Spin Cycle

08.03.12

Why Mike Huckabee Says He Relishes Dispute Over Chick-Fil-A

The healthy-diet champion has cast the attacks on the fast-food company as an assault on religious freedom. Now the ex-governor is driving customers to the embattled chain.

Mike Huckabee has mounted his share of political crusades, but never on behalf of the Spicy Chicken Sandwich Deluxe.

The former presidential candidate—who famously shed 100 pounds and wrote a book about it—has dived into the political war over Chick-fil-A, which has been battered, so to speak, over the antigay views of its president, Dan Cathy. Huckabee orchestrated a Chick-fil Appreciation Day on Wednesday that the chain says led to “record-breaking” business.

“I felt the attacks on Dan Cathy were unfortunate, intolerant, and hypocritical,” Huckabee tells The Daily Beast.

The onetime Baptist minister launched the effort on his Facebook page, drawing more than 21 million views—a showing that underscores the power of social media. “The thing went viral,” Huckabee says. “This company has an impeccable record treating customers and employees with honor and respect, and when it’s attacked as a hate group, that narrative did not fit reality.”

Turns out Huckabee has been eating the Georgia-based chain’s chicken for 35 years and knows Cathy’s father, Truett Cathy, the company’s founder. The elder Cathy was booked on Huckabee’s Fox News show when the controversy began to erupt.

Dan Cathy stirred the pot when he said last month that the chain supports “the biblical definition of the family unit.” He added that “we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say ‘we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.’…

“We are a family business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives,” Cathy told The Baptist Press. The company’s Christian ethos was hardly a secret, as it closes on Sundays and has donated $2 million to antigay groups.

Huckabee has been eating the chicken for 35 years and knows the company’s founder.

Given that Huckabee recently started a syndicated radio show, talking chicken was a way for him to seize a bit of the spotlight. The former Arkansas governor declined to mount a second White House bid last year, and early chatter that he could wind up as Mitt Romney’s running mate has faded.

“It’s a mixed blessing,” Huckabee told me. “I invited upon myself an enormous amount of vitriol. Several people wished I’d have a heart attack and die.” 

Some Democratic politicians have rushed to slam the company. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino declared that “Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said that “Chick-fil-A’s CEO’s values are not Chicago values. They are not respectful of our residents, our neighbors, and our family members. And if you’re going to be part of the Chicago community, you should reflect Chicago values.” While that sounds ominous, a spokeswoman denied reports that Emanuel wants to support efforts to block the company from opening its first free-standing store in the city. Still, such rhetoric plays well with the liberal base of big-city mayors.

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Howard Kurtz and Michelle Cottle on Huckabee’s Chick-Fil-A controversy.

But these salvos created an opening for Huckabee and other conservatives to decry an attack on religious freedom.

“Rahm, same-sex marriage is illegal in your city, I don’t know if you checked that,” Huckabee says. He also criticized Emanuel for welcoming forces from Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam last week to help reduce violence in Chicago neighborhoods. Huckabee cited Farrakhan’s history of antigay and anti-Semitic comments. In a book, Farrakhan wrote that “we must change homosexual behavior and get rid of the circumstances that bring it about.”

Huckabee says he’s fine with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz backing a same-sex marriage initiative in Washington state. Bezos has pledged $2.5 million toward the effort, while Schultz has said it’s important that his employees be “proud of the company they work for.”

Says Huckabee: “I don’t buy their politics, but I buy their products. We can only imagine the reaction if the mayor of Dallas or Birmingham said there should be no Starbucks stores in my city because we don’t want their kind here. It would be apocalyptic.”

There is, however, one irony. Huckabee, a diabetic who was once obese and has gained back part of the weight he famously lost, is now in the position of defending fattening fried food. The above-mentioned deluxe sandwich clocks in at 570 calories, 27 grams of fat, and 50 grams of carbohydrates.

“They do have grilled chicken and salads at Chick-fil-A, so there are options,” Huckabee says. “I love their food.”