On a Friday afternoon in September 1969, Mike Huckabee first sat in the passenger seat of my car.
Yes, that Mike Huckabee.
We were, uh, in a hurry, semi-flying across the southwest corner of Arkansas. And I was determined to give this little 14-year-old an initiation before his official media debut.
My job that day, as a self-assured high school senior, was to begin my third season of doing football play-by-play on the radio in my hometown of Hope, Ark. (Yes, that Hope, Ark.) Mike, then a scrawny little freshman, had been hired to be my spotter and color analyst.
On this night, Hope was opening the season at Ashdown, about 40 miles away.
That meant a workout for my car, an aging but high-powered Buick Skylark. I knew the road well, so this trip would go very quickly. I also knew one spot in particular where the driver briefly could see far ahead before encountering a stretch of rolling hills. After making sure nobody was coming from the other side of the highway, I began the initiation.
"Watch this!" I said, moving to the wrong side of the two-lane road, and then barreling up the next hill at about 80 mph.
Mike, of course, had no idea I had seen that the road was clear. Absolutely terrified, he proceeded to scream, all the way over the hill. Seems like he was praying, too. But not cursing. He never would have done that.
We made it over that hill, and then I calmly admitted that I hadn't just gambled with our lives. As I recall, he wasn't even mad. Just relieved.
We've been friends ever since that year of working together and taking more road trips, talking about music and politics and sports and everything else. He followed me in that radio job, and I'm sure those hours of "extemporaneous speaking" helped prepare him for his adult life.
When he emerged as a public figure, first as the Arkansas lieutenant governor and later as governor for 10 years, it confirmed what many of us had seen in him much earlier.
He never has forgotten his roots or his friends, as evidenced by calling me while visiting Focus on the Family in the late 1990s. Whenever he's seen anyone from my family, he's always asked for updates. Many of our communications have come in the form of messages, with my mother as the intermediary. I've also known his wife, Janet, from the time I covered her as a very good basketball player growing up.
As term limits ended his reign over Arkansas, the rumors spread of his interest in running for president. It didn't make much sense to me Mike Huckabee, from the same hometown as Bill Clinton, running against Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain. (This was before Fred Thompson entered the picture.) Hope already had "owned" one president, and I had thought he might take another shot at the U.S. Senate; he had tried and lost, with no realistic chance, before pursuing state office.
What eventually did make sense to me was Huckabee's potential as a running mate for somebody else, pulling in the religious right and appealing to everyday people. Because, all philosophy and religion aside, Mike is a sincere, honest, warm person, and he doesn't wear his opinions on his sleeve. If you disagree with him, he won't be condescending or try to work on you.
I just never saw him, until more recently, as a potential president. And for the longest time, he simply never seemed to have much traction with voters. Now, though, he has cultivated plenty of momentum and impressive poll numbers.
If we went down the laundry list of moral issues, the two of us would have many differences, starting with abortion and evolution. But that doesn't stop me from wishing the best for him against the other Republicans, though at some point (if he's on the November ballot) I'd like to know what he would expect from possible Supreme Court nominees.
The point is, regardless of what you might hear or read, Huckabee is not hiding a dark side. Sure, he said some regrettable things about AIDS victims 15 years ago, but at least he admits it. And when others tried to pounce on the supposed subliminal cross in the background of his Christmas TV ad, his response was perfect: "That was a bookshelf behind me a bookshelf. I will confess this: If you play the spot backwards, it says, "Paul is dead, Paul is dead.'"
Some thought that was weird, the reference to the long-ago controversy over Beatle Paul McCartney's much-rumored death. But that's the Mike Huckabee whom I have known for nearly 40 years: quick, sharp, funny, genuine.
He also has a good memory. A few years ago, when the Arkansas governor met my younger son, he said, "Mitch, your dad is a crazy driver. Don't ever get in the car with him."
Some things change, like driving habits. But good people almost always remain good people, and that includes Mike Huckabee, whether you would ever vote for him or not.