Lights, Camera . . . Candidacy?
Fred Thompson is shaking up the GOP presidential field. And he’s not even running yet.
BY JOHN FUND
Saturday, March 17, 2007 12:01 a.m.
NEW YORK–”Expect her to recount every moment of her ordeal,” the savvy district attorney mused to his deputy. “There won’t be a dry eye in the jury.””That’s a take!” says a director of the hit NBC series “Law and Order.” With that, Fred Thompson, the former U.S. senator from Tennessee who has played “strict constructionist” prosecutor Arthur Branch for the past four years, walks back with me to his dressing room to talk about a new role he might soon be undertaking: surprise Republican presidential candidate.
It is a slightly surreal setting to be talking big-league politics. But not unprecedented. In 1965, Ronald Reagan held early strategy meetings on his nascent race for governor of California on the set of “Death Valley Days.” In 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger stepped off a plane from a world-wide publicity tour for his last “Terminator” film and immediately huddled with advisers on his own campaign for governor. Both men effectively used their celebrity status to completely transform the races they entered.
So too may Fred Thompson. When we meet on Thursday night, it’s only been four days since he appeared on Fox News to merely announce he was “looking at” running. Chuck Todd, the political director of NBC News, notes in amazement how “a retired senator can show a tiny bit of interest and literally shake up the race overnight.”
And he is shaking up the race. Every GOP candidate is nervously watching the reaction to his possible entry. J.C. Watts, an Oklahoma congressman from 1995 to 2003, has endorsed him: “I define Fred Thompson as AC, what’s AC? All class.”
Fan blogs for “Law and Order” note that since the show is especially popular among women, a Thompson race could help close the GOP’s “gender gap.” The most pithy comment is from Craig Hammond, a former mayor of Bluefield, W.Va. He told the Bluefield News: “He’s the tall timber we’ve been waiting for. He’s the total package. He can hold the red states and pick up a few blue ones along the way.”
But Mr. Thompson appears serene about all the speculation swirling around him. “Those running are all good guys, and would be good presidents,” he says leaning back in a recliner. “But there are truly vital issues–from the looming entitlement crisis to nuclear proliferation–I’m not afraid to talk about. Lots of people have such a low regard for politicians that they’re open to a campaign that would be completely different.”So how would a possible Thompson campaign be distinctive? “Politics is now one big 24-hour news cycle, but we seem to spend less time than ever on real substance,” he muses. “What if someone harnessed the Internet and other technologies and insisted in talking about real issues in more depth than consultants would advise? What if they took risks with their race in hopes that the risks to our children could be reduced through building a mandate for good policy?”
Children are a lot on Mr. Thompson’s mind–especially his own. In 2002 he lost his daughter after she failed to come out of a drug-overdose-induced coma. Already frustrated with the Senate’s endless maneuvering over minutiae, he decided to retire at age 60 only two months later and change his life. In June of that year he married his second wife, Jeri (his first marriage at age 17 ended amicably in divorce in 1985). In 2003 they had their first child (a second was born last November).
“Within the space of a year and a half, I experienced the ultimate tragedy and the ultimate happiness,” Mr. Thompson sighs. “I count my blessings, and I have a real focused sense of purpose now.”
That brings us to some of the knocks critics have about his possible parachute drop into the “Survivor 2008″ competition. Bluntly put, Fred Thompson had a reputation for being lazy in wanting to do the political chores that come with office. People openly question if he has “the fire in the belly” to really make a serious race.
“They used to say I moved slowly,” he chuckles. “But I move deliberately. I won every one of my races by more than 20 points in a state Clinton carried twice.”
But what about his well-known reputation for dating up a storm as a bachelor senator in Washington in the 1990s? “I plead guilty,” he says. “But everyone I knew is still a friend, and if somehow they aren’t I guess we’d hear about it. I’m happy with my life partner and children now.”
On issues, he addresses head-on the major complaints conservatives have about his record. He was largely stymied in his 1997 investigation of both Clinton-Gore and GOP campaign fund-raising abuses: Key witnesses declined to testify or fled the country, though evidence eventually surfaced of a Chinese plan to influence U.S. politics. He won’t argue with those who say he showed “naiveté” about how he would be stonewalled in his investigation. He says he’s wiser now.Many on the right remain angry he supported the campaign finance law sponsored by his friend John McCain. “There are problems with people giving politicians large sums of money and then asking them to pass legislation,” Mr. Thompson says. Still, he notes he proposed the amendment to raise the $1,000 per person “hard money” federal contribution limit.
Conceding that McCain-Feingold hasn’t worked as intended, and is being riddled with new loopholes, he throws his hands open in exasperation. “I’m not prepared to go there yet, but I wonder if we shouldn’t just take off the limits and have full disclosure with harsh penalties for not reporting everything on the Internet immediately.”
Mr. Thompson has also been criticized for failing to back some comprehensive tort-reform bills because of his background as a trial lawyer. Here he insists his stance was based on grounds of federalism. “I’m consistent. I address Federalist Society meetings,” he says, noting that more issues should be left to the states. For example, he cast the lonely “nay” in 99-1 votes against a national 0.8% blood alcohol level for drivers, a federal law banning guns in schools, and a measure limiting the tort liability of Good Samaritans. “Washington overreaches, and by doing so ends up not doing well the basics people really care about.” Think Katrina and Walter Reed.
Indeed, the federal government’s inability to function effectively would likely be a major theme of any Thompson campaign. “Audits have shown we’ve lost control of the waste and mismanagement in our most important agencies. It’s getting so bad it’s affecting our national security.”
Mr. Thompson says that while a senator he was long concerned with U.S. intelligence failures. “The CIA has better politicians than it has spies,” he says, referring to the internecine turf wars that have been a feature of the Bush administration.A key problem, Mr. Thompson notes, is a general lack of accountability in government, where no one pays any price for failure. When asked about President Bush’s awarding the Medal of Freedom to outgoing CIA Director George Tenet after U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq became apparent, he shakes his head: “I just didn’t understand that.”
The next president, according to Mr. Thompson, needs to exercise strong leadership “and get down in the weeds and fix a civil-service system that makes it too hard to hire good employees and too hard to fire bad ones.” He doesn’t offer specifics on what to do, but notes the “insanity” of the new Congress pushing for the unionization of homeland security employees only five years after it rejected the notion in the wake of 9/11. “Should we tie ourselves up in bureaucratic knots with the challenges we may have to face?” he asks in wonderment.
The challenges, he says, are numerous. On Iraq, he admits “we are left with nothing but bad choices.” However, he says the “worst choice” would be to have Osama bin Laden proven right when he predicted America wouldn’t have the stomach for a tough fight. The costs of Iraq have been high, but they could be even higher “if we have another stain on America like that infamous scene from Saigon 1975 in which our helicopters took off leaving those who supported us grabbing at the landing skids.”
Mr. Thompson is especially worried about nuclear proliferation. He serves as chairman of the International Security Advisory Board, along with former Clinton CIA Director Jim Woolsey and former Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb. The board recently received an unclassified briefing that convinced him three or four countries in the Middle East are “on the cusp” of acquiring nuclear weapons should the Iranians carry through with their own weapons program.
He urges continued pressure on Iran, which he says has grave domestic problems. “Iran may fall of its own weight, and we can help that by offering vocal support to dissident groups and making effective use of the airwaves to reach its people.”
On domestic issues, Mr. Thompson says a major reason Republicans lost last November was that they aided and abetted runaway government spending. Yet Democrats, he contends, are incapable of following through on their pledges to be fiscally prudent. “Their political coalition needs more revenue like a car requires gasoline,” he laughs. “Reagan showed what can be done if you have the will to push for tough choices and the ability to ask the people to accept them.”
But Mr. Thompson says those tough choices shouldn’t include the tax increases contemplated in the new budget released by Senate Democrats this week. “The phony static accounting the government uses has obscured just how successful the 2003 tax cuts have been in boosting the economy,” he says. “Lower marginal tax rates have proven to be a key to prosperity now by Kennedy, Reagan and Bush. It’s time millionaires serving in the Senate learned not to overly tax other people trying to get wealthy.”
I note that despite his humble background as the grandson of a sharecropper and son of a used-car salesman, Mr. Thompson himself is now quite wealthy. So how would he campaign against Democratic millionaires he used to serve in the Senate with, such as Hillary Clinton or John Edwards? He smiles and says he has plenty of zingers and points he would make but it’s premature to discuss them.
Mr. Thompson says he can compete with Democrats in talking plainly about the anxiety many Americans have about the economy, despite good macro numbers. “Someone who is 18 today may well have 10 employers in their career,” he says. “That’s completely different from how their parents lived. I would address that insecurity and help people adapt without shooting ourselves in the foot with protectionism and income redistribution. I had 10 employers before I finished law school.”
Fred Thompson clearly hasn’t decided whether to run for president; and he underestimates just how much the traditional fund-raising he disdains may be necessary for his long-shot campaign. But he has assets that add up to an impressive portfolio.As Republican counsel in the Watergate hearings, he began building a reputation as a straight-shooter. It was he who asked the question that forced a White House deputy to admit that Richard Nixon had secretly recorded his Oval Office conversations.
Later in the 1970s he played a key role in exposing a Tennessee cash-for-pardons scandal; his acting career began when he won the part of playing himself in the 1985 movie version of the story. Today, his national exposure is greater than ever with a dozen of his movies playing as TV repeats. All of this month he is substituting for radio legend Paul Harvey, whose show is heard on more than 1,200 stations.
Indeed, it is his need to wake up at 5 a.m. the next morning, so he can tape three Harvey segments before returning to the “Law and Order” set for a long day of shooting, that prompts Mr. Thompson to close out our chat. “With my current schedule I might have more time to myself if I gave all this up and did start a campaign,” he says as he dons a sports coat and heads for his car.
So many voters remain unsold on any of the current GOP contenders that Mr. Thompson just might trade his TV sound stage for a campaign microphone. As this is the first truly open Republican nomination fight in decades, the party might as well revel in the competition it claims to cherish in other parts of life.
Mr. Fund is a columnist for OpinionJournal.com.