Janet Huckabee’s days start early and run late.
The engine of her State Police driver’s Chevy Impala is thrumming at 7:45 a.m. when I arrive for a day on the road with her. She has appearances ahead at Moody Elementary in White Hall and two state parks, Old Washington and the Crater of Diamonds. At the last two stops, before returning for dinner with official guests at the Mansion, she’ll film TV commercials for Arkansas tourism.
Janet Huckabee travels light. There’s a purse tossed in the trunk, but she never retrieves it, even though she has to change to a period costume at Old Washington and to borrowed clothes for diamond digging at Murfreesboro.
She changes clothes in a twinkling, a calm take-it-or-leave-it assurance about herself that is as engaging as it is efficient.
She picks up names and uses them as if the convenience store clerk she just met was an old friend. She studies her surroundings and relates them to the people she’s visiting.
She walks fast and likes to drive faster. “I don’t like people ahead of me,” she says.
She jokes easily with the day’s assigned trooper, who seems genuine when he says the Tucker family treated Mansion staff extremely well, the Huckabees “even better.” No comment about a previous First Lady of longstanding.
Janet Huckabee has the appetite of a politician–for talking, for people, for just about everything. She dips regularly into the cooler of Diet Cokes (no caffeine) and Mountain Valley Water, but can’t resist a snack break at mid-morning.
She’s on time–usually early the driver says–and refers frequently to her printed schedule.
She constantly reveals herself.
At Moody, students enter and leave assemblies singing Wayland Holyfield’s anthem, “Arkansas, You Run Deep in Me.” The teachers say it soothes the youngsters. It seems also to soothe the First Lady, who hums along and later “signs” the song, too. She learned sign language as a church pastor’s wife, often interpreting services in Pine Bluff.
At White Hall, the First Lady talks to 500 kids as if she’s speaking to a couple of kids in her living room. She doesn’t talk down to them.
“Guess how I got to become First Lady?” she asks the students.
It’s not a trick question.
“I married the governor of Arkansas. That’s the only way. I’ve been married 23 years this month, and I’m happy to say all those years have been exciting and different and challenging in lots of different ways.”
She sprinkles in some politics, as when she comments on schools: “They should be more controlled by the people who live in the area. What happens in White Hall might not work in Springdale.”
(On our drive up, Mrs. Huckabee extolled the academic qualities of the Little Rock public schools, said she would never put her kids anywhere else. As for safety, a question that sometimes troubles Little Rock, she says simply, “We had police in the halls in Texarkana, too.” She was famously resolute about her kids making their way in their chosen schools in Little Rock, even in some difficult early days, and declined an offer of special assistance when one of her kids’ first school choices proved full.)
Asked in White Hall about hungry children, Mrs. Huckabee is empathetic with the grade-school children. “We do have hungry children.” She’s also honest. “I don’t have an answer.” But she also plucks a political chord. “Sometimes people’s circumstances are a matter of choice,” she says. “Some people just don’t want to do better. We need more help from private organizations and churches. But sometimes government just doesn’t work.”
Will her husband run for president?
“No.” Then, after a pause: “But we didn’t plan to be governor either.” She predicts, in any case, that he’ll run for governor in 1998.
How does she help the governor?
“Be there when he needs me. I have a schedule of my own, but it’s not as important when he needs me to be there.”
Throughout the day, she stresses her independence, insists that she does what she wants to do, not what she’s told to do. She admits that’s a long way from her teen years, when “I wouldn’t cut my hair without asking Mike first.” Still, she says, Mike Huckabee probably gets the edge in most family disagreements, but only, she insists, because his judgment is so swift and sure. And, yes, she promised to obey in her wedding vows, but thinks the fuss over that is, well, “silly.”
Finally, she’s asked in White Hall, what will you do when your husband is out of office?
“I don’t know, but will I have a good time doing it? Yeah.”
Print headline: “On the go with Janet Huckabee” June 6, 1997.