What’s Huck Hiding?

Searching for the lost Huckabee tapes.

Mike Huckabee

In two church basements in Arkansas, in several parishioners’ attics, and in old Mrs. Bobo’s knife drawer, there is a secret that Mike Huckabee is trying to keep—dozens and possibly hundreds of old VHS tapes and audiotapes starring the young Huckabee, a trove that he has managed to protect from opposition researchers and the press during months of presidential campaigning.

The tapes date from the 1980s, when Huckabee was a young Arkansas pastor intent on making a name for himself. At the tiny Immanuel Baptist Church in Pine Bluff, and the slightly less tiny Beech Street First Baptist Church in Texarkana, Huckabee broadcast sermons and other programs over his own TV station. If anyone ever missed a Sunday, no problem. Huckabee taped every homily and gave them out, free, at the church office.

Now, the Huckabee tapes have become the 2008 campaign’s version of the Pentagon Papers, or the Lost Ark. Even as his campaign drifts to its end, the mystery remains. The Huckabee campaign won’t give them up, and his former parishioners, ever loyal, won’t budge. (I did get one, one, measly tape, about which more later.)

Never mind that Huckabee sells himself as the honest, affable, straight talker with nothing to hide. Never mind that his shows and sermons had such innocent titles as “Positive Alternatives” and “A Better Walk.” Never mind that during his 15-year public career, Huckabee has already handed his enemies more outrageous statements than could fit in your average fundraising letter. Still, the prospect of America seeing young Pastor Huckabee unplugged makes the campaign very nervous. Which only leaves a reporter ever more hungry to know why. What incredible things did Huckabee preach back in the day?

The mystery of the Huckabee tapes began in December, when reporters for Mother Jones started calling around for them. The campaign rebuffed the inquiries. Staff at Immanuel Baptist said they couldn’t find any tapes, and Beech Street said most of the archives had been destroyed during a remodeling. I came to the story in mid-January and began my own hunt. When I tried Burns Barr, the current director of the Beech Street TV station, he told me they did indeed have plenty of tapes left and “nothing to hide”—remember that phrase!—but if they let all the interested national reporters descend on their tiny church, “it would get a little bit crazy.” The campaign, he said, hadn’t directed them not to give out the tapes but hadn’t given them permission to, either.

Thus began my long-distance treasure hunt in rural Arkansas. Since I did not cover the 1992 Clinton campaign, Arkansas rules are foreign to me. I learned pretty quickly that the pastor is like the drug lord: Everyone protects him, and there’s a price to pay if you don’t. Don Ruggles is a helicopter pilot who used to fly Huckabee around. Every time I called him, his wife would scream, “Hang up the phone! You can’t trust those people!” Ruggles ignored her, because he’d flown many reporters around over the years and found them an amiable bunch. He said he had a fine tape collection and was happy to turn it over to me, “but I think I ought to check with Mike.” Twenty-four hours later, he e-mailed me:

I heard from Mike late last night and he said he was somewhat unsure about releasing information to various reporters, so I took this to mean that at this point in time, we should not release any of his tapes or sermons.He never said yes or no, so perhaps I can contact him again today and get a more definitive answer.  I can assure you that he nor any of us here in Texarkana would have anything to hide, but at the same time I know you understand the concern about data being used in various methods.

Disappointed, I followed more distant leads, dead-ending with reluctant parishioners and colleagues. Eventually, I found 84-year-old Martha Bobo, whose late husband had run the TV station at Pine Bluff. Bobo’s voice was raspy and barely audible over the phone. It turned out she’d just gotten out of the hospital after a throat operation and had trouble talking. My first thought was, “Poor Bobo.” My second was, “Perfect! At least she won’t feel like calling the campaign.” Bobo just adored Mike and remembered with great fondness his wife Janet’s freshly baked buns. She said she had lots of tapes stored in boxes and in her kitchen drawers, and she would be happy to share them. We arranged a date.

A day later, she called back. She’d run into the church’s current pastor, and he discouraged her from giving me the tapes. Huckabee had apparently sent word he “wasn’t saying no but he didn’t think it was such a good idea,” she recounted, adding, “We have nothing to hide. We’re so proud of Mike.” There it was again, that annoying equivocation—not no but not yes, either—so unbecoming in a man with such strong convictions. That irritating nothing to hide.

This was like dealing with a contractor. Something that seemed so easy in the beginning—build some shelves, listen to some audiotapes—was now taking on monumental complexity. After a few more dead ends—the tape archive pledged to his alma mater, Ouachita Baptist University, was stuck in legal limbo; a librarian’s massive personal collection of Huckabeelia had gone missing—I decided to retreat and ask the obvious question: What on earth is hiding on those spools?

We will find out someday. In the meantime, let me offer a few theories. I actually don’t think Huckabee is worried about what he might have said about abortion and homosexuality. Those twin pillars of the culture war were not central issues for Southern Baptists in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Anyway, Huckabee is perfectly clear on his feelings about the unborn, and he is on the record from his failed 1992 Senate campaign, in which he called homosexuality an “aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle” and suggested that AIDS patients be “isolated from the general population.” If these are your key issues, you are either with Huckabee or find him repellent, and nothing he said 20 years ago will sway you. Rather, the issues dividing Arkansas Southern Baptists in the years when Huckabee was a rising young pastor are ones that are capable of alienating a much wider swath of people.

1. Gender—In 1989, Southern Baptist leaders were bent on purging liberals and moderates and restoring the denomination to its “Biblical roots.” In that atmosphere, the young Huckabee became the surprise compromise candidate for the head of the Arkansas Baptist Convention. “He was no moderate,” recalls Hal Bass, a political scientist at Ouachita and a Southern Baptist. “He was considered very conservative but not someone who would hew to the call of the conservative takeover.” Big issues that year were whether women should be allowed in ministry, and what the proper role of wives was. The moderates wanted to loosen the rules and allow some women in leadership roles, but the conservatives were dead set against it. Huckabee, Bass recalls, did not take the conservative position but frequently quoted Scripture about women being submissive to their husbands.

2. Race—Pine Bluff was a very racially divided town, recalls Bruce Rodtnick, who was minister of music when Huckabee came on as pastor. African-Americans went to their own churches and whites to theirs. One Sunday morning in 1984, after Huckabee’s sermon had been broadcast on the radio, a young black man called the church to say he’d heard it and been saved, and asked whether he could join the congregation. Huckabee let him come to services, but only after much resistance from the congregation. Huckabee did the right thing, but he also had to mollify his congregation, and what sounded racially progressive in Pine Bluff in 1984 may be cringe-worthy now.

3. Creationism—Moderate Southern Baptists were trying to push a less literalist view of the Bible at the time. The conservatives fought back with the slogan, “From Genesis to Maps,” meaning that each word in the Bible, from first book to last, means what it says. Huckabee didn’t use that slogan; instead, he referred to the more generic “Biblical inerrancy.” In one of the recent presidential debates, when he was asked about creationism, Huckabee reframed it as a choice between belief and atheism. He said you either believe “God created this process or it’s an accident.” He claimed he didn’t know how the process happened or how long it took, but he was sure God had had a hand in it. In his early years, he surely gave a sermon or two about the literal meaning of Genesis, and the necessity of believing the earth was created in six 24-hour days.

4. The Queasy Factor—In the one tape I did manage to get—bought on eBay from an enterprising Arkansan—Huckabee preaches on “The Practice of Patience.” What could be more pleasant and innocuous, right? Not exactly. Huckabee is his trademark jovial self. He tells a couple of good stories, one about some urban farmers who mistook a watermelon for a mule egg, another about the time his father gave him his first bike—and it was a girl’s bike. But all this is building up to a serious point. “How many times do we find ourselves on the surgery table of the Almighty God, who is trying to work His surgery to make us more like Christ, and we say ‘God, let me out of here! Lord, don’t touch me!’ ” he thunders towards the end. “It’s not that we can’t be Christians. The sad fact is most of us don’t want to be enough to try our faith to the point of patience and perseverance.”

It’s one thing to know a presidential candidate was a pastor; that sounds worthy and leaderlike. But it’s quite another to actually hear him work himself up into a lather about committing to Christ and not back it up with a joke.