Gene Lyons

Once in every century, a serious presidential candidate emerges from darkest Arkansas, where I live: Bill Clinton in the 20th century, former Gov. Mike Huckabee in the 21st. Although Huckabee seems a likelier vice-presidential pick if Republicans nominate a Yankee, he's getting favorable national press.

Noting that four leading GOP candidates have had nine marriages between them Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich have three each Time columnist Joe Klein writes, "Republican faithful are left with a devil of a choice: moderate candidates who live like liberals, or religious conservatives who talk like liberals."

That's cute, but Gingrich a moderate? Besides, the states with the highest divorce rates are the "red" ones, especially Arkansas. Those with the lowest, like New York and Massachusetts, lean Democratic.

About Huckabee, though, Klein's got a point. Huckabee mouths the religious right's standard themes. He's anti-abortion, pro-gun, opposed to gay marriage, all that. But he once gave a speech about the sin of racial bigotry at a Little Rock Central High event that put President Clinton, who also spoke, in the shade. In Arkansas, where coded appeals to white racists normally backfire, it's good politics.

That's Huckabee at his best.

Becoming governor after Kenneth Starr convicted Democratic Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, Huckabee executed a classic Clintonian straddle. A Baptist preacher invulnerable from the right, he took progressive stances on education reform and Medicaid insurance for poor children made possible by Clinton's policies. Contrary to Huckabee's claims, however, taxes and government employment rose steadily during his decade in office, along with the state's population.

Even so, what's more likely to prevent him from succeeding in national politics is his role in the appalling saga of Wayne DuMond.

DuMond was the Arkansas celebrity inmate of the 1990s. Convicted of raping a Forrest City high school cheerleader at knifepoint in 1985, DuMond became famous for two reasons. First, somebody castrated him while he was free on bond awaiting trial. (Investigators suspected drunken self-mutilation, not unknown among sex offenders.) Worse, the local sheriff exhibited DuMond's testicles in a jar of formaldehyde, an Arkansas-gothic stunt triggering rumors of vigilante justice.

Second, DuMond's victim, who'd recognized her attacker on the street weeks after the crime, was a distant cousin of Bill Clinton. That excited the kinds of conspiracy nuts that circulated "Clinton death lists." They portrayed poor DuMond as a victim of the Clinton machine's satanic wrath. His innocence became an article of faith on the fruitcake right.

Huckabee came into office talking about pardoning DuMond, citing "serious questions as to the legitmacy of his guilt" to reporters. He did that without consulting the prosecutor, who described the case as one of the strongest he'd ever tried. If nothing else, what were the odds that the victim would have identified, purely by chance, a perp with an extensive rap sheet?

DuMond's criminal history included arrests for murder and assault as well as multiple rape charges. He'd beaten the murder rap by testifying against two accomplices he'd helped beat a soldier to death with a claw hammer. The rape cases never came to trial because the victims were too scared to testify. Young Ashley Stevens' courageous eyewitness testimony, however, sent him to the penitentiary.

After Stevens went public in 1997, Huckabee relented somewhat. Instead of pardoning DuMond, he held an improper closed-door meeting with the parole board, which subsequently reversed itself, paroling DuMond to Missouri. Huckabee claimed the board brought up DuMond; board members insisted he did. Huckabee wrote a "Dear Wayne" letter stating: "My desire is that you be released from prison. I feel that parole is the best way for your reintroduction into society to take place."

In July 2001, DuMond was arrested for the strangulation murders of two Kansas City-area women, exactly as some of us predicted. Police found his DNA under one victim's fingernails. Stevens said that when she heard the news on her car radio, she had to pull off the highway until she'd cried herself out. Convicted of first-degree murder, DuMond died in prison in 2005.

No sooner was Dumond's Missouri arrest announced than Huckabee began blaming everybody in Arkansas except himself. "I think you guys are being played like a cheap fiddle by the Democrats," he complained to reporters. "They're trying to make a Willie Horton out of it. And if anybody needs to get a Willie Horton out of it, it's Jim Guy Tucker and the Democrat Party and it ain't me."

His recent book, "From Hope to Higher Ground," falsely claims that DuMond died in Missouri before coming to trial. Ignorance or falsehood? He even blames Clinton, who played no role whatsoever in the affair, whining that the Arkansas "tabloid press" has mischaracterized his actions.

That's Huckabee at his worst: rash, devious, incapable of admitting error, a crybaby and definitely not, I submit, presidential material.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a national magazine award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at genelyons2@sbcglobal.net.

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