he raised taxes to plug a hole in the education budget, established a system of health-insurance for kids not dissimilar to Obamacare and refused to veto college funds for the children of illegal immigrants. His record on race is exemplary: in the 1980s he encouraged his own church to integrate and, as governor, he declared 1997 a year of racial reconciliation. In sum, Huckabee is less a Republican than he is an old-fashioned Southern populist in the Huey Long, Big Jim Folsom mold.

And Stanley contends this is probably the key reason why Huckabee didn’t run:

His image as a “nice guy” could have been subverted by another presidential campaign. The central tragedy of American politics is that the nomination system abhors a rational, pragmatic human being. It demands that candidates appeal to the extremes of the political spectrum. While in Europe everything cleaves to the middle, in America it’s the radical Left and Right that attracts the money and manpower. Huckabee was above that.

So the idea here is that liberals should not celebrate Huckabee’s decision:

Huckabee’s populism could have integrated evangelicals into the middle-ground, mainstream of political thinking. For the last thirty years, they’ve been wedded to fiscal conservatives like Newt Gingrich because those were the only people prepared to push their family-friendly agenda. But evangelicals are far more socially conscious than this pact suggests – see Pat Robertson’s campaign against global warming as an example. Huckabee offered a new alliance between social conservatism and economic populism, deprogrammed of racist nonsense and rooted in Middle Americana.

Now, that opportunity is lost. We can expect the Republican primaries to be a far shriller and more immoderate place without The Huckster’s presence.

But this had to happen. A conservative who isn’t angry – how can that be? That cannot be. That’s the essence of conservatism these days. Huck Finn never got angry, of course. Something has changed in America.

So you get this from Doug Ross – One Less RINO to Worry About: Huckabee Bails on 2012 Bid:

Mike Huckabee helped give us the feckless candidacy of John McCain in 2008 by sabotaging Mitt Romney. The true GOP front-runners are Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum. Having Huckabee out of the race is a promising development.

So this is a promising development – for whom? Maybe all modern American literature comes from Huck Finn, as Hemingway suggested, and maybe Mark Twain was the first to actually capture the essence of the American character, as we like to think of it, if we do. But Huck Finn is now dead.


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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One Response to Huck’s Gone

  1. C.J. Aikman says:

    Tim Stanley’s comments are as much a reflection of his rather idiosyncratic political journey from moderate, communitarian left to traditionalist right (although I suspect he would reject a judgement based upon the left-right political continuum; the output of his blog belies this, however) as they are an insight into the nature of Mike Huckabee’s aborted presidential candidacy. Stanley clearly sympathises with Huckabee, in part because the latter offers more than an echo of the quixotic appeal of Pat Buchanan, the subject of Stanley’s forthcoming – and, I am assured, balanced – biography. Huckabee is a man who combines a rather bracing degree of social conservatism with an economic populism more reminiscent of W. Jennings Bryan than of Ronald Reagan; a perspective in line entirely with Stanley’s political worldview. And yet it was not always thus.

    I first knew of Stanley in 2005, while a young History undergraduate at Cambridge University. Stanley was, at that time, an enthusiastic member of the University Labour Club; I was a detached, almost indifferent subscription-payer. My diffidence stopped me from being introduced to him. Opposed to the Iraq War, Stanley seemed to epitomise the leftist chagrin many felt for the military adventures of Tony Blair’s premiership; he accompanied this with an apparent disdain for free-market economics. My (admittedly jejune) musings seemed to be confirmed when, in 2006, he co-authored a book entitled, rather apocalyptically, the ‘End of Politics’ (of which, intriguingly, there is no mention on his personal website). This book, an admirable work in itself, urged the Labour party to re-orientate itself towards the left; to abandon the pragmatic but soulless nostrums of ‘service delivery’ and ‘triangulation’; and instead re-orchestrate the party along the lines of communitarian socialism. In short, the man now praising Huckabee as a likeable moderate of the ‘old-fashioned’ variety was, not too recently, sympathetic to ideas (such as – God forbid! – the notion that inequalities are the product of structural injustices as much as human weakness) that would have had him branded as a Satanic Marxist in every county in Arkansas.

    And yet two continuing themes in Stanley’s life have led, in my mind, to changes in how he approaches politics. The first is his wholehearted embrace of the importance of religion – and Catholicism in particular – in politics, evident in his interest in Buchanan. This is augmented by the second change: his discovery of America, both emotionally and intellectually. Radical social democracy has a limited audience in the USA, and it seems his initial interest in populist, liberal Catholic politicians has given way to a fraternisation, albeit not an uncritical one, with the religious right. Such a trajectory has led him to advocate other right-wing ideals that, I would hope, his previous self would have disregarded; this process has accelerated with his recent appointment as a blogger for the British (by which I mean unrepentantly English) newspaper ‘The Daily Telegraph’. No more is this apparent than in the changing nature of Stanley’s preoccupations: a concern for social cohesion and community interdependence in Britain has now been replaced by criticism of liberalism (never mind his admiration for the ultimate liberal bete noire, Edward Kennedy) and the bureaucratic state in America.

    I flag this up not to attack Stanley directly; I merely want to illustrate how his political perspective (reflected in his opinions about Huckabee) illustrates the reconfiguration of the ‘right’ and ‘left’ in Anglo-Saxon societies – defying the Manichean observations of most contemporary observers – but also how hard it is to escape from such appellations. What do I mean by this? Well, it’s clear that Stanley is no longer of the ‘left’ in any commonplace way; and yet the narrative of his political ‘defection’ to the right shows that, in many ways, many of his underlying themes remain the same. The regard for Huckabee’s economic populism clearly has an echo in his scepticism for the neo-liberalism of the contemporary Labour and Democratic parties, while his appreciation of the role of religion in American politics can be seen as a counterpart to his references to the appeals made to the common good by religiously-minded early British socialists. And yet any willingness to transcend traditional political boundaries (which I think he is trying, maybe on a subconscious level, to do) is undermined by his willingness to engage, by my reckoning, in the usual scapegoating of the left and its apparent misdemeanours. Partly this may be down to opportunism: his occasional harrumphing about the deadening effects of the “statist leviathan” in both Britain and America (1) for his ‘Telegraph’ blog sit incongruously with his near-contemporaneous – and slightly overcooked – attack in the ‘Guardian’ (a British paper of liberal-left inclination) on the apparent plans of Britain’s Coalition government to start “dismantling” the welfare state (2). It may also just be confusion: his website describes his politics as ‘eclectic’ – a word I normally use to deflect any enquiries into my musical taste. And yet he is undoubtedly making his bed, and preparing to lie in it.

    But there is something deeper here, something that has consequences for America. Stanley’s divergent sympathies – and the resulting confusion – indicate how hard it is to escape the bipolar nature of the political systems on both sides of the Atlantic. For Huckabee, the dilemma is more acute. This is a politician who, had he been of age forty years ago, would surely have been attempting to claim the Democratic presidential nomination. He is, as Stanley rightly says, the natural successor to the likes of James Folsom, Sr. and, on a national scale, Richard Gephardt; his effervescence would surely have let him avoid the palsied fate of crabbed racists like George C. Wallace and Jesse Helms. But the rhythms of politics change: Huckabee is now identified as unimpeachably right-wing by all but the most doctrinaire tea party apparatchik. He could have been an ideological friend of Maurice Glasman and ‘Blue Labour’, not to mention ‘Blue Dog’ Democrats; instead he is disregarded by a substantial section of America’s working-class as red in fang and claw. That is his tragedy: he should be of the ‘left’, where his message would acquire legitimacy and depth, and his rough, reactionary edges would be rubbed down. I would hope that Stanley – regardless of where he now ‘is’ politically – feels the same.

    C.J. Aikman

    (1) Tim Stanley, “This Fourth of July, Britain Should Bring the Revolution Home”, Telegraph blog, 4 July 2011.
    (2) Tim Stanley, “Conservative nostalgia for Victorian era is dangerous”, Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ section, 24 February 2011.

    P.S. Thanks for letting this long-winded post go up, Alan. It wasn’t in any way intended to hijack your blog: I only intended to write a few lines originally.

    P.P.S. Oh, and if you do ever happen to read this, Tim Stanley (which I doubt; this post is two months too late for that): this was not meant as an ad hominem attack on you. I genuinely find your politics interesting, and I think you’ve hit upon an important line of thinking, approaching the Republican right from the British left. And maybe you’ve not changed that much – as Tomasi di Lampedusa says, blah blah. Although your recent Telegraph output leaves me doubtful, I hope you re-engage with the Labour party soon; it needs thinkers like yourself.

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