Thursday, February 14, 2008

I Like Mike

I'm faced with a bit of a dilemma this political season. For the last three or four years, I've found myself growing less and less interested in politics. Routinely, I waiver somewhere between all-consuming indifference and self-righteous fury; tossed from media circus to media circus, buoyed by self-proclaimed citadels of truth and right-ness. I've watched entertainers become reporters, reporters become entertainers, and nice old women become fearsome mud-slingers as they openly slander their politically disliked, portraying the opposition party with horns and glowing eyes in gleefully emailed photos.

Yes, grandma. You got it just right. They're the devil.

Strangely, though, this all brings me to the issue of Mike.

The entity known as "they" says that it's easy to be apathetic about an issue until it affects you directly. There's a lot of truth there. I didn't care about my garbage until our collectors missed a week, and suddenly I was out of space for smelly trash. I didn't care about toll roads until I had to pay $7 per day for the privilege of driving to and from work. And I didn't care about Brittany Spears until...well...I still don't.

I'm starting to care about politics again, though.

And it's all Mike's fault. Mike Huckabee, that is.

Now, before you get all uptight thinking I'm about to write some gushy email about how Mike is the Savior of Mankind and that he's some kind of Moses among politicians...don't worry. I'm not. Nor am I about to list or debate his various political views. He has them. Some I like. Some I don't. Just like every other token in the political Pog match.

What I would like to share are some fond memories of the times I spent with Mike and his family.

Somewhere around the time I was eight or nine, Mike became pastor of our church in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. My parents always comment that he was young for the time (mid-twenties and newly married I believe) but from my perspective, Mike has always been the same age; that vague "older than me" category reserved for people who aren't your playmates, but aren't your parents either. For whatever reason, Mike and Janet became close friends with my parents, and while he was pastor of our church, their family and ours spent a number of evenings eating sandwiches and chatting about stuff. We vacationed several times with the Huckabees, and I even lived with and worked for Mike one summer in Texarkana.

The last experience I had directly with Mike was when he performed the wedding for mme and my wife. He was Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas at the time. Given Mike's political and religious credentials, I think we're about as married as any couple could be!

Here are some other scenes and impressions that stick out from a couple of decades of knowing Mike Huckabee. Some are mine. Some are family legend. All are Mike.


Varnell / Huckabee vacations were always at Bull Shoals lake in Northern Arkansas. We would rent cabins and spend a week together fishing, swimming, skiing and cooking out. I'll never forget Trivial Pursuit, though. I was about eleven when I developed the distinct impression that Mike was the smartest person I would ever meet.

On those vacations, my dad and Mike would team up against Janet and my mom at Trivial Pursuit. I was a cocky little nerd, so I insinuated myself into the women's team to help give them what little boost I could. Mostly, I answered easy science questions. Mike was unmatchable at trivia, though. I'm not sure where he picked up that headful of facts, but we simply couldn't beat him at the game. While my dad, the professional engineer, would occasionally jump in with a science fact or two, Mike ruled the board, easily answering questions about history, culture, sports, name it!

One of the many times Mike cruised his full pie to the center square, mom, Janet and I pored over the questions to pick one we thought Mike couldn't answer. Brown (Literature) was always my favorite to try and snag him, and my heart raced with excitement as I found a question I was sure would stump even Mike. "What famous work was penned by Harriet Beecher Stowe?" It took less than a second for my hopes to be crushed by Mikes sing-songy answer: "Uncle Tom's Cabin!"

I can still hear his voice in my head. (Mike, I never missed that question on a history test!)


One of those trips, I saw a protective side of Mike. We were coming in from fishing when his son David--probably only six or seven--fell off the boat dock into the lake. Before I could turn around and raise my voice, Mike had jumped in the lake with David and was pulling him out. It didn't matter that Mike wasn't dressed for swimming, that he soaked his wallet, or that he mussed his hair. Mike saw his son in danger and he acted quickly and decisively to help.


I remember Mike as a brilliant speaker. As my pastor, I heard him every Sunday, 52 times a year, for five or six years. Mike never got old, though. I can name dozens or hundreds of other teachers, speakers and professors whom I have measured by Mike's standard. None of them measure up to his wit and raw oratory. I have a stack of spiral notebooks full of things Mike said I thought worth remembering as I grew up. In contrast, I think I might be able to recall one or two pithy expressions from the last three presidents. If I try really hard. And use Google.


One remarkable thing about Mike: when he was with you he was WITH you. Have you ever waited in line to shake hands with a celebrity or to meet someone at a wedding or party, and while they're shaking your hand they look over your shoulder to see if someone more important was behind you? Well, Mike doesn't do that. You watch any video or see any photo of Mike interacting with people and you'll notice two things: he smiles warmly and often, and his eyes are always focused on the person with whom he is interacting.

With Mike, it doesn't matter if your four or one-hundred-and-four; if you're John Grisham or John Doe. When Mike talks to you, he talks TO you. Mike loves people, and you always feel like you're one of his favorites when you speak with him. With Mike, you and your moment are the most important thing he has going on.


I remember his drum kit. It was in the living room of his home in Texarkana, not far from the old spinet piano he had. The summer I lived with Mike and Janet, I would often sit down at the piano after dinner and play a bit. If Mike heard me playing, he would almost always wander in from another room and join in. I wasn't very good at playing with other musicians at the time--twelve years of Beethoven hadn't prepared me for a blues jam. But Mike's enthusiasm was infectious. Every couple of days we'd play together for half-an-hour or more, Mike calling suggestions for songs and encouraging me as I struggled to do something musical with him.


Mike's kids were something else. I hear John Mark, David, and Sarah are all grown up now. I've seen pictures, even. In my head, those three will always be somewhere between six and twelve. Mike's kids were...energetic, to put it lightly. With two children of my own now, I can better appreciate how difficult it is to be a public leader when your children are constantly viyying for your undivided attention. However, through all those odd events and kid-initiated mini-catastrophes, I remember Mike as a firm and gentle father, correcting the kids sternly and logically when they were out of line, but also having fun with them as 'dad'.

There was a small pool in their backyard, and Mike loved to swim with his family, splashing and playing until the warm Arkanasas sun faded below the treeline and we would all go in to eat homemade ice cream and drink Diet Pepsi. I'll never quite understand the Diet Pepsi part, Mike. After all, this is the south, where all drinks are Coke.


Warmth and sincerity, though, is what I' will always remember most about Mike. Of all the mental pictures in my head of Mike Huckabee, the image that remains most vividly is Mike with bright eyes and a broad smile accented by that deep dimple on his right cheek. I can't remember many frowns from Mike. I can remember his passion, and occasional sternness. I can hear that lilt in his rich voice, as if he were just about to reveal a witty punch line of some great joke; a chuckle in his throat and a wink in his eye that drew you into his confidence. I like Mike's smiles.


I don't know where Mike is going, in the long run. And sure, if he's elected to some office in Washington, I'm pretty sure I'll play a "remember me" card and see if I can squeeze into his calendar. I'm not sure if Mike has all the answers for America. I don't know if he's got the right solutions for border control, war, or taxes. These days, I'm cynical enough to think that no politician will be able to affect any change for our country as long as we're a nation of prejudiced, spoiled whiners consumed by one-issue stances and a love affair with labeling each other.

But I can say this...

I like Mike.

Always have. Always will.

And nothing anyone can say will change that.