Curt Smith: The snoozefest that was Fred Thompson’s campaign
I like to think I am less often wrong than right. As a boy, I foresaw Richard Nixon’s Lazarus rise to become president. Later, I prophesied Bill Clinton as lounge lizard – and America his lounge. Alas, I was right about hip hop, illegal immigration and George W. Bush.
By contrast, I never thought the Red Sox would win a World Series. I never imagined television as insipid as “The Bachelor.” I was even more errant about Fred Dalton Thompson.
Half a year ago the ex-U.S. Senator seemed The Great Right Hope: A “conservative Messiah,” wrote Robert Novak, for beaten, benumbed Republicans. Fred was glib, tan, and tall (6-foot-5), appeared bright, marquee, and savvy: the total presidential goods.
TV’s “Law and Order” icon would walk on, perhaps part, the water. Look in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It was Super Fred! – putting the GOP’s feuding factions back together. Forget Gigot. All summer we waited for Thompson, his tease the longest since, aptly, Classic Coke’s.
On cue, other candidates trod a treadmill. John McCain hyped illegal amnesty. Mitt Romney changed positions, but, sadly, not personality. Rudy Giuliani rode 9/11’s one-trick pony. Mike Huckabee rode wit and warmth in a futile cattle drive for cash.
“Who needs ‘em?” a friend said in July. “Fred’ll save us,” expecting him to U-turn W.’s Reverse Midas Touch. That month, I met actor Robert Vaughn, who, like me, was piqued by what pollster Frank Lutz dubbed “the 6-million-pound gorilla.” How could Thompson miss? Historically.
Some politicians peak the day they announce. Thompson peaked long before announcing Sept. 5 He touted border security: a gimme. He lauded Federalism: a snooze. Fred had little else to say, failing to fill the GOP’s gaping social/cultural void. None of this would have happened, a wag later said, had Thompson been alive.
Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign blared Fleetwood Mac’s “Can’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.” Peggie Lee augured Fred’s: “Is That All There Is?” He campaigned lethargically, took days off, and turned few on. Why did he even run? “Fools give you reasons,” said “South Pacific.” “Wise men never try.” Looking back, we coulda, shoulda known.
For one thing, the Republican establishment backed him: wrong again. Another: Like most country clubbers, Thompson left few footprints as 1994-2003 senator. I should have listened to a D.C. columnist, telling me: “Forget speeches. The only place I’ve seen him is the Four Seasons Restaurant.” The corporate lobbyist seemed oblivious to Main Street: seemed, because he was.
In 2108, Thompson may still embody how not to run for president, for months doing far less with more: a locomotive, stuck in neutral. Ultimately, a Little Engine that Could began to do far more with nothing. By January, Huckabee swiped Fred’s right-center flock, won Iowa, and led in South Carolina. Unable to build himself up, Thompson, cynically, enviously, decided to knock the usurper down.
McCain and wife Cindy once vacationed on Fred’s honeymoon. To help his pal, the doomed spoiler surrogate assaulted Huckabee, splitting Carolina evangelicals. McCain won by 13,000 votes. Thompson got 68,000. “If Fred’d been out, we’d have won,” noted Huckabee, likely by a landslide. Three days later the hit man withdrew, having gang-tackled the Arkansan. Beltwayers may be corrupt, but they take care of their own.
In the end, the less conservative Messiah than false prophet ensured the nomination of Romney or McCain. The former tells a besieged middle class, “When the economy’s bad, it’s time to buy stocks.” The latter is the Right’s amnesty-loving, clergy-trashing, media-beloved bete noire. One can’t win. The other is a non-closet liberal. Thanks, Fred. Merry Christmas to you, too.
Thompson will return to making money: bought, bloated, out of touch and literally out to lunch. On “Law and Order,” he played a prosecutor. Many conservatives now deem him a defendant in the dock. JFK aides Kenneth O’Donnell and Dave Powers wrote a book, “Johnny, We Barely Knew Ye.” We got to know Freddy entirely too well.
Curt Smith is a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. He writes a twice-monthly column for Gatehouse Media’s Messenger Post Newspapers. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org