Max Brantley, the editor of the alternative weekly Arkansas Times, has feuded with Mike Huckabee since the presidential candidate first appeared on the political stage during his failed 1992 Senate run. A liberal columnist married to a circuit judge appointed by Bill Clinton, Brantley penned weekly columns antagonizing Huckabee for his staunchly conservative social views, opaque campaign finance disclosures, and acceptance of gifts during his time in office. “Huckabee would believe I covered him obsessively, and he’d be right about that,” Brantley says.
In a series of unpublished private letters dating to the mid-’90s that Huckabee faxed to Brantley, a surprising—and furious—side of the former governor comes through. The four letters, which Brantley provided to The New Republic, are multi-page, rambling, and highly personal attacks that Huckabee wrote while in Arkansas office. In them, he excoriates the journalist, referring to the Arkansas Times as “a local version of the National Enquirer,” a “collection of carping columnists,” a “newsletter for the Democrats,” an “irrelevant irritant” and the “Theater of the Absurd,” among other sobriquets.
And Brantley was not alone. Reporters recall Huckabee as combative, even malicious, in response to critical coverage. He was known to attack reporters, fire off scathing e-mails to newsrooms, and complain to editors about probing questions. “I was just astounded at how vindictive he was,” says Joan Duffy, who covered Huckabee for The Commercial Appeal of Memphis in the ’90s. “He took it all so personally. . . . You’re either with him, or you’re a mortal enemy.”
What’s ironic about all this is how Huckabee—a graduate in speech and communications from Ouachita Baptist University and former p.r. director for televangelist James Robison—seems to be fashioning himself a sort of media-relations expert. About halfway through his campaign autobiography, Character Makes a Difference, Huckabee comments on his communications strategy. “Several points are helpful in dealing with the media. One is not to be afraid,” he writes. “If a newspaper reporter doesn’t like you, there may be nothing you can do to change that. You have to be ready to counter it with other information outlets.”
And, in his meteoric ascent in the polls this past month, Huckabee has not only managed the press but mastered it. In December, The New York Times’ Gail Collins dubbed Huckabee a “guitar-strumming, good-humored populist.” Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker wrote of his “curiously unthreatening” demeanor.
It could be that, when it comes to media relations, Huckabee is finally in good hands. But talk to enough reporters who really got to know him, and you begin to suspect that his curiously unthreatening demeanor may not last.
The Little Rock press corps is a tiny club, and a competitive one. Just under a dozen reporters cover the state government at any given time, and the state’s largest paper, the left-leaning Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is feisty and aggressive. The Arkansas press doggedly covered Bill Clinton’s terms in the statehouse, but Huckabee perceived himself to be unduly scrutinized. Being a conservative Republican in a resolutely Democratic state—Huckabee was only the state’s third Republican governor since Reconstruction—augmented Huckabee’s sense that the Little Rock press was out to get him, according to reporters who covered his administration. “The fact that he’s Republican in a predominately Democratic state,” says John Brummett, a columnist with the Arkansas News Bureau, “he tends to see his own mistreatment, and he snaps back at that.”
Brummett recalls one news conference in January when Huckabee likened a Democrat-Gazette reporter to “Jayson Blair” and “Janet Cooke”—the respective New York Times and Washington Post fabulists—while disputing the reporter’s claim that Huckabee’s office hadn’t responded to a request for comment. “He thinks and speaks in metaphors. And, often, they’re not right,” Brummett says.
Brantley has witnessed the full extent of Huckabee’s piques and barbs. In 1991, he first criticized Huckabee for calling his Democratic opponent, Dale Bumpers, a “pornographer” during the 1992 Senate campaign. By October 1998, Brantley and Huckabee’s feud reached a new low when the Arkansas Times quoted a disgruntled former aide alleging that Huckabee used the governor’s mansion operating budget to supplement his income.
Huckabee became especially exercised by Brantley’s attempts to gain access to his personal schedule in the summer of 1995. Brantley says that he was researching story ideas and that Huckabee had stonewalled in providing information about his whereabouts; while Huckabee was on vacation, Brantley filed a Freedom of Information Act (foia) request for all the lieutenant governor’s public documents.
Huckabee responded in a letter dated August 25, 1995, on the lieutenant governor stationery: “If you have singled out the only Republican among constitutional officers for this special ‘honor,’ then you’ve really disguised your intentions about as effectively as trying to hide Dolly Parton in a 32AA bra.” “Now for the record,” Huckabee had written in a letter mailed two days earlier, “let me tell you where I have been this week.” Huckabee explained that he was off to enroll his three kids in school and to spend a couple of days “reflecting and relaxing with friends” while celebrating his fortieth birthday. “For the first time in my adult life, I left instructions with my staff not to disturb me unless it was an emergency. I was in touch . . . but asked not to be disturbed.”
Huckabee cut short his vacation by a day to answer Brantley’s foia request, and he was sure to let Brantley know it. “I’m sure you’re delighted to discover that you effectively ruined what had otherwise been a really nice week in my life,” he wrote. “Given the tone of your writing, you’re just the kind of person who would truly take pleasure in such a thing.”
Further on, Huckabee concluded, “If you are so juvenile as to FOI my schedule as a result of your not getting my staff to call me away from my family on my birthday so you can get information you could use against me in a column, then do it. I frankly don’t give a rat’s rear as to your regard for me as a public official, because you apparently will never overcome your boorish behavior toward those whose opinions you cannot challenge on a responsible or intellectual basis. ” In the August 25 letter, Huckabee told Brantley: “You appear to fantasize yourself a champion of ethics in government officials, and especially imagine yourself as somewhat of a bulldog when it comes to questioning the integrity of those whose opinion differ from the Democrat party. You fail to consider that there is also something to be said for ethics in journalism, and from my own journalism training dating back to junior high (you forgot that I have actually worked in broadcast news), I was reminded that the power to report must be balanced with the responsibility to report fairly, objectively, and accurately.” “Yes, I’m being harsh,” Huckabee finished. “You’ve earned it.”
Then, in November 1995, Lieutenant Governor Huckabee mailed a fund-raising letter to donors supporting his second campaign for the United States Senate. “I want to tell you some inside information that I could never trust the press to get to you,” Huckabee wrote, rallying his supporters by attacking the press. In the letter, he labeled the Little Rock press corps as the “machine gun members of the media,” and described both Brantley and The Commercial Appeal’s Duffy as “junkyard journalists.” (Huckabee claimed that Duffy was biased against him because he had denied her husband a job in his office: “I’ve been on the ‘hit list’ ever since.” In fact, Duffy had been separated from her husband for years, she told me.)
Eight months later, Huckabee wrote Brantley and said he would never grant him an interview again. In a letter dated April 22, 1996, Huckabee defended his decision. “If a man puts forth his hand of cooperation each week for 3 years, and each time has his hand stabbed, why would he put forth his hand again?” he wrote, adding: “You have abused the basic canons of journalism I learned in Mary Nell Turner’s journalism class in the 9th grade at Hope High School.”
For the record, according to Mary Nell Turner, Huckabee took her class during his junior year and probably never learned much from her. “He was already an announcer at the local radio station,” Turner told me by phone. “I don’t know he learned anything from my class.”
Many reporters who have covered Huckabee believe his reticence to answer critical questions is a result of his experiences as a Southern Baptist leader. When Huckabee faced scrutiny, he exuded an infallibility that frustrated reporters. “He has a religious thing going on and usually thinks he’s in the right,” Brummett says. Rob Moritz, a reporter for the Arkansas News Bureau, recalls that Huckabee retreated from tough questions into moral certitude: “During the ethics questions, he would tell reporters, ‘I don’t see a problem here. I can lay my head on the pillow and get a good night sleep.’ ”
Jonathan Weil, a columnist for Bloomberg News, covered Huckabee for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in the late 1990s and broke a series of stories about both Huckabee’s use of a private plane during a campaign and payments received from the nonprofit group Action America. “He was constantly getting in the press for taking small amounts of money where it just didn’t look right,” Weil recalls. “To a lot of people, it didn’t look becoming of a governor. And his answer was that ethics isn’t following rules, it’s what in your heart.”
This time around, Huckabee has been holding his tongue. In a December 16 cover profile in The New York Times Magazine, Huckabee refrained from his trademark explosiveness when asked about controversial topics like advocating for the parole of rapist Wayne Dumond or accepting more than $150,000 in gifts during his time in office. “Local journalists tried to make it look like we were gouging presents. I have no problem with honest criticism, but that was just pettiness,” he told the writer, Zev Chafets.
Given the stakes in presidential politics, Huckabee may be working to strike a more conciliatory tone. Last winter, Huckabee called Brantley to his Little Rock office shortly after he declared his candidacy for an off-the-record meeting aimed at détente.
Still, when asked about the letters to Brantley, Huckabee’s office was back on the offensive: “Governor Huckabee has always been accessible to members of the media,” a spokeswoman e-mailed me. “Some reporters, however, have gone out of their way to distort the truth and, in some cases, become part of the story in order to further their story.”
As Huckabee endures increasing scrutiny, some in the Little Rock press corps wonder when his churlishness will catch up with his folksy national image. “He’s charming,” Moritz says. “He’s a back-slapper. He’s quick on his feet, tells great jokes, and sets up his speeches with funny lines.” But, he adds, “He has such a thin skin, we’ve all been waiting for the hard hits to occur.”
Gabriel Sherman is a staff writer at Conde Nast Portfolio and a special correspondent for The New Republic.
Note: The author’s fax number has been cut from the accompanying PDFs of the Huckabee letters.
By Gabriel Sherman