Fred Thompson: Desperate Republicans Cheer for a Reagan Wannabe

I can say exactly when I first knew that Fred Dalton Thompson is dangerous. It is 12:07 p.m. on Sunday, September 9th, in Manchester, New Hampshire, just outside a restaurant called Chez Vachon. Thompson has just served up another mumbling, noncommittal tour through a packed diner of breakfasting locals, sitting glumly through the requisite this-sure-is-great-coffee shot. Then, once the needed photos are banked, the lumbering B-list character actor -- who plays a video called "The Hunt for Red November" at every campaign stop and sells buttons that, in an unsettlingly McLuhanian twist, pimp him as the "Law and Order candidate" -- tries to make a quick beeline back to his bus. But a cheeky local TV reporter shouts at him before he can reach the door.

"Senator!" the reporter calls out. "What's harder, playing the president or being the president?"

It is a shitty New Hampshire day; as Thompson stands on the street in a blue polo shirt, cold rain splashes visibly off his bald head. There are times when the candidate's eyes go blank and you almost see a big sign in his brain screaming, "Line! Line!" Finally, he glances back at the reporter and grumbles, "Well, neither of 'em are that hard."

I turn to the TV guy, not sure of what I'd just heard.

"Did he just say ... ?"

"Yeah," the guy says, dumbfounded. "He just said being president isn't that hard."

I'm still trying to process this when I spot Carl Cameron, the right-wing hatchet man for Fox News. Cameron is whaling on Thompson, doing a mocking impersonation of the candidate's "Security, Unity, Prosperity" campaign shtick.

"We're, uh, gonna be yoo-nited bah owre yoo-nity!" Cameron cracks.

A crowd of reporters doubles over in laughter. Then they get in their vehicles and chase after Thompson to the next event, so they can feverishly record those same hackneyed lines again and again for posterity. They'll laugh in private, but they'll be repeating that shit on air with a straight face for the next 400 days.

Well, I think as I stand by myself on the curb, so much for Fred Thompson. After all, logic dictates that anyone who's too much of a lightweight for Fox News is probably...

I freeze. Probably what? Probably a shoo-in for the presidency, that's what! I shudder as I realize my mistake, and suddenly the candidacy of Fred Thompson, which seemed impossibly silly just a few minutes ago, makes deadly serious sense. Thompson may act like a blank slate -- a homespun version of Being There hero Chauncey Gardiner running on a platform of "Whatever you say" and "I'll get back to you on that" -- but he represents something else that no one, after seven years of George W. Bush, could possibly have expected: a new low. It was bad enough when the GOP field was led by a grinning Mormon corporatist and a fascist ex-mayor itching to take his prostate pain out on the world, but Thompson is the worst yet -- a human snooze button, campaigning baldly for the head-in-the-sand vote by asking Americans not to think but to change the channel.

And that, after all, is what the campaign trail is all about. Give voters a chance to go lower than they've ever gone before, and you'll get numbers in a heartbeat. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the next Republican front-runner. ***

In person, Fred Thompson reminds you of a lot of good actors who go numb when asked to play themselves. If you've ever listened to interviews with Laurence Olivier or Robert De Niro or any of a hundred other talented performers who can manhandle a script but seem at a loss when it comes to who they themselves really are, you'll recognize the same thing in Thompson.

That makes it all the more painful when you watch him try to sell his oddly thin biography as a great "American story." He has a few items of note on his résumé: minority counsel for the Republicans during the Watergate hearings (where he tipped off the White House that the committee knew about Nixon's secret tapes), lawyer for a Tennessee whistle-blower who exposed a cash-for-clemency scam in the governor's office, and two largely undistinguished terms as a U.S. senator. In between, there are about twenty-eight years of his adult life where he acted in bit parts in a few movies, and lobbied a little. Thompson's campaign video runs out of stuff to talk about after around ninety-eight seconds.

But he is on television, and has been in a movie with Sean Connery, and in the world of politics -- which is basically Hollywood for the ugly and talentless -- that makes him something close to a god on Earth, a veritable rock star. And despite his disinterested pose and empty-suit résumé, his TV persona gives him a natural advantage on the trail, one that most politicians can only dream of.

You have to see it to believe it, the effect that Fred Thompson has on certain crowds. Reporters who describe his public appearances as "bland" and "uninspiring" and "vague" and "blurry" do so because they're looking for the wrong thing; they're looking for theatrics, for fire and brimstone, for that candidate who can get crowds howling for blood. What Thompson inspires is something much more appropriate for Americans of the TV age: He gets audiences purring in a cozy stupor. Their eyes glaze over and they end up looking like a bunch of flies happily lapping up their own puke.

Anyone who's ever had a problem with houseflies knows that that's the best time to hit them with a swatter, which might explain Thompson's astonishing early success. One poll has him already in a dead heat with rage-virus victim Rudy Giuliani -- despite the fact that twenty-eight percent of Republicans have never even heard of him. While voters often leave Giuliani events wondering if they should hand this seemingly crank-mad Catholic the nuclear football, Thompson crowds walk out with the dazed smiles of recovery-room zipperheads, looking like they've just had their brains removed and couldn't be happier about it.

In his stump speech, the hulking Southerner paces the stage wearing a fatherly expression, giving a Gregory Peck-like pensive rub of the chin from time to time and hypnotically tossing out soothing ruralisms like "ain't" and "wadn't" that descend upon his audiences of besieged Decent Folk like gentle snowflakes. The pulse rate in the crowd goes down, not up. The gritted teeth and wizened anger lines around the eyes of these taut, white Silent Majority faces loosen and relax. Whereas minutes before they were collectively certain of imminent attack by an evil confederacy of Al Qaeda and Mexicans and queers ("What should society's position be on deviants?" one Iowan wonders at a Thompson event) all inspired to violence by their envy of the Decent Folk's shimmering new trucks and almost-new big-screen TVs and prized displays of Christian collectible figurines, they now feel if not safe, then soothed, in the right tent, at least. And their hearts flutter as this humble actor who gave up a big career on TV for them -- for them! -- tells them a story they like, a story about a world where America is still the good guy and no changes need to be made for things to turn out just fine in the end.

I watched this phenomenon in action over and over again. In a dead-still convention hall in Sioux City, Thompson meanders his way through a stump speech that appears to be about absolutely nothing at all -- he makes tamely self-deprecating jokes about his bald head ("You young fellas with good-lookin' heads of hair, enjoy it while you can"), ogles a standard-issue stuffed-animal-bearing Adorable Toddler ("You're a good Republican. Now let's show 'em your elephant") and talks away questions about specific policy issues with inspired flurries of utterly nonsensical hick'ry saws (his take on how to deal with the energy crisis: "We got to learn to skip 'n chew gum't the same time").

When asked about Iraq, Thompson goes into a scene straight out of Hollywood, talking about visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed hospital who just couldn't wait for their leg stumps to grow back so they could give Jerry some more hell at the front. "It's the ones who are most wounded who most want to rejoin their comrades," he says.

Two minutes after that last bit, I am outside talking to an older woman named Rita Fairfield, who pronounces herself completely convinced. She likes Thompson's take on national security, among other things, especially the part about staying the course. I ask her why she thinks the surge is working. "From what I heard from the soldiers who are coming back, they're willing to give up life and limb," she says. "The ones that are coming back maimed seem to be the ones most ready to go back to battle."

Huh, I think. Where did I just hear that?

It's only after you run into this lobotomy act ten or eleven times that you start to see the dark essence of Fred Thompson. He is hard to dislike on a personal level: Unlike the overconfident district attorney he plays on Law and Order, the real-life Thompson comes off as a halting, humble, accidental celebrity who's really just dern glad to be here. And his personality seems consistent with his Goldwater-era ideology: A believer in limited government, he seeks to achieve his ends by getting his frankly limited self elected to the White House.

His politics, though, are another matter. As a political animal, Thompson embodies the twisted core of the Sean Hannity/Rush Limbaugh era: He looks you right in the eye with that aw-shucks face of his and tells you shit that just isn't true about who we are as a country. In his first few days on the campaign trail, he paces back and forth in front of crowds of Iowans and assures them without blinking that "we have the best health-care system in the world" -- and you sit there wondering how the hell he can get away with saying that when America's infant mortality rate is behind fricking Slovenia's.

But by then Thompson is talking about how France and England are desperate to copy our market-based system of health care. And then he's on to Iraq, where we "went in for the right reasons" because Saddam was planning a "nuclearized Middle East" that "would have defeated all of us," assertions that leave the bad-news-weary crowd dewy-eyed with approval. Thompson represents the essential bullshit at the heart of modern conservatism: The fantasy that we are the benevolent envy of the world must be believed at all costs, no matter how much waste or mayhem or loss of young lives is suffered in deference to it.

That's what Thompson is selling: a double dose of Middle American delusion. He's a Grade A nice feller who isn't running for president, even though he is, in a country that doesn't launch unilateral and unwarranted invasions, even though it does. ***

In Council Bluffs, Iowa, the Thompson campaign buses stop at a neatly groomed downtown spot called Bayliss Park to give a gathering of about 300 a chance to meet the nice old actor who talks to his mama. (On health care: "I talk to my mama, who is eighty-seven years old, regularly about this.") The traveling press spills out into the crowd in search of quotes for their preconceived story theses -- Thompson as Reagan, Thompson as the Only Republican Who Can Beat Hillary, Thompson as the Too-Late Candidate.

Standing on a riser in front of his bus, Thompson lays his Goldwater rap on the Decent Folk who have come to the park, telling them that the best thing government can do for the poor is to help them help themselves. "A government big and powerful enough to give you everything," he declares, "is also powerful enough to take away anything." The crowd cheers.

A minute or two later, an announcement sounds that the campaign is moving again, and the reporters, quotes in hand, flee back to the bus. I am headed that way myself when a homeless couple named Dot and Jamie, both weatherbeaten and in ragged sweatshirts, walk up to me and explain that they live in this park, and could I ask the candidate for a favor?

"Can you ask him to get us a public toilet?" Jamie asks. "There's no place to take a fucking shit here."

I say I'll see what I can do -- but I doubt that anything good will come of it. The campaign trail long ago evolved into an artificial world of self-involved bullshit, a see-no-evil/hear-no-evil parade of pristine, patriotically engaged Americana, where everyone looks nice, a bunch of Ivy League newspaper guys make up the story lines, and you never see the bad stuff.

What Thompson offers is a chance to drag the presidency itself into that bubble, leaving ugly reality behind. His campaign is basically a referendum on what America wants out of its president. Do we want an executive who solves problems and tackles issues, making decisions that are grounded in reality? Or do we want a lead actor to star in a television show about a fantasy America of our own creation, an America where poverty and war and insecurity can be solved simply by keeping them off camera?

That is a heavy, heavy question, a theme straight out of dystopian fiction, and those of us who would vote for reality should be chilled by Thompson because we know that even if America votes for the fantasy, someone is still going to be running the reality.

In the case of Thompson, that someone would be a slick frontman who might play the part of a Goldwater small-government Republican but in reality has made his living as an extravagantly paid pimp for government welfare. As a professional lobbyist in the 1980s, Thompson worked on behalf of Westinghouse, which was seeking billions in federal subsidies for nuclear power plants. (He conveniently leaves that part of his past out when, in his campaign speeches, he mentions nuclear power as one of the "other fuels" that "have to be part of the solution.") He also lobbied for the deregulation of the savings-and-loan business -- a Reagan-era move that helped lead to the infamous collapse of the industry. And between 2004 and 2006 he earned $760,000 lobbying to cut the asbestos liability of Lloyd's of London.

Thompson is frequently compared to Ronald Reagan, with plenty of justice. Like Thompson, Reagan projected for voters a fantasy America, one that didn't need to feel bad about Watergate and could still kick ass, despite having just been whipped by 2 million pajama-clad Vietnamese. But underneath Reagan's goofy cowboy act was a raging ideologue, a deadly serious political force that also pitched to voters grandiose dreams of endless riches and world conquest. The dream America bought from Reagan was wrongheaded and stupid, but it was at least a big dream, a dream commensurate with the breadth and power of the American empire. The people who bought it were mean and overconfident, but they were at least still living on planet Earth.

What Thompson is selling is escapism, pure and simple. He's selling America not as a vast adventure epic but as a timid, forty-seven-minute made-for-cable movie about a folksy small-town dad -- a fantasy that makes no sense at all in the context of a massive militarized oligarchy currently occupying half the world's deserts on borrowed money.

The people who are buying this fantasy are buying out of fear, because they can't bear to look anymore. They've simply given up trying to deal. If Thompson wins -- and he very well might -- that's what it'll be: total surrender. The lowest we've ever sunk.

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