Politics & Society

The best books on Simple Governance

recommended by Mike Huckabee

Conservative broadcaster, former Arkansas governor, and possible 2012 contender challenges the concept of the elite and says that faith alone, without action, is meaningless

Buy all books

A Simple Governmentis on The New York Times bestseller list. Your Fox News show is the most popular news programme on weekend cable. In a recent Gallup poll, you had the most ‘positive intensity’ of any probable Republican presidential primary contender. You are clearly doing a great job of winning friends and influencing people. So please tell us about Dale Carnegie’s book – the granddaddy of all self-help books, which has sold an estimated 15 million copies since its publication in 1936. How has it influenced you and your views?

I read it when I was a teenager. The person who recommended it was my best friend from the third grade to this day. I think his dad had given it to him. And he gave it to me. It was really a life-changing book for me. Even though everything in it was common sense, and something I intuitively knew, it was the first time I’d seen anyone put it in a logical, applicable way. And I really started to apply those basic principles. It was a very, very important part of shaping me for the future.

How has it shaped your views of government?

Primarily to remind me that every person is important. There is no such thing as a person who is more important than another. In terms of how it effects simple government, it means you don’t govern according to what’s best for what some would call ‘the elite’. You don’t govern in a way that’s really good for Wall Street but busts Main Street. You don’t govern in a way that’s good for Washington, but bad for the folks that are paying Washington’s bills. You realise that every person has equal worth and value. That basic principle has shaped pretty much everything I’ve done.

Let’s move on to a very different author, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Like you, Bonhoeffer was a pastor. He was also one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. You cite The Cost of Discipleship, published in 1937. Please tell us about this book and how it shaped your faith, your life and your career.

This was a book that I read in college, and it influenced me in that I realised that faith that does not cost anything is what Bonhoeffer would call ‘cheap grace’. So much of American Christianity was cheap grace – fire insurance more than a call to true discipleship. It had a profound impact on me. Here was a person whose faith was not merely a belief system; rather, it was a way of life – to a point of even his own death.

He was so committed to what was right versus what was easy that he was willing to die. I think he, and Martin Luther King Jr and others, knew that, as James says in the New Testament, faith without works is dead. That was very evident in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life.

Bonhoeffer is remembered as a modern martyr. He opposed Hitler and called on his church to do the same. As a result, he was imprisoned and executed in a concentration camp in the waning days of World War II.

He is a constant reminder to me, as a person of faith, that my faith is nothing more than a form of ‘cheap grace’ if I don’t put action to it. It is one thing to say I renounce racism, but if I don’t openly seek to bring various sides together, it is no more than faith without works.

I remember as a young pastor, the new pastor of an all-white church in a very segregated, Southern town, I talked to a young black teenager who wanted to join our church. I presented him for membership. I stood before the church and I said, ‘If this church does not welcome him, then you do not welcome me. If he goes, I go.’ Many of these people grew up under Jim Crow without having anyone confront them with how evil it was. I had death threats. I had people who told me that they would see to it that the church was broken financially. Some people left. But it was the best thing that could have happened to that church. An 80-year-old deacon came to me and said, ‘I always wondered what I would do if someone tried to integrate our church. Now I know. I’m glad this young man came, and I welcome him.’ And by the way, the next month the church had the most offerings it had had in its 87-year history.

That is a powerful story. But the title of the book is The Cost of Discipleship. I am wondering whether discipleship has been costly for you, personally or professionally?

Well, in two different political campaigns my wife and I pretty much sold everything that mattered to us and put everything we had on the line. The first one was the campaign for the United States Senate in 1992, which I lost. I walked away from a very good, comfortable job. We lived in a nice home, nice neighbourhood. I cashed in my life insurance, my annuity plan. I basically left a comfortable income to not have one. It was a pretty scary thing. And when the campaign was over, and I didn’t win, we had to start over. My wife was working the midnight shift at the hospital. I was doing whatever I could, even looking for offshore oil rig jobs – just to make sure we would never be late on any payment. We did without a lot of things, got rid of some stuff, cut our expenses down to the bone and recovered. But it was a very tough, tough time.

Let’s talk about The Problem of Pain, C S Lewis’s 1940 attempt to reconcile a belief in a just, beneficent God, with the fact that people suffer. What do you draw from Lewis? How has it affected your view of government?

This book was a very powerful book for me, because it reminded me that being a believer does not exempt me from pain. There is this false notion that, if we love God, somehow we’ll be healthy and wealthy and things will be better and easier. That’s not true.

As far as how it’s affected my view of government, I think it’s given me a perspective that you don’t take a stand because it’s comfortable. You don’t take a position because it’s going to make you popular. You should take some positions knowing full well that they’re going to make you unpopular. I had to do that many times as governor of Arkansas, particularly as I tried to improve education in my state. I took a stand for school consolidation in rural districts as a way to save money and broaden opportunity for kids. For months, every day on the Capitol, people would rally and scream and wave signs. It was not pleasant. I would go to a speaking event and people would scream at me on the way in and the way out. And if they could get in, they could scream at me throughout the event. Those were not pleasant moments. But you learn that things, if they’re worthwhile, are worth experiencing some pain for.

Lewis has an instrumental view of pain: that God makes us better through suffering. You’ve had some struggles in your life – your struggle to overcome type 2 diabetes, for instance. Your wife had a very early battle to beat spinal cancer. Has the pain you suffered made you a better person, a better politician and a better broadcaster?

Absolutely. First of all, it gave me a sense of true empathy when I see other people who are going through a challenge. Some people will come up to you when you are going through a challenge and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I know how you feel.’ And they really don’t. But there are some things about life about which I think my wife and I can say, ‘We do know how you feel, because we have been through it.’ We got a sense of how frail life is, how very vulnerable we are on any given day. And that pain is not a punishment for anything we’ve done wrong. We can’t keep pain from happening, but we can determine how we handle it and learn from it.

How have those experiences shaped your views on policy issues like healthcare access?

There is no such thing as a perfect life, a perfect body. There has to be some level of responsibility shared by the person who receives benefits. It’s also given me an understanding that you have to be sympathetic. If you hear people say, ‘We’re going to cut this benefit out,’ and it sounds expendable… For example, eyeglasses for an old person. If you cut the $50 eyeglasses for a Medicaid recipient, it may not seem like a life or death matter. But if that person doesn’t have eyeglasses and can’t read a prescription bottle, they could take the wrong medicine and end up in the hospital. The point being that you have to remember there is a human being behind every decision you make.

Moving forward to 1979, you cite Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, by C Everett Koop and Francis A Schaeffer. Schaeffer, a theologian, made common cause with C Everett Koop, a Philadelphia physician who went on to become Surgeon General of the United States under President Ronald Reagan. This book started out as a documentary film series that, during its time, had as large an impact (if not larger) than An Inconvenient Truth. Like the Davis Guggenheim documentary about Al Gore’s quest for climate protection, it made its imprint with groundbreaking visuals and was accompanied by a book. Please tell me about the book, the film (if you remember it), and how both helped mobilise Christian conservatives – and how they influenced you.

I saw the film series that was the genesis of the book in Dallas, Texas. It made clear to me that the notion that a life was expendable – the Nazis had a phrase for a life that was not worthy of life, but I can’t remember the German – is dangerous. Once any culture decides that there are any lives not worth living or not worth saving, the threat to society is profound.

I was pro-life but I didn’t really have the deepest level of intellectual basis for it. It was more, ‘That sounds reasonable to me.’ But from that point on, I was able to articulate and define my position very differently because I came to understand the heart of this – that every human life has intrinsic worth and value. That shaped a worldview for me. And it gave me a sense that the uniqueness of the United States and its Declaration of Independence was that all of us were created equal, the concept that one’s last name or personal wealth or occupation or ancestry did not make one person more valuable than another person. Their jobs might pay more; they might be able access more because of their last name; but it didn’t mean that their intrinsic worth was more. That the child with Down’s syndrome had worth and value and we should not discount the worth of that child and say, well, this kid plays baseball really well, he’s worth more than the kid who can’t swing the bat. It gave me real perspective.

This book is credited with galvanising a generation of Christians to political action. Did it play that role for you? Did it help you find your calling as a politician?

It solidified it. I already believed that there was a need to be involved, but the book took it to a totally new level and made me realise that there was not a dichotomy between the sacred and the secular. That one could not live his or her life with duplicity, and say that on Sunday what I do is my church life, which is completely different from what I do the rest of the week, which is my secular life. I realised that there had to be an integration – so that there was one essential life and life message.

Frank Schaeffer, Francis’s son and the director of the film, wrote a 2007 book called Crazy for God in which he claims that some on the religious right root for America’s decay so that their apocalyptic vision of society can be validated. Did you read his book? And what do you think of what he had to say?

I didn’t read the book. I read some articles and interviews that he had done, and I was just simply disappointed. I felt that, for whatever reason, he had become very angry and bitter. I don’t know Frankie. It was so out of character from the message and spirit of his mother and father. I didn’t even recognise his parents in him.

Finally, let’s discuss How Democracies Perish, by Jean-François Revel. Published in 1984, it argued that communism was dragging democracy to its grave. That didn’t come to pass. Yet, you told another publication that this work is ‘more relevant today than ever’. How?

The book had a big impact on me for this reason: the essence of it was that when people in a government were able to vote for themselves, and they were able to obtain benefits out of the public treasury, as we can in the United States, that there would come a point at which we would drain more benefits than we would be able to sustain. His whole point was that democracies perish when people recognise their ability to get something at others’ expense, and when they continue to accelerate in that direction, there comes a point at which that society collapses.

Is that why you so strongly backed Governor Walker of Wisconsin’s efforts to strip state public sector unions of the right to bargain collectively?

I had written about it on page 35 of my book long before that had become the number one news story in America. The basic idea is this: when one group of public employees is negotiating with another group of state employees to give each something they want, but they are doing it with someone else’s money, it is not a recipe that will taste good in the end. That was my whole point: that you can’t have two parties negotiating with a third party’s money. The two parties negotiating in this didn’t have skin in the game. You just have politicians trying to save power and union employees trying to get benefits. Each benefits the other in a very vicious and unholy alliance, but the bill is being sent to the taxpayers, who really don’t have a say in it.

One last question. You dedicate A Simple Government to ‘the many good people’ who ‘run directly into the flames of political candidacy’. Have you ordered a new Teflon suit, or is the fact that you’re headlining a June cruise to Alaska an indication that your future will be less heated?

The cruise really is just a matter of my wife and I going because we’ve been before and love it. And I’ve said all along that my time frame is sometime early this summer. So it’s in keeping with the time frame for me to make a decision. I’m still very much considering a run [in 2012].

One thing that a lot of people haven’t really considered is that the calendar for next year’s election is very different from what it was four years ago. While the media and pundits are ready for the race to begin so they can have something to write about, the people who have to live it – the ones who have to actually play the game, not just watch it from the press box – they have to look at how long can they stay on their feet. If I were to liken this to a boxing match, a 15-round boxing match is already tough enough; unnecessarily adding five to six rounds just doesn’t make any sense.

March 25, 2011

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by .

Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee began working in broadcasting at 14. He became a Baptist pastor and politician, who governed Arkansas from 1996 to 2007. In 2008 Huckabee shocked pundits by finishing second in the Republican presidential primaries. Since then, he has published three bestsellers, hosted a top-rated Fox News weekend show, and started the fastest-growing radio programme of the decade.

Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee began working in broadcasting at 14. He became a Baptist pastor and politician, who governed Arkansas from 1996 to 2007. In 2008 Huckabee shocked pundits by finishing second in the Republican presidential primaries. Since then, he has published three bestsellers, hosted a top-rated Fox News weekend show, and started the fastest-growing radio programme of the decade.