I enjoyed watching the presidential debates on Saturday evening. I thought ABC did a really nice job of presenting the Republican and Democratic hopefuls.
However, I was shocked by something I heard during the Republican portion of the debate.
No, it wasn’t a policy position. It was a reference to Abraham Lincoln.
During a heated discussion on illegal immigration, in which many of the candidates were all speaking at once, the following exchange took place between the moderator and Republican Mike Huckabee:
Moderator: “Governor Huckabee is sitting here with a quiet smile, just thinking, ‘OK, let them fight; I'm going to stay out of this.’ So I want to bring you in quickly, and then Congressman Paul, then we will move on.”
HUCKABEE: As Abraham Lincoln said, "If it weren't for the honor of it, I'd just as soon pass," when he was run out of town on a rail. But let me join in on this.”
Being ridden out of town on a rail was a very public and humiliating punishment in colonial America. Typically, the victim was forced to straddle a fence rail held on the shoulders of two men. He was paraded around town and subjected to ridicule for his offense. For example, the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? offers a depiction of such a punishment. When Homer Stokes, the Grand Wizard of the KKK and the “reform candidate” in the election, objects to the music of the Soggy Bottom Boys on the grounds that they are racially integrated, he is ushered out of the auditorium on a rail.
Was Abraham Lincoln ever ridden out of town on a rail? If so, what on Earth did he say to draw the wrath of his neighbors in central Illinois?
The answer is: Gov. Huckabee fumbled the reference.
Lincoln was never ridden out of town on a rail. However, he liked to tell a joke about a fellow who had been. According to General Horatio C. King, a group of friends from Illinois called on Lincoln in the White House. Toward the end of the visit, one of the men asked Lincoln if he liked being president. Lincoln smiled and replied: "You have heard the story haven't you, about the man as he was ridden out of town on a rail, tarred and feathered, somebody asked him how he liked it, and his reply was if it was not for the honor of the thing, he would much rather walk." [P. M. Zall, Abe Lincoln Laughing: Humorous Anecdotes from original Sources by and about Abraham Lincoln (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 143.]
Though the punch line remains the same, the details of the story make a great deal of difference.
But Sam, some of you might be asking, what does it matter?
A Lincoln reference is always going to get my attention, especially when it is a botched one. I give Huckabee the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he got caught up in the moment and simply misspoke. If so, he earns the Lincoln Studies pardon.
However, I wonder if the misstep is meaningful when placed into the larger context of the campaign? For instance, Gov. Huckabee has made a handful of errors when talking about American foreign policy in regard to Pakistan. When Benazir Bhutto was assassinated last month, Huckabee told Iowa voters that Pakistan had more illegal immigrants in the U. S. than any other country but Mexico. It turns out that Pakistan is nowhere near the top of that list. Similarly, when he clarified his comments to MSNBC, Huckabee criticized the president of Pakistan by saying Musharaf “has told us he does not have enough control of those eastern borders near Afghanistan to be able to go after the terrorists.” Again, Huckabee misspoke. The borders are in the west. One final example. In the wake of the Bhutto assassination, Huckabee told a crowd that he was worried about martial law “continuing” in Pakistan. However, Pakistan was no longer governed by martial law when Huckabee made the statement. It had been lifted on December 15.
I am not suggesting that Gov. Huckabee should be ridden out of town on a rail just yet. However, I think he should hire a fact checker.