When Donald Trump recently suggested he would declare his presidential intentions on the finale of his reality TV show, it seemed like crass popular culture couldn’t have a firmer grip on American politics.
Until Saturday night.
That’s when Mike Huckabee announced that he was not running for president in 2012 at the tail end of his Fox News show—shortly after a jam session pairing the Baptist preacher and former Arkansas governor with aging heavy-metal rocker Ted Nugent. The song: Nugent’s ambiguously raunchy hit, “Cat Scratch Fever.’’
(The lyrics—which include “I do it for free’’—make the famous “boxers or briefs?’’ question posed to President Clinton in 1994 seem sweetly innocent.)
After the post-Nugent commercial break, in perhaps the strangest and starkest pivot in presidential politics, Huckabee explained the soul-searching that led to his decision. He said he had asked supporters to pray for him and identified himself as a follower of Jesus Christ.
“For me, the decision is ultimately not a political one, a financial one, or even a practical one—it’s a spiritual one,’’ he said.
Perhaps, but it must also have been a financial one. While many politicians use money and celebrity to gain power, Huckabee appears to be reversing the equation, using his political clout as a means to fame, riches, and the bestseller list. Running for president would have meant giving up lucrative speaking gigs and a Fox News gig worth $500,000 a year through 2012. Last year, he broke ground on a beachfront home in Florida estimated to cost $3 million.
Earlier this month, Fox terminated contracts with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum as their presidential ambitious became clear.
Huckabee’s tease-a-thon leading up to one of the strangest non-announcements in American politics began Friday morning when he dropped a bombshell-sized hint on his radio show. He planned to make a “very important announcement’’ on his Saturday television show. Reporters, bloggers and tweeters went into overdrive, trying to get the lowdown, but even his closest political advisers were in the dark. One close aide suggested the announcement involved his new video series for children on American exceptionalism.
Something like consensus eventually appeared to take hold—Huckabee would say he was not running for president.
Then Huckabee sent an e-mail to a select group of supporters that set off a new flurry of speculation. “Once I pull the trigger Saturday night, things will get even crazier,’’ he wrote. Why would things get “crazier” for a man leaving politics? People across the nation who make their livings writing about or practicing presidential politics hunkered down in their living rooms in front of the television sets to watch Huckabee’s show.
Huckabee sure got what he was after—a captive audience. For a discussion of serious public policy issues, but also a bizarre interview with Mario Lopez, a former teenage star of Saved by the Bell. Only in the closing minutes of the program, having made viewers wait through this dog and pony show, did Huckabee drop the real news.
The anticlimatic announcement left no doubt that Huckabee’s strategy had more to do with ratings and his own celebrity than a serious campaign for the highest public office in the land.
His parting words: “From New York, this is Mike Huckabee, goodnight, God bless, and I’ll be back next week.’’ That the next image to appear on screen was Trump was almost predictable.
"Enjoy the show,'' said Trump, apparently the first person in America to congratulate Huckabee on his decision. "Your ratings are terrific. You’re making a lot of money. You’re building a beautiful house in Florida. Good luck.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this report correctly stated the year of Bill Clinton's "boxers or briefs" interview.