Mike Huckabee checks out the podium at the Republican National Convention.… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)
TAMPA, Fla. — Political conventions are magnets for folks with all sorts of causes, quite unrelated to presidential politics. But one event at the Republican National Convention brought together, among others, Mike Huckabee — the former Arkansas governor, Fox News host and bass guitarist — and Bernie Williams, former New York Yankees center fielder and Latin-Grammy-nominated classical guitarist.
They met on Monday afternoon, before the action heated up at the Tampa Bay Times Arena, for an unusual panel discussion a few blocks away at the Tampa Theater, a baroque 1926s movie palace. They were joined by the Republican governor of Utah, the Republican mayor of Mesa, Ariz., a local school board member and the marketing director of the Tampa Bay Times newspaper.
What brought this unlikely group together? Surprisingly, a passion for arts funding.
Invited by Americans for the Arts, a national nonprofit group that promotes arts education, each of the panelists had a surprising story to tell about how the arts had changed their lives and enriched their communities.
Around 100 convention delegates and community members had turned out, some because they were interested in the subject, others because they’d been enticed by the free concert that was to follow.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said the first thing Brigham Young built when he got to Salt Lake City was not a church, but a center for the performing arts. His state, Herbert said, has the highest percentage of piano ownership in the country, and he added that the small businesses that flourish in his state are drawn to the quality of life, including its commitment to the arts.
Mesa Mayor Scott Smith said his city is among the “most Republican” in the country, and that although there have been many battles over funding for arts programs, “art defines our soul as a community.” Recently, he said, when the City Council was debating whether to close a budget shortfall by cutting funding for arts programs, the chief of police showed up to make a plea. “You cannot cut arts and culture,” Smith quoted the chief as saying. “If you feel the need to, I will take from my public safety budget and I will fill the gap.”
Huckabee, who made waves recently when he launched a full-throated defense of Republican Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri after the congressman angered many with his comments about rape and pregnancy, steered clear of hot political topics. He kept the tone light and the conversation moving.
Turning to Williams, he said, “I’m going to ask you the tough question. Bernie, you hold a World Series ring and you’ve also been nominated for a Grammy. No other living American can claim that. Given the audience that you have here, go ahead and tell us, which one was the most significant one.”
“Oh,” said Williams. “That’s a good one. … I don’t know a good way to answer that question, but I definitely enjoyed both.” (In fact, as Williams pointed out, when he played for the Yankees they went to the World Series six times and won four times.)
After the discussion, Williams picked up his guitar and launched into a set with Amaury Gutiérrez, a 2011 Latin Grammy winner.
But before the concert started, Huckabee had a final request of the panelists: Pick a favorite piece of art.
Williams chose his guitar and the music of Miles Davis.
Herbert, who plays piano and trumpet, said he loved the musicals “Les Miserables,” which “inspires us to be better people” and “The Music Man,” because it makes him happy.
Hillsborough County School Board member Doretha Edgecomb chose a memory: the first time she ever saw an African American classical pianist, when she was a girl. “Someone who looked like me,” she said. “I always say, ‘You can’t dream about what you don’t know.’ ”
And Smith, who played football and sang in his high school choir, chose two songs: the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s arrangement of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as sung by his local high school, and Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again” because it reminded him of meeting his wife “when we were happy." (Beat.) "That is a joke!” He proceeded to sing a slightly mangled first verse of the song, but did a pretty good job carrying the tune.