Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Mike Huckabee's curious mistake

Mike Huckabee is a smart guy. Smart enough to write a book, smart enough to be governor of Arkansas. So what are we to make of his curious statement to WOR radio on Monday that President Obama grew up in Kenya, where his father's and grandfather's stories of the Mau-Mau rebellion must have colored his view of Great Britain? Here's what Huckabee said:

And one thing that I do know is his having grown up in Kenya, his view of the Brits, for example, is very different than the average American…. But then if you think about it, his perspective as growing up in Kenya with a Kenyan father and grandfather, their view of the Mau Mau Revolution in Kenya is very different than ours because he probably grew up hearing that the British were a bunch of imperialists who persecuted his grandfather.

Of course, this is entirely wrong. Obama was born in Hawaii, where he lived until the age of 5. His father went off to graduate school, then divorced his mother when Barry was three. The young Obama did live in Indonesia from the ages of 5 to 10. He then lived in Hawaii again until he moved to Los Angeles for college. Obama never even visited Kenya until he was twenty, and he never lived with his father, who visited him only once during his childhood.

So what was going on with Huckabee? There are three possible explanations of his gaffe: that he misspoke, that he actually believed what he was saying, or that he was cynically playing to an audience who wishes to believe our president is not "truly" American. Let's investigate these possibilities.

1) Huckabee merely misspoke. THis is the explanation put out by Huckabee's own spokesman. As the LA Times reports,
"The governor meant to say the president grew up in Indonesia," said J. Hogan Gidley, who works for Huckabee's political action committee.
Gridley went on to question where Obama's liberal policies come from.

But this explanation doesn't hold water. You can't replace "Kenya" with "Indonesia" in Huckabee's radio statement. It wouldn't make sense. Obama didn't live with his Kenyan father and grandfather in Indonesia. Indonesia was never a British colony. The Mau-Mau rebellion didn't happen in Indonesia. No, Huckabee was talking about Obama's years living with his father in Kenya, something that never happened.

2) Huckabee made a genuine mistake. Hey, this could happen to any of us. After all, one blogger asked, how much does Barack Obama know about Mike Huckabee's early years?

To me, this argument doesn't hold much water either. After all, President Obama doesn't know much about my early years, either, but that doesn't mean I can't know about his. Both Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama were presidential candidates, but Obama won the nomination. He won the election. He's more well-known. And all through the campaign and election the president's childhood and upbringing were under scrutiny.

I think it's possible that as of last Monday Mike Huckabee really believed that Barack Obama grew up in Kenya. But if he did honestly believe that, it can only be because he has developed the dangerous and common ability to hear only what confirms his preconceived notions--a kind of moral deafness that confirms prejudice and leads to bad decisions. It's just the kind of characteristic we don't need in our political leaders.

3) He knew just what he was doing. According to the third hypothesis, Huckabee knew what he was saying was false. He probably even knew it would generate a huge amount of attention, but he figured it would play to his advantage in the end.

According to this theory, which I favor, Huckabee knew he could "take back" his statement, claiming it was only a mistake, while leaving it to resonate in the minds of the conservative listeners he was speaking to. He might even generate sympathy for the way the liberal press was jumping down his throat for a simple mistake. This is the ploy we see TV lawyers use in the courtroom: ask an outrageously leading question. The opposition lawyer objects and the judge sustains the objection. The lawyer then withdraws the question, but an impression has been planted in the minds of the jury.

Huckabee's message? "Obama isn't really one of us. He's not like us; he doesn't share our values. And it's nothing to do with him being black: oh, no, we're not prejudiced. It has to do with him being foreign. Not that I'm a birther; I'm not saying that. I'm just saying he's...different from us."

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