Having watched the second Republican debate the other night, it’s clear to me the subject today is Fred Thompson, the man who wasn’t there. While the other candidates bang away earnestly in a frozen format, Thompson continues to sneak up from the creek and steal their underwear—boxers, briefs and temple garments.
He is running a great campaign. It’s just not a declared campaign. It’s a guerrilla campaign whose informality is meant to obscure his intent. It has been going on for months and is aimed at the major pleasure zones of the Republican brain. In a series of pointed columns, commentaries and podcasts, Mr. Thompson has been talking about things conservatives actually talk about. Shouldn’t homeowners have the right to own a gun? Isn’t it bad that colleges don’t teach military history? How about that Sarkozy—good news, isn’t it? Did you see Tenet on Russert? His book sounds shallow, tell-all-y.
These comments and opinions are being read and forwarded in Internet Nation. They are revealing and interesting, but they’re not heavy, not homework. They have an air of “This is the sound of a candidate thinking.” That’s an unusual sound.
Most illustrative was what started this week as a small trading of barbs with provocateur Michael Moore, whose general and iconic dishabille is meant to show identification with the workingman, though in America workingmen bathe. Mr. Moore was back from Cuba, where he made a documentary on the superiority of Castro’s health care system. Mr. Thompson suggested Mr. Moore is just another lefty who loves dictators. Mr. Moore challenged Mr. Thompson to a health-care debate and accused him of smoking embargoed cigars. Within hours Mr. Thompson and his supposedly nonexistent staff had produced a spirited video response that flew through YouTube and the conservative blogosphere. Sitting at a desk and puffing on a fat cigar, Mr. Thompson announces to Mr. Moore he can’t fit him into his schedule. Then: “The next time you’re down in Cuba . . . you might ask them about another documentary maker. His name was Nicolás Guillén. He did something Castro didn’t like, and they put him in a mental institution for several years, giving him devastating electroshock treatments. A mental institution, Michael. Might be something you ought to think about.”
You couldn’t quite tell if Mr. Thompson was telling Mr. Moore he ought to think more about Cuba, or might himself benefit from psychiatric treatment. It seemed almost . . . deliberately unclear.
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Right now Mr. Thompson has the best of both worlds, an air of fearlessness and nothing on the line. He hasn’t committed. He’s not in. He can take a chance and be himself because he’s not afraid, and he’s not afraid because he has nothing to lose.
He says he’ll get in if enough people ask him to. If they don’t, he’ll go someplace else and do something else. It’s not as if his speech fees would go down.
Why would he run now? Because he thinks there’s no one of greater stature on the field. Because he thinks he’s got a better, shrewder read of the base than the rest of them. Because he’s at an age where you throw the dice or know you never will. Because he thinks the one essential to modern presidential leadership, the one thing you must have now, in the age of terror, is the ability to communicate, and he reads himself as the best communicator. And because he’s at a point in his private life where it’s possible for him. He’s got a wife who’s got his back and two kids who’ve given him a second chance. Even in great careers it’s the private life that’s hardest to get right. He feels he has.
People speak of Mr. Thompson’s movie-star looks. But he’s not beautiful, he’s heavy and gray. What he has is bearing. He has the manner of someone who thinks a great deal of himself, and thinks it after long personal pondering of his good points, bad points, high points and low. He may or may not be correct in his conclusions, but I suspect they are part of his draw. I suspect people pick them up.
Is he anything beyond a standard Republican conservative? Will he have anything beyond a Mideast policy that consists of win in Iraq, support the surge, and oppose any timetable? Does he stand for any strategic thinking apart from what John McCain unconsciously but aptly characterized as “Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran”? On domestic issues, can Mr. Thompson go beyond standard conservative thought? I happen to be standard conservative myself, but sometimes old things need to be made new, the obvious needs to be made fresh.
Here are some things Mr. Thompson has going for him. He had eight years in the U.S. Senate, and then left in 2002 instead of sticking around and getting all the muck on him. He has a conservative record but a moderate persona. He seems nonradical, non-let’s-follow-the-banner-over-the-cliff. He’s a Southerner but modern. He has a great voice. (Voices matter. Ask Obama, who has one. Ask Hillary, who doesn’t.) He comes to a field that may soon start to feel tired. That to some extent already does. His relatively late entry suggests—suggests—his motives are serious, not just ego-related.
But Mr. Thompson’s challenges are real, too. He’ll have to show he’s serious—that he’s in it for big reasons and in it to the end. He’ll have to knock down the “low energy, gadfly, hops from thing to thing” charge, which has persisted so long that one assumes there’s something in it. He’ll have to show he’s not just a rote, pro forma conservative—a dumb conservative—but someone who knows times change, horizons shift. He has to show he has run something, or can run something. Romney ran a state, Giuliani a city. Mr. Thompson has run what—a career? Big whoop.
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Most importantly for him, and for all the Republican candidates for that matter, Mr. Thompson will have to answer this question: What is he running to do? Why should the Republicans get another eight years, or four years, after all the missteps they’ve made? Isn’t conservatism, or Republicanism, or whatever you call it, just tired? Isn’t it over? Isn’t America just waiting for whatever will take its place?
Why shouldn’t liberalism get a shot? Could they mess up more? Why should we trust Republicans with foreign affairs?
If Fred Thompson can answer these questions, he’ll be showing he’s something new, and not just the newest candidate, or the latest face.