Huckabee book deal after school tragedy still rankles

Times Staff Writer

After two middle-school boys in camouflage gear shot and killed four classmates and a teacher here, leaving 10 others wounded and a community shattered, it seemed inevitable that someone would see opportunity in the tragedy for a book deal.

Indeed, within days a publisher agreed to pay $25,000 to an Arkansas writer to produce a book on youth violence.

Victims' families were outraged. They called the payment blood money and said the author was cashing in on their pain. They demanded that the money go to the school, victims' relatives or scholarships for the wounded, not to the writer's personal bank account. He refused.

That the author was Mike Huckabee, Arkansas' governor at the time, made their resentment all the stronger.

"He took advantage of us," said Pam Herring, whose daughter, Paige Ann, had just turned 12 when she was shot to death.

"He was out for one thing and that was money," said Mitch Wright, whose wife, Shannon, a teacher, died protecting children. "He made money at our expense."

The slaughter at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro in March 1998 was, at the time, one of the worst school incidents in American history. Today, with Huckabee a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, his book deal continues to aggravate many of the victims' families.

Some critics of Huckabee say the incident fits his pattern as governor of enriching himself with gifts of cash, clothes and furniture donated by supporters.

At the time of the shootings, Huckabee was under investigation for numerous ethics violations, many of them for not reporting outside income and gifts. In all, he was fined or sanctioned five times by the Arkansas Ethics Commission.

Inauguration funds reportedly were used to buy clothes for his wife, Janet, and the couple later set up a "wedding registry" at department stores and collected linens, toasters and other furnishings from supporters; they had been married 25 years.

Bobby McDaniel, a Jonesboro lawyer who represented some of the families, said Huckabee "never saw a gift he didn't take." Newspaper editorial writers called him a "money-grubbing governor" and nicknamed him "Mike the Huckster."

"It was all quite unseemly," Vaughn McQuary, chairman of the state Democratic Party at the time, said in a recent interview about the book contract. "The governor of a state should set a better example."

Huckabee's campaign did not respond to requests for an interview. But Huckabee has publicly defended his book deal, saying the $11.99, 180-page paperback had been planned before two boys opened fire at Westside, and that the tragedy simply would give him the springboard to air his broader views that youth culture was destroying families. "The book is not about Jonesboro," he insisted.

But when the book was rushed to print a month after the shootings, it was titled "Kids Who Kill." The cover is a photo of a boy about the age of the Jonesboro killers pointing a gun at the reader. The back cover promo states: "The quest for quick answers has robbed us of the truth" about Jonesboro. "Until now."

The opening pages begin: "Just after lunch on March 24, 1998, a sudden burst of gunfire cut through the crowded schoolyard of Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas. . . . "

Much of the rest of the book is a compilation of quotes from theologians and historical figures, and includes transcripts of two radio addresses Huckabee gave after the shooting. Huckabee has written or co-written several books, all dealing with motivational subjects such as character and dieting, but none has been as controversial as "Kids Who Kill."

Dennis Milligan, the current chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party, who has endorsed Huckabee for the presidency, defended the governor's book deal: "He's entitled to whatever the specific profits were from that book. And as to why he didn't donate the proceeds, obviously it was something he wasn't moved to do and didn't feel like he had any obligation to contribute, with respect to his personal funds."

Milligan also defended Huckabee's receiving gifts as governor, saying many were just tokens of appreciation and that none of them helped buy any special influence. Milligan mentioned, for instance, a pair of cowboy boots and a canoe, and said Huckabee always was careful to return expensive gifts that exceeded the allowable limits. "He is an honorable guy," Milligan said.

On the afternoon of the shootings, Huckabee was flying home to Little Rock after making a speech in Washington. An air traffic controller radioed the pilot, who told the governor. Two boys, Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, dressed in Army-style camouflage and armed with guns, pulled the school fire alarm after the lunch hour and fired at classmates and teachers as they filed outside.

Reaching the state Capitol, Huckabee called a news conference and immediately blasted the youth culture. "It makes me angry," he said. "It's in the television programs they watch, the movies they see, the language they use, the things they are exposed to and the glorification of those things."

The next day, he and his wife, wearing white ribbons on their lapels, met in Jonesboro for about 40 minutes with many of the victims' families. He spent more than an hour with teachers and staff. Huckabee, a Baptist minister, also went to the hospital and helped families begin to work through their grief.

"I remember him and his wife coming down the hall," said David Betts, whose niece, Ashley, was among the wounded. "They were the most compassionate people I've ever seen. It wasn't just a walk-in visit. He stayed with us. He supported us and prayed with us."

But Huckabee was not among the 9,000 people who attended a memorial service a week later at the Arkansas State University Convocation Center in Jonesboro. Aides said he was on a planned family vacation in the Caribbean. He did send a letter, quoting the Bible that man is saved by God and not the laws he enacts.

Herring and Wright were concerned that there was no law to prevent the shooters from profiting financially, since they were juveniles and would be released from prison when they turned 21. They said they told Huckabee they wanted assurances the killers could not write books or sell their stories to Hollywood, and that Huckabee looked them both in the eyes and said: "That would be blood money."

At a second meeting in Jonesboro, Wright said Huckabee again vowed it would be "blood money" for the shooters, with Huckabee adding this time: "No one should profit."

Then, ten days after the shooting, it was announced that Huckabee had signed his own book deal, to be written with George Grant, a prolific author of Christian books. The publisher was an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination in which Huckabee was ordained.

Officials at the publishing house declined to discuss the arrangements for the book, saying they comment only on current authors. Grant did not respond to requests for an interview.

Huckabee has insisted the idea came to him before the shootings. Asked by a newspaper reporter at the time if he was trying to turn a dollar by capitalizing on the Jonesboro deaths, Huckabee angrily responded: "No more than you're capitalizing on it when you write stories about Jonesboro and sell ads and sell the paper."

Dogged about why he declined to donate any of the book proceeds to the scholarship fund, Huckabee said he planned to use the money for his own children's college education. Later Huckabee stayed in his private office in the Capitol in an attempt to evade further questions. Then he rushed to his state car and slammed the door on reporters.

McDaniel, the Jonesboro lawyer, said such incidents didn't seem to hurt Huckabee. He noted that Huckabee had a knack for impressing voters and winning elections, "even if he does have a very short fuse and a temper."

Indeed, not only was he reelected in 1998, he carried Jonesboro, a state college town on the northern edge of the Mississippi Delta. To many in Arkansas, that feat speaks to his twin gifts as a natural politician and an inspiring religious leader.

McQuary, the former state Democratic chairman, said Huckabee was very charismatic and could uplift people in a state that has struggled with poverty: "Surprisingly, he was quite popular, especially in such a Democratic-majority state. Do not underestimate him on the campaign trail."

--

richard.serrano@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°