Political Hay

Not Ready for Presidential Primetime

Fred Thompson: 21st century star, 18th century candidate.

By 1.22.08

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Fred Thompson's campaign announced via e-mail Tuesday afternoon that Thompson had dropped out of the Republican presidential race. To which one might respond, "Fred Thompson had a presidential campaign?"

Thompson announced his candidacy on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" half an hour after, and 3,000 miles away from, the Republican presidential debate in Durham, N.H., last September 5. It was an act of hubris borne of the disconnection from everyday reality that Hollywood stardom often produces even within otherwise sensible people.

The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary exist to give lesser-known and under-funded candidates a shot at winning their party's nomination. Thompson never realized that he was one of those candidates. He thought he could ride his mid-level celebrity over those pesky little states and alight in South Carolina with a known name, a familiar accent and the right ideas, and conservatives would fall over themselves for the chance to mark the little oval beside his name.

But Thompson was not that famous. As one Manchester, N.H. resident told another who pointed to Thompson and asked who he was, "That's the guy from 'Law & Order,' Fred Thomas."

To win conservative voters, you first must make them familiar with your name, your message and yourself. Thompson expressed no serious interest in doing any of that.

And as it turns out, conservatives want more from a presidential candidate than some solid policy proposals, a confident swagger, and great one-liners. They want someone with the energy and drive to fight America's ascendant and highly energetic left. Thompson gave the impression that the only the only thing he would fight is the urge to nap. After a series of embarrassing confessions that he really wasn't up to speed on the issues of the day, or even the decade, his campaign pumped out some serious position papers that set the think tank set chatting. And after some sharply criticized speeches, he redeemed himself in several debates. But no one in this century has won the White House on position papers and debate performances. It takes months of exhausting campaigning, and Thompson made it clear from the beginning that he had no interest in doing the rubber chicken or the pork-chop-on-a-stick circuits.

On his first visit to New Hampshire as an official candidate, he rode in his huge, luxurious bus to a handful of stops. He never stayed long. In fact, he spent more time on the bus than with the people who could have propelled him to the lead for the nomination. At Chez Vachon restaurant in Manchester, he buzzed through the crowd then sat for coffee for a few minutes with the mayor and a few other local Republican officials. He scooted from there to a sports bar, where he spent almost as much time on his bus watching the Tennessee Titans game and waiting for his take-out burger to arrive as he did greeting voters inside. He could have gone back out and mingled. But, no, he had an aide put on the game and he chatted with the mayor until the burger arrived. It must've been 15 minutes. Then it was off to another stop.

He told me that day that he was committed to campaigning in New Hampshire and winning the primary. He said he'd be "all over" New Hampshire in the next few months. He made one return trip.

In December, he decided he might want to ride his bus across Iowa. He did. Didn't see a whole lot of voters, by most accounts. But they saw his bus. Maybe that was enough for Fred.

Thompson never took campaigning seriously, and the voters sensed it. Therefore, they never took him seriously. It's really too bad, because Thompson not only is a guy you'd like to have a beer with -- as the famous presidential litmus test goes -- but he's really conservative. Someone with his ideas ought to be in charge of the executive branch of the federal government. But that person should also be someone who actually wants to be in charge of the executive branch of the federal government.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, candidates didn't run for office. They stood for office. It was considered bad form to seek public office. The people called you to it, or so the politicians pretended. Fred Thompson was cut from that mold. He wouldn't mind being president, as long as the people simply made him so.

Some say it's too bad that a burning desire to hold the most important job in the world is now considered a prerequisite for getting it. But Republican voters are wiser than that. They understand that the leviathan will not be tamed by a president who would really rather be fishing. Calvin Coolidge did not have to fight the Beast that ate Washington, nor did he have to win a war on terror, contain Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, and keep Nancy Pelosi from wrecking the economy. Republicans want, and need, a president who has the ambition, energy, and desire to do all those things every single day for four straight years. Somehow, one cannot picture Fred Thompson finding the time to do all that in 20 years, much less four.

Thompson's laconic style was charming and entertaining. But Republican primary voters were right to judge it unsuitable for a modern president.

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About the Author

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.