Janet Huckabee is not given to whining. Not about the cancer she beat. Not about the electoral defeat Mike Huckabee suffered in 1992. Not about some of his toughest political critics.
But she is defensive, maybe even a little hurt, when she talks about some of the criticism she has endured since she became First Lady last July.
Much of this has centered on the Governor’s Mansion, a public building whose maintenance and operation is overseen by an independent commission and supported by a 30-member private association dedicated to preserving the 1950s-era building and making the public rooms a showcase for public functions.
The first flap came when the Huckabees fired the popular Mansion gardener, Becky Thompson, a Clinton-era holdover, after Thompson objected to pruning the azaleas when they were in bud. Then came criticism, mostly anonymous, over rearranging of furniture, some repainting and removal of draperies in the dining room.
In two days of interviews, the second session in the living room at the Mansion, Mrs. Huckabee dealt with those issues and other questions about politics and her role as First Lady:
Q. On Mansion furniture and paint.
A. Can you really expect to leave the same chair facing the same direction for 12 years? You can look in the photos and see that it hasn’t been the same all that time. You can see the paint has changed. I don’t know why it has been such an issue for me.
Q. Cutting the azaleas.
A. We didn’t cut the azaleas down, of course. They survived. They were budding when they were trimmed. There are probably better times to trim them. But they were blocking security cameras. Most of them had bloomed. They asked us to cut them and we trimmed them. You would think we had run out in the yard and burned them.
Q. Why was Becky Thompson fired?
A. The azaleas were not the reason she left. It was a personnel reason. I don’t want to talk about it.
Q. The dispute with members of the Mansion Commission, which led to Huckabee-backed legislation to increase the commission by two members he appointed.
A. I went to some of the Mansion Commission meetings and the Mansion Association meetings on the understanding that the First Lady participated.
I asked questions. I was not given answers. It got increasingly more difficult to ask the questions. I felt like I was being ignored. People weren’t cordial at all. I don’t know if I expected a warm welcome or what, but on two instances when I came into meetings and Mike came in, we were not welcomed. I just went, ‘Whoa.’
And then when I was asked to say something, I might as well have been outside talking to a tree. I was almost ashamed that I was there. Over the course of time, I had people call us ‘the residents’ or ‘the tenants.’ They didn’t even use our names. To our face. That’s a turnoff.
Q. A specific complaint?
A. It was my understanding the First Lady had appointed new Association members. They told me, reluctantly, yes. Looking back, I can see it was awkward. Because July 10, five days before we were sworn in, it turns out they changed those rules [taking all appointments from the First Lady].
Q. Moving the furniture.
A. The piano tuner said the piano was better over away from the windows. Some of them think this is Mount Vernon. But I’m pretty sure they rearranged furniture at Mount Vernon. And George and Martha Washington don’t live here. Also, we had to move the furniture out to repair a leak in the ceiling. But they haven’t given me a list of where the furniture belongs. So I don’t know where it goes. I ask you, are you going to remember where every little piece goes? There are a lot of chairs here.
Q. Removal of the draperies.
They had to be taken down to put the new wallpaper up. We were told not to put the draperies back up because it would put holes in the wallpaper if it wasn’t done right. So we didn’t put them back up because they were going to come back and do it. But it became a big deal.
Q. Availability of the Mansion for public use.
A. We’ve probably had twice as many events as previous administrations. And there are a lot of groups who have never been here before who are choosing to come now. We’re Republicans. People are excited about that. Events where we normally would have 100 are having 175.
Q. Why are more events being held outside, rather than in the Mansion itself?
A. You cannot have a sit-down dinner for 150 people in these two rooms (the living and dining rooms). It’s not conducive to entertaining. We have to put those groups in tents. People say, you know, it’s God-awful. But what am I supposed to do with them? On the one hand, you’ve got people who don’t want you to touch the furniture. On the other hand, they want you to have a sit-down dinner for 200. To do that, I’ve got to move all this stuff out. Now, where is it all going to go? It’s going to go to my private dining room or to the room downstairs where my kids watch TV. So we put them outside. And when we have an event outside, I always take the visitors through the front door, show them the public rooms, then lead them outside.
Q. Liquor in the Mansion.
A. It’s a choice we’ve made that there will be no alcohol on the premises. Part of this is something I believe in. I’m not an alcohol drinker. Also children are present. And, quite frankly, I have a hard time believing I have state policemen out here who are allowing people out here to do that and then letting people drive home.
Q. Will you have an initiative, or a policy focus, as First Lady?
A. I will have a focus on traveling Arkansas, but I wouldn’t call it an initiative. Most of all, I want the people of the state to know we are just like them. We love our state and we’re going to do our best to do what we think is right for the state. For example, we feel that the majority of people are not for two men living together and calling it marriage.
Q. Will you give speeches?
A. The chances are I’m not going to go to the Women’s Bar Association and give a speech. I’m outclassed. I can’t identify with them. What am I going to talk about?
Q. Adjusting to being First Lady.
A. I’m not used to people doing things for me. It’s weird. You feel like you’re going downstairs to a restaurant to eat.
Q. Religion and politics.
A. There’s absolutely no way anybody can separate the way they’ve been taught and the way they’ve been brought up and what they believe from their office or their job. Our country was founded on Christianity. The whole point of people coming over here was so that people could worship any way they wanted without being forced.
As far as being a preacher, that just happened to be Mike’s profession. There are other preachers in politics, including ones who wrote our Constitution. But I think if you look at the things he’s said and done since he’s been in office, he’s never forced his religion on anyone.
Q. Among your many activities, you’ve shown an interest in the police, by riding with officers in New York and Little Rock.
A. I appreciate the fact that men and women get out every day and risk their lives for us. Do I like to shoot guns? Yes. Do I like to ride a beat? Yes. I’ve been to the Little Rock Police Academy and I’m on their citizens board. I’ll participate in a meeting here in July. I’ve been with the SWAT team. Do I want to be a policeman? Probably not.
Q. The recurrence of financially related controversies for the governor.
A. I can’t really say anything except that mistakes are made. Everybody makes them. As for Mike making money as a public speaker: We have toyed with the idea of calling Lloyd’s of London and having Mike’s voice insured because that is his life. He doesn’t have another trade. He’s a public speaker, whether in a church to the Christian Coalition or to the American Cancer Society. He’s done it all his life. The fact that he gets paid for doing it, some people have a problem with that.
Q. But isn’t the problem that he won’t disclose his speaking income?
A. Why? Why should a public speaker as a professional have to disclose who he speaks to if a doctor doesn’t disclose his patients or if an attorney doesn’t disclose his clients or an electrician doesn’t disclose whose house he works on. If we’re going to do it, let’s do it all the way. … Why start with Mike?
Q. Why not set an example?
A. For what?
Q. For openness.
A. I think we’re pretty open. We’ve disclosed what the law said we had to disclose. Until everybody does it, we’re not going to do it. We do what the law requires, and if that’s not good enough, we need to change the law.
Q. Is your husband thin-skinned?
A. He’s really not. Personally–this is Janet speaking–I don’t think the press has been all that fair. Because he’s been a Republican, there’s different treatment. Do I like it? Probably not. Do I care? No. Do I lose sleep over it at night? No. Does he? No, he goes to sleep quite quickly.
I don’t think he’s overly sensitive. But when he responds to press questions, then he’s complaining. If he doesn’t respond, he’s trying to hide something. It’s a no-win situation.
John Brummett wrote that the governor’s office redecoration was tacky. I said, ‘John, what was so tacky?’ He basically said it was because he didn’t like it that we had painted over this old wood that had already been painted over before. I told them there are 100,000 ways to say that without saying it’s tacky. So then he compared it to a brothel.”
Q. Do you pray for your critics?
A. Of course. You’re supposed to pray for everybody. There are people out there who don’t like us. But people, as a whole, who get to know us, always come away liking us.
Print headline: “From religion to redecorating: A Q&” June 6, 1997.