What Do Mike Huckabee and a Progressive Think Tank Have in Common? Music

It was one of those adorable, bipartisan, even international moments: a Democratic congressman from Queens and a Republican former governor from Arkansas in musical collaboration, celebrating the virtues of a 17-year-old girl in a song penned by two Brits. Yesterday, at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, former Gov. Mike Huckabee (bass) and Rep. Joe Crowley (guitar and vocal) rocked the tank with their version of the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There" to promote the Music National Service Initiative, a new national service project that uses music as the means of transforming society.

Huckabee, embracing a position that seems designed to rile his fellow social conservatives, has long been a proponent of music and arts education in the public schools. During his term as governor, Huckabee pushed through the Arkansas legislature a bill that mandated music education for every student in the state's public schools. It's a cure he prescribes for all of the states.

"Now, it's going to be rare that you hear a Republican talk about mandates," Huckabee said, "but if we don't force it, we don't fund it, because there's too many competing interests. My experience was, once we mandated that music education take place with certified teachers, we started funding it -- because we had to."

While the appearance of the Republican presidential also-ran and Baptist preacher on the stage of a liberal institution may seem a head-scratcher, CPA President John Podesta told of how he and Huckabee got to know each other during a stressful patch of a humanitarian mission to Rwanda. "It's amazing, I think, Mike," Podesta said, "how being in a plane on a tarmac in Kigali with an engine that's blowing out on takeoff can quickly cause two men to put policy differences aside, partisan differences aside, and become fast friends."

Huckabee was quick to explain that his advocacy for music education sprang not from some sweet impulse to beautify the culture. It's about the economy, stupid, he explained (without the stupid part).

"We've got to start helping people to understand that there is a direct correlation between the power of our own economy -- the power of our own future survival -- and the power of stimulating creativity," Huckabee explained. "Because where will we find energy independence? It will be in the creativity that comes from students who will, who maybe, were first artists -- because most of the great thinkers and inventors and scientists of the world were first musicians and artists."

As evidence, he cited Richard Florida's trendsetting book, The Rise of the Creative Class (Basic 2002). Interesting, as Huckabee, hardly a friend to gay people, is touting a book that cites, as a major geographical indicator of creative-class economies, the number of LGBT residents.

Huckabee has a bone to pick with the "No Child Left Behind" bill passed by Congress in 2001, but it's not the common complaint about the law's incentive to make educators teach math and science "to the test" rather than in creative ways. Huckabee noted that while No Child Left Behind was often blamed for the collapse of music and arts programs in poorer school districts, the problem was not with the bill, but with local administrators. The law actually mandates arts education, Huckabee said, but "schools and school districts were not held accountable for the results of music and music education and arts; many schools said, '... If we're only going to be held accountable for math and science and reading, that's the only thing we'll put money into.'" (Perhaps that's why a music teacher friend of mine in Washington, D.C., calls the bill "No Child Left a Dime.")

Founded by Kiff Gallagher, a singer-songwriter "who served on the White house legislative team that created AmeriCorps," according to his bio, MNSI has won the support of Huckabee and Crowley, especially for the nonprofit organization's MusicianCorps, described by Gallagher as "a musical Peace Corps" designed to bring music education to areas and school districts where access to music lessons is not available.

Crowley, who will co-chair a Congressional Musicians' Caucus designed to support MusicianCorps, is embracing the program for more prosaic reasons, he said. "You never hear of anyone going to war over music," he explained. "The worst of it is the battle of the bands."

While Crowley went all peace, love and understanding, Huckabee couldn't resist getting in a dig. "Republicans do like the arts," he said, "and some of us believe that Republicans can rock, too -- not just Democrats -- even though when we play the music, sometimes the musicians get all mad about it and demand we quit. My band played a Boston tune; Tom Schultz went berserk and demanded that we quit, and we reminded him, 'Tom, you sold the music; we paid a license fee; get over it.'" Last week, Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart demanded that the McCain campaign stop using their hit "Barracuda" to promote Sarah Palin at campaign rallies.

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