Thompson Takes Palin’s Temperature
Monday, September 01, 2008 3:33 PM
By Andrew Romano
ST. PAUL, Minn.–Fred Thompson is a talented actor, but even he couldn’t conceal the fact that he thinks John McCain’s new running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, is something of a gamble–albeit a gamble that going’s to pay off. “No nominee that I’ve ever heard of has had all the boxes checked,” he confessed this afternoon during lunch with NEWSWEEK’s convention team here at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown St. Paul, referring to Palin’s rather skimpy resume. “Whether she can survive those liabilities depends on things that haven’t happened yet. John McCain has lot riding on this. I think she’ll do very well, but it’s up to her to carry the mail.”
If today’s encounter is any indication, Thompson hasn’t changed since stepping out of the spotlight last January. He’s still the same slow-moving, sardonic, Southern-fried character he was on the trail. But it was clear during our meeting that his lumbering grizzly bear act conceals a savvy intelligence keenly attuned–at least this afternoon–to Republican talking points. Thompson’s performance, in fact, struck me as a preview of what’s to come from the GOP.
A few key exchanges. Pressed on Palin’s inexperience, the Tennessean turned the tables on Obama–as I predicted last week that Republicans would do. “I wonder sometimes what we call experience,” he drawled. “How much experience does Barack Obama have? Sitting on the floor of the Senate listening to people talk does not give you foreign-relations experience.” But McCain has always said that his VP must be able to assume the Oval Office at a moment’s notice, we reminded him. Is Palin ready? At this, Thompson groaned. “Ahhhh,” he said, pausing for a moment before finding his footing. “Yes, I do. Look, remember what the standard is. Go back and look at vice-presidential picks throughout the history of the country. Look at Harry Truman, where he stood, how much experience he had before he was chosen as vice president.” Given that Thompson was the third Republican to mention Truman since I arrived this morning, I suspect we’ll hear more about the Missourian–who went from county commissioner in 1935 to leader of the free world in 1945–before November.
But the most interesting debate–and potentially the most consequential–was about Palin’s daughter Bristol, 17, who announced this morning that she’s five-months pregnant and planning to marry the father of her child. Pushed by NEWSWEEK’s reporters and editors to say whether having a pregnant teenage daughter and five-month-old baby with Down syndrome at home will raise questions about Palin’s “priorities,” Thompson responded by questioning the questioners. “Would you be saying that about man running for office in her shoes?” he asked. “I really think you’re going to be surprised at how average people and women who are not necessarily political one way or another identify with her. I see nothing in this that will hurt Sarah Palin politically. I mean, I get that it’s a necessary part of the process to ask those questions. But we have to keep it fair. If we don’t keep it fair, it will redound to her benefit.” Judging by the reaction in the room–“I look around this table all these angry men, and I can’t believe they’re even asking this question,” quipped one female NEWSWEEKer–I have a feeling he’s right. Saying a woman can’t pursue her professional goals AND care for her children at the same time is never a political winner–whether it’s conservatives or liberals wagging their fingers.
The only part of Thompson’s appearance that may not be helpful down the road? That admission of risk. Asked how much time Palin has to prepare for the spotlight, Thompson didn’t pull any punches. “Not much,” he said–perhaps with a bit of rue regarding his own ill-fated run. “She has to be prepared to do everything, from answering the big questions to pronouncing the names of foreign leaders correctly. That’s rule No.1 now. She’s going to get tested in every conceivable way in that regard and she’s got to be able to handle it.” Part of the problem with Palin, Thompson admitted–and the promise, for that matter–is that she’s something of a Cinderella story. “This is the stuff they make movies out of,” he said, laughing. “In fact, it’s a good idea for one.”
Does the senator have any parts picked out? we asked.
“I have a couple,” he said.