When he delivered the keynote address at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Pittsburgh last Saturday, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee committed a “revealing Holocaust gaffe.” Or so, at least, says Michelle Goldberg of The Daily Beast. Huckabee apparently stumbled in “likening the United States’ fiscal future to the Nazi genocide.”
The Anti-Defamation League immediately demanded an apology. In a prepared statement, Abraham Foxman said:
It is highly inappropriate to use America’s mounting debt crisis as another occasion to invoke Nazis and the Holocaust, particularly on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, a time dedicated to memorializing, not trivializing, the six million Jews and millions of others who perished at the hands of the Nazis.
Huckabee’s analogy was “casual and wildly inappropriate,” M. J. Rosenberg agreed at the TPM Café.
A Southern Baptist preacher like Huckabee ought never to be permitted to speak about the Holocaust, I suppose—except that in Pittsburgh he said nothing like what he is accused of saying. Rather than watching the full-length video of the speech, his critics may have depended upon the Associated Press report of Huckabee’s speech, reprinted in several daily newspapers, which left the mistaken impression that the former governor and political commentator had somehow compared the failure to reduce our national debt to the nothing that was done by the nations of the world to prevent or stop the Holocaust.
Huckabee said nothing of the sort.
After spending much of his speech discussing the assault upon American values, Huckabee turned suddenly and without warning to Israel, a country that he has visited 15 times since 1973:
There’s something about Israel that is always magnetic to me, in part because I recognize it is one nation on earth most like us—created by people who escaped the galloping tyranny, hoping to find a sense of freedom and security for their families and their faith, and have been willing to put everything on the line to be free. I do not understand why our president today is more concerned about the Israelis’ building bedrooms for their own kids than he is about the Iranians’ building bombs that would be aimed at both the Israelis and at us, but it seems he is. (Applause.)
He introduced the next section of his speech by observing that “There are lessons to be learned.” Then Huckabee told a moving story about taking his daughter to Yad Vashem for the first time. The story was so long—over five minutes—that it assumed a life of its own, separating itself from the rest of the speech. What came through clearly was Huckabee’s deep love for the Jewish people and for his daughter. At the end of the tour, he said, his daughter wrote in the museum’s guest book: “Why didn’t somebody do something?”
This is not a question that can be asked only about the Holocaust, and only by Jews. Huckabee returned to it in the peroration of his speech:
Let there never be a time in this country where some father has to look over his daughter’s shoulder and see her ask this haunting question, “Why didn’t somebody do something?” because in this room we’re the somebodies and we commit we will do something to preserve this great American heritage.
To compare the Holocaust to our fiscal crisis would not only be inappropriate, but absurd. Huckabee is not making such a comparison, although he left himself open to criticism by even mentioning the two events in the same speech. Moreover, the sloppiness of his phrasing and thinking may have encouraged his critics to complete a connection that was more obvious to them than to him. Even so, what Huckabee is explicitly comparing is the reaction to the events by those who were not alive or too young to do anything about them at the time. And he is exactly right to worry that later generations may be dumbfounded by our failure to address the twin challenges of our time (“a huge debt and a very erosion of our values,” as he described them). Nor is it somehow to “invoke Nazis and the Holocaust” to worry so.
Huckabee’s conception of Israel sometimes seems to owe more to the New Testament than to political reality, but he is a tireless and unwavering defender of the Jewish State. Would that some of his critics could say as much. It is they and not he who trivialize the Holocaust.
Update: At Salon, Steve Kornacki unembarrassedly relies upon a second-hand Washington Post summary of the speech to conclude that Huckabee was telling a “Holocaust anecdote” simply to “make a point about the debt ceiling. . . .” Why invest the time in listening to the whole speech when your preconceptions are so much easier to consult?