First Mates

Shoots Bear, Submits to Husband

The fascinating marriage of Mike and Janet Huckabee.

Read more of Slate’s First Mates series about the marriages of the presidential candidates.

When I ask Mike Huckabee’s best friend since second grade what his buddy’s marriage tells us about the kind of president he’d be, Lester Sitzes III, a dentist in their hometown of Hope, Ark., answers, “Those two folks were virgins when they got married, I can tell you that.”

And though this straight-to-the-promised-land response is unexpected, it’s not off-point: The couple’s covenant marriage actually seems a highly relevant guide to what the candidate has assured us would be a Bible-based executive branch. His wife, the former Janet McCain (no relation to John), grew up in Hope, too, and she and Mike have been together since high school, where he led prayer sessions in the school auditorium and she attended them, if she didn’t have basketball practice. Their first date was cheeseburgers at the local truck stop, and they got married when they were 18, in a ceremony at the bride’s home. Her sister played “Here Comes the Bride” on the piano as she came down the stairs, wearing a white eyelet dress her mother had made for her, and in lieu of a real ring, the groom slipped a soda can tab on her finger.

But Sitzes, who was the best man that day, May 25, 1974, says everything you need to know about Mike Huckabee really goes back a little further than that, to his drama club turn as the narrator in Horton Hatches the Egg. “Mike playing Dr. Seuss was like Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow; he was so good we won state on the strength of that performance. If you’re around Mike now, you’ll hear him say, ‘I say what I mean and I mean what I say.’ Well, I hear that and think, That’s Horton! ‘I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant’s faithful, 100 percent!’ ” He’s told this story to reporters before, he notes, and to sadly little effect—but never to a one-time drama camp portrayer of Mayzie, the lazy bird who skips off to live it up while Horton sticks around and hatches her progeny.” So you will appreciate this,” Sitzes says, grateful to have found a taker at last: “Mike is Horton, and he’s been true to his wife and never had any kind of—there will be no Monica Lewinsky or Gennifer Flowers—because Mike and Janet are what they are.”

Perhaps it’s predictable, in our up-is-down political funhouse, where war heroes are made to look like cowards and vice versa, that the right’s recent knock on the former Baptist minister is … that he is somehow insufficiently committed to the one-man, one-woman thing—not personally, but as a matter of policy. In 2003, after the Supreme Court struck down the sodomy law that had criminalized homosexual sex in Texas, Huckabee said on his monthly radio show, Ask the Governor, that the decision in Lawrence v. Texas “probably was appropriate” since any law that “prohibits private behavior among adults” would be difficult to enforce. As Huckabee’s campaign took off last month, economic conservatives panicked at the prospect of an actual theocracy, as did liberals who’d been pretending we already live in one. So they dusted off an old Arkansas Democrat-Gazette news account of Huckabee’s shrug over the Lawrence decision, under the headline, “Huckabee Says Sex Lives of Adults Not State Affair,” to undermine him with his Christian base. Ann Coulter crowned the effort, winkingly calling him “one of those pro-sodomy, pro-gay marriage, pro-evolution evangelical Christians.” (Pro-evolution? Yes, because he thinks it should be taught in schools, along with creationism.) Rush Limbaugh, who calls him “the Huckster,” and on one occasion “Clintonesque,” put out the word that Huckabee is “not a conservative” at all.

For Huckabee’s Republican critics, the unforgivable sin is not that he’s wishy-washy on traditional marriage—oh, not true—but that he also wants to drag all kinds of other Christian arcana into the public square, with his relatively moderate stands on education and immigration and downright progressive, Jesus-y views on how we’re to care for the least among us. And in this, his detractors on the right are correct: Fiscally, and in his attitude toward social funding and even criminal justice, Huckabee has a record any DLC Democrat would be proud of. (And Huckabee never speaks ill of Bill Clinton, either, perhaps realizing that the “next man from Hope” narrative would be diminished were he to do so.) In his book From Hope to Higher Ground, Huckabee includes a whole chapter called “STOP the revenge-based criminal justice system.” He writes about how racial inequities are built into the system, and he approvingly quotes one prison official who told him, “We lock up a lot of people that we are mad at rather than just the ones we are really afraid of,” and another who “astutely observed we don’t have a crime problem, we have a drug and alcohol problem.”

So, when Janet Huckabee joked that she’d like to build a Habitat for Humanity house on the White House lawn—she’s hammered nails for such homes in 20-some states already, and slept under bridges with homeless people once a year to bring awareness to their problems—Republicans in Arkansas were half-afraid she wasn’t kidding. Because back home, the Huckabees’ empathy for the luckless is one thing that has never been in doubt: “Janet’s very headstrong and, even more so than he, contemptuous of critics, and has a chip on her shoulder,” says John Brummett, an Arkansas News Bureau columnist. “But if a tornado hits your house, one of the first people in your yard is probably going to be Janet Huckabee. And when Arkansas got evacuees from Katrina—and by all accounts Huckabee did masterfully—she decided, accurately, that these people were exhausted and the last thing they needed was to sit in line and be processed, when they could be processed on the bus.” Then she got on the bus with some of them and pitched in on the paperwork.

In a way, such efforts are a natural extension of their 20 years in the ministry. “I know there are people who would be concerned about him having been in the ministry and think that’s a little bit creepy,” says Huckabee’s sister Pat Harris, a seventh-grade teacher in Little Rock. “But having been in the ministry, he and Janet have also seen all kinds of things about life; his phone would ring in the middle of the night and up they’d go, to the hospital or the morgue or the jail. Because he was on TV, a lot of these calls were from people who weren’t in his church and very often they weren’t believers, but the rubber had met the road and they needed somebody.” The Huckabees’ shared faith defines both of them, and their relationship. And it would be an understatement to say it influences their politics: Their faith makes their views on religion and government indistinguishable. “Those who believe God created humans have a different worldview from those who believe humans created God,” Huckabee writes in Character Makes a Difference. “Politics are totally directed by worldview. That’s why when people say, ‘We ought to separate politics from religion,’ I say to separate the two is absolutely impossible.”

But the Huckabees also seem to relate to the have-nots because they know what it feels like to be looked down on. Class resentment runs through their comments and writings. When Lt. Gov. Huckabee became Arkansas governor in 1996, after Jim Guy Tucker was had to resign after a fraud conviction, “Dozens of hate-filled letters were sent anonymously,” Huckabee remembers, while “others, proudly signed, proclaimed that we lacked the ‘class’ to live in such a fine and stately home. My wife was viciously attacked for everything from the manner in which the azaleas were trimmed to the fact that we had made the governor’s mansion smoke-free and removed alcoholic beverages. … One would have thought that we had turned off the water, put old cars on concrete blocks on the front lawn, hung laundry on the fence, and raised chickens and hogs in the backyard!” (They did famously move into a triple-wide trailer while the mansion was under renovation, and hung a sign on it that said, “My other home is the Governor’s Mansion.”) Huckabee also goes on at some length about how hurtful “snobby elitists” have been to his wife over the years: “For her, one of the most difficult aspects of being Arkansas’ first lady was the inevitable confrontation with some of the snobby elitists who had always been on the side of the culturally correct in Little Rock.” On one of the rare occasions Janet has spoken out on the presidential campaign trail, she jokingly suggested it was only her faith that kept her from strangling some of them: “There’s times you just want to wring somebody’s neck, and only by the grace of God we don’t.”

Both of the Huckabees grew up in modest circumstances themselves; Mike’s dad was a firefighter with an eighth-grade education, and Janet McCain’s single-parent home made her future husband’s family look like the Bushes by comparison. According to Sitzes, after her mom had her fifth child, her father “shagged out and went down to Louisiana” to work as an oil rigger, leaving Janet’s mother to be the Horton in their family. She had a job as the Hempstead County clerk, but with five kids, money was so tight that their big treat of the week was buying a single large soda, putting a scoop of ice cream in it and sharing the one Coke float between them every Sunday night.

Janet was a standout as an athlete—the star of her basketball team, and a girl who more than held her own in pickup games with the guys. Though Hope is a small town—population 10,467, at last count—she and Mike attended different churches—he Garrett Memorial Mission Baptist and she First Baptist—so they didn’t know each other well until high school. (They also didn’t know fellow Hope native Clinton, who is nine years older and had moved to Hot Springs by the time they came along. Though Clinton’s mom did work as a nurse for the doctor who delivered Mike, and both Bill and Mike attended kindergarten at Miss Marie Purkins’ School for Little Folks, where there must have been an emphasis on oratory and daily EQ skill drills.)

In Mike and Janet’s sophomore year, she became friends with his sister, who was two years ahead of them in school. “I was working on the yearbook and covering sports,” including girls’ basketball, “so I got to know Janet that way, and she started coming over to the house,” says Huckabee’s sister Pat. “And before long, I had lost my little friend, and they were toddling off holding hands. Mike and Janet have a similar sense of humor—both like to play practical jokes—and from the beginning, she was a good audience for his Billy Graham impression.” (Years later, when he was governor and his repertoire of impersonations had expanded to include President Bill Clinton, Clinton called Huckabee, who assumed it was a friend playing a joke. “And so Mike does the Bill Clinton voice right back to him,” his sister says, “until he realizes it really is Bill Clinton. I don’t know if Clinton remembers that, but Governor Huckabee does.”)

For all they have in common, though, Mike and Janet are temperamental opposites. She excels at leisure, while he can’t sit still, is a big list-maker, and the first to arrive at any event. He keeps perfect order in his sock drawer and compulsively lays out his breakfast the night before, so when he gets up at 4:30 a.m. he can shave a few minutes off his morning routine. “Mike’s the one who is—I don’t want to say the word anal,” his sister says, “but Janet is more fun-loving.”

Mike was born-again at age 15, preached his first sermon at age 16, and was all but running the local radio station by then as well. And he was already serious about a future in both the ministry and politics, especially after attending Boys State, where he was elected governor, during the summer before his senior year. Rick Caldwell, who met Huckabee at Boys State, also became a minister at a young age and married Mike and Janet. He got to know them as a couple the year before they married, when they were all freshmen at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. “My wife and the governor would talk about serious world events, and Janet and I would be planning our next fun thing to do. But I remember sitting with him in our dorm room and talking about what we wanted to do, and he said, ‘I want to be involved in something that helps people improve our nation.’ This was pre-Christian Coalition, but even then he had a sense of destiny,” a destiny in which church and state converge, as do public and private life. The center of both is the marriage relationship, in which the wife’s submission to the husband is meant to reflect the church’s—and the Christian’s—submission to Christ.

At a recent debate in South Carolina, Huckabee was asked about his views on marriage, expressed for all to see in a full-page USA Today ad he and his wife co-signed in 1998, thanking the Southern Baptists for putting out a message that “a wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the leadership of Christ.” Carl Cameron of Fox News wondered if that position was “politically viable” for Huckabee now, given that so many women voters in both parties see it otherwise. He did not answer the question, but his response was: “First of all, if anybody knows my wife, I don’t think they for one minute think that she’s going to just sit by and let me do whatever I want to. That would be an absolute, total misunderstanding of Janet Huckabee.” That ad “really was spoken to believers, to Christian believers. I’m not the least bit ashamed of my faith or the doctrines of it. I don’t try to impose that as a governor and I wouldn’t impose it as a president. But I certainly am going to practice it, unashamedly, whether I’m a president or whether I’m not a president.” At the debate, this was a big applause line.

Later, he told fellow Baptists that, yes, he still believes that’s how marriage works, but added that that belief “has nothing to do” with his qualifications as a candidate. Yet since he has so forcefully promised to put traditional marriage at the center of our society, bring government in line with God and the U.S. Constitution in line with “the Word of the Living God,” his views on men, women, and marriage are absolutely germane.

Though his wife signed the letter, too, and by all accounts espouses the same clear views, it’s also true that, as he suggested, submissiveness has never really been Janet Huckabee’s best event. She unsuccessfully ran for secretary of state in 2002, while her husband was a sitting governor, in a move widely perceived as overreaching. She’s also got a long memory, a strong will, and a history of pushing back forcefully against real and imagined adversaries. Adversity has made her tough: She quit college after a year to help support him, and was working as a dental assistant when she started having severe back pain at age 20. “Everybody thought it was a slipped disc,” Caldwell recalls, but it was spinal cancer—and required treatment that doctors warned her might leave her unable to walk or bear children.

In his book Character Makes a Difference, Huckabee describes his wife as handier than he is—at changing a tire, for instance—as well as physically tougher and braver: “I will take non-physical risks, such as running for office or taking a job that may not work out; Janet will take physical risks—climbing cliffs, parasailing, racing cars or stalking bears.” She also went back to college in her 40s and, when her husband isn’t running for president, works for the American Red Cross.

Arkansans have been surprised at how little her booming voice has been heard on the presidential campaign trail, almost as if Huckabee’s team was trying to hide her. “My impression is that she does not have much voice in this campaign,” says Hoyt Purvis, a political commentator and professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas. “It does appear there’s been a conscious decision; is it that she might prove to be an embarrassment? A lot of people have asked that. For whatever reason, she’s stayed in the background, and I suspect that’s been hard on her.” And on us, given the unfortunate dearth of political spouses who have jumped out of planes, trapped bear, or openly mocked their grown children. (She once likened their oldest, John Mark—no, he’s not the one who killed the dog at camp—to a radio signal that fades in and out, so that you only catch every third word: “You tune in a radio and every now and then you’ll hit a frequency and think, ‘Man, I wish I could get that,’ and you don’t quite get it, but every now and then you get it? Well, John Mark is kind of like that.”)

In fact, in a country in which the Bushes were rewarded for acting down-home, and the Kerrys punished for being their windsurfing, polyglot selves, most of the criticism of Janet is so class-based, it would turn out to be great PR: She likes her pie, is middleweight boxing champ Jermain Taylor’s biggest fan, and, with the help of her Baptist decorator, made a hash of the Arkansas governor’s mansion, jettisoning draperies to let the light in and stowing antiques in favor of faux. She slams doors, packs heat, and, like most of us, will never be confused with Jackie Kennedy: “Janet is not White House material; I doubt she’s learned which fork to use,” says one of her Little Rock detractors, who was apolitical before Mrs. H. made him apoplectic. “She’s such a big old horsy woman, she has no grace. I’ve seen her chew gum on television!” So it’s a shame she doesn’t give more speeches and interviews, because what a lot of Americans would say to a person of such poor comportment and little breeding is: Come and sit here, by me.

Janet may not like the media but, oh, the media would like her, the anti-Teresa Heinz, just as they do her husband. (See how excited ABC’s Claire Shipman was—”This was a big deal!”—when Janet shared how early in their marriage, Mike sold his guitar collection to buy her a washer-dryer, so she wouldn’t have to wash poopy diapers at the Laundromat?) With all of the other Republican candidates’ wives mum, too, for various reasons, handing a speaking role to such a plain-talker was, alas, too high a risk. But underfunded as Huckabee is, hiding a woman who has “earned media” written all over her, and who so clearly is in touch with the concerns of ordinary voters, may turn out to have been the worst campaign decision since Rudy wintered in Florida.