This article appeared as the cover story of The American Spectator‘s May 2007 issue. Click here to subscribe.
IT’S VERY EARLY, BUT WE ARE already seeing surprise shakeups in the potential 2008 presidential field. Perhaps the most stunning is how a casual remark by former Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee that he would “leave the door open” to a presidential bid has ignited a grassroots campaign to convince him to run.
Just recently, without being on the ballot, he won county GOP straw polls in South Carolina and Georgia. Both the Gallup and Zogby polls show Mr. Thompson in third place or tied for third among all Republican presidential prospects — and all without spending a dime or even stepping over the borders of Iowa or New Hampshire. “Run, Fred, Run!” signs are popping up around the country, and Thompson websites — from Nebraskans or Iowans for Thompson to Latinos for Thompson — are proliferating online. And all without an organization.
Of keen interest to GOP primary voters is that Thompson would likely be a formidable opponent for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. And that’s what Democrats are saying. Bob Beckel, who managed Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential run, says Thompson is the only potential GOP candiate “who scares me” because of his communications skills and ability to appeal to swing voters.
Then there’s Lanny Davis, who as the Clinton White House’s chief spinner in the 1990s clashed with Thompson during the investigations into the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign fundraising scandal. “I hope he isn’t the GOP nominee because he would be very difficult to beat,” Davis wrote in the Hill newspaper. He directly addressed Thompson by saying: “An awful lot of Democrats and independents would share with me their high level of respect for you, as well as their concern that you may be the most difficult Republican to beat in November 2008.”
Some of Mr. Thompson’s popularity is no doubt simply due to his high favorable name recognition. Over the past 20 years he has appeared in a series of feature films playing strong authority figures, and since leaving the Senate in 2003 he has played conservative prosecutor Arthur Branch on the hit NBC series Law & Order. The role fits the 64-year-old Tennessean, who first came to public attention in the 1970s as the lead Republican counsel on the Senate Watergate committee and then as a prosecutor helped bust a cash-for-pardons scheme operating out of corrupt Democratic Governor Ray Blanton’s office.
But much of Fred Thompson’s appeal is due to the fact that many Republican voters are hungry for an outsider candidate who can inspire Republicans disappointed with both the current GOP field and the Bush administration. Thompson understands this craving, as I learned when he recently sat down with me for an interview in his dressing room next to the New York soundstage where Law & Order is filmed. He served up political and policy pointers between calls from the director that it was time to go back to the set.
I START OUT BY ASKING THOMPSON why he is leaving the door open to a presidential bid. Is it because he finds something lacking in the other candidates? After all, the latest New York Times/CBS poll found that 57 percent of Republicans are dissatisfied with the current field.
He leaned forward as if to emphasize that he didn’t have any beef with anyone currently running. “Those Republicans in the race are all good guys, and would be good presidents,” he said, ticking off all the contenders already in the race. “But there are truly vital issues — from the looming entitlement crisis to nuclear proliferation — I’m not afraid to talk about. Lots of people have such a low regard for politicians that they’re open to a campaign that would be completely different.”
So how would a possible Thompson campaign be distinctive? “Politics is now one big 24-hour news cycle, but we seem to spend less time than ever on real substance,” he muses. “What if someone harnessed the Internet and other technologies and insisted in talking about real issues in more depth than consultants would advise? What if they took risks with their race in hopes that the risks to our children could be reduced through building a mandate for good policy?”
I note that some critics openly question if he has “the fire in the belly” to really make a serious race. A few are even speculating that he is toying with a presidential campaign to boost interest in his budding radio career with ABC, where he will launch a national program in April.
“There is nothing wrong with being underestimated,” he chuckles. “I am serious about what I believe in, committed to communicating that with people, and I’ve proven I can convince them. Remember, I won every one of my races by more than 20 points in a state Clinton carried twice.”
Other critics of a Thompson bid say he would be entering the race too late, after many of the big donors and key campaign strategists have been snapped up by other candidates. Thompson calmly replies that is what one would expect to hear from people who run traditional campaigns, and he has already received such an outpouring of grassroots support that he is convinced “money and talent would not be a problem. This is a big country.”
INDEED, THE ISSUE OF CAMPAIGN FINANCE has been on his mind of late. Perhaps the single biggest beef conservatives have with his voting record is his backing of the campaign finance law sponsored by his friend John McCain. His repeated votes for that measure are the major reason his lifetime score by the American Conservative Union was only 86 percent. Mr. Thompson won’t retreat from his belief that fundamental reform of a broken campaign finance system is needed. “There are problems with people giving politicians large sums of money and then asking them to pass legislation,” he states matter-of-factly. Still, he makes clear he understands the need for people to participate in the political process — he proposed the amendment to raise the $1,000 per person “hard money” federal contribution limit to the current limit of $2,300.
But there is a chance his thinking may evolve even further. Conceding that McCain-Feingold hasn’t worked as intended, and is being riddled with new loopholes, he throws his hands open in exasperation. “I’m not prepared to go there yet, but I wonder if we shouldn’t just take off the limits and have full disclosure with harsh penalties for not reporting everything on the Internet immediately.”
Should he run for president, I point out that Mr. Thompson will have to lay out a platform. That’s enough to animate Thompson to lean forward in his chair and begin a lengthy monologue outlining what’s on his mind.
He is clearly passionate about national security issues in a world he says is becoming increasingly dangerous for the United States. He serves as chairman of the International Security Advisory Board, a high-level panel charged with evaluating long-term threats to the nation’s security. Thompson told me the board recently received an unclassified briefing that convinced him three or four countries in the Middle East are “on the cusp” of acquiring nuclear weapons should the Iranians carry through with their own weapons program.
He urges continued pressure on Iran, which he says has grave domestic problems. “Iran may fall of its own weight, and we can help that by offering vocal support to dissident groups and making effective use of the airwaves to reach its people.”
He is certainly skeptical about handling Iran the way the Bush administration wound up dealing with North Korea, another rogue nation with a nuclear program. “The North Koreans have welched on every agreement they have ever made with everyone,” he says shaking his head. “I know the Chinese are finally involved in this in an attempt to make the deal stick, but I’m still not sure it’s a good deal.”
Thompson has focused on nuclear proliferation for years. He was considered one of the Senate’s leading voices on the threat, and introduced legislation imposing sanctions on countries and companies caught proliferating to rogue nations. He also pushed for legislation that required companies raising funds in U.S. capital markets to disclose their activities in countries placed under American sanctions.
As for Iraq, he admits “we are left with nothing but bad choices.” However, he says the “worst choice” would be to have Osama bin Laden proven right when he predicted America wouldn’t have the stomach for a tough fight. The costs of Iraq have been high, but they could be even higher “if we have another stain on America like that infamous scene from Saigon 1975 in which our helicopters took off leaving those who supported us grabbing at the landing skids.”
Moving to domestic issues, I ask Thompson what he thinks are the key issues.
“Beyond national security, the greatest single legacy a president has are the judges he puts on the federal bench,” he says. He notes that President Bush tapped him to serve as “the sherpa” to accompany Supreme Court nominee John Roberts on his rounds of Senate offices as he rounded up votes for confirmation in 2005. I asked him what the biggest lessons of the Roberts and Alito nomination fights were. “Very simple,” he said. “If conservatives nominate qualified candidates who believe in upholding the Constitution and fight for them, they can win Senate confirmation even if the other party is clearly hostile. Public opinion clearly is on the side of naming judges who don’t overstep their authority.”
IN THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH, what worries Thompson is that the sprawling, chaotic design of the federal government is undermining public confidence in its authority — and even threatening the national security. He says one of the things that struck him most during his tenure as chairman of the Senate Government Oversight Committee was the pervasive lack of accountability in government, where no one pays any price for failure. When asked about President Bush’s awarding the Medal of Freedom to outgoing CIA Director George Tenet after U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq became apparent, he shakes his head: “I just didn’t understand that.”
The next president, according to Thompson, needs to exercise strong leadership “and get down in the weeds and fix a civil-service system that makes it too hard to hire good employees and too hard to fire bad ones.” He doesn’t offer specifics on what to do, but notes the “insanity” of the new Congress pushing for the unionization of Homeland Security employees. “Have we forgotten the lessons of 9/11?” he asks in wonderment. “Should we tie ourselves up in bureaucratic knots with the terrorist challenges we may have to face?”
He notes that when President Bush made the desire of congressional Democrats to force Homeland Security employees into federal government unions a campaign issue in 2002, it helped net the Republicans key Senate seats in Missouri and Georgia.
“Holding government accountable and making sure it can do its necessary functions resonates with the public,” he emphasizes, noting the public outcry over the federal government’s responses to Hurricane Katrina and the treatment of some soldiers at Walter Reed hospital. “People get the lesson that if government overreaches and tries to do too much it won’t get the basics right. A government that focuses on doing its most important functions well will be more efficient, smaller, and have far more of the public’s confidence.”
That’s one reason why he championed government-management reforms to improve the performance of the federal workforce. He pushed for the enactment of a provision to link promotions and advancement at the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on performance.
Keeping to his theme of smaller, more effective government, Thompson clearly believes a major reason Republicans lost last November was that they aided and abetted runaway government spending. “We had some people who came to Washington to drain the swamp and then stayed longer than they should have and became alligators,” he notes with a grin that could swallow a canary. Thompson came to Washington in 1995 as a freshman senator who strongly believed in term limits. He still does. “Citizen legislators have a long tradition in American history. I think the professionalization of our political class has a tendency to create people who worry more about their careers and honors than what the voters sent them to Washington to do.”
In late March, he put some real teeth into his thinking on the subject. When a group of his admirers in the Tennessee legislature introduced a bill naming a stretch of highway after him, he politely declined. “My daddy’s car lot was on that stretch of road, so it’s special to me,” Thompson wrote in a letter to state Rep. Honorable Joey Hensley. “But the fact is that I didn’t build it and I didn’t pay for it. The taxpayers did. So it is entirely appropriate that it remain U.S. Highway 43 the way I remember it when I was a boy.”
But if a change is in order, he suggested the highway be named for Davey Crockett, the Tennessee frontiersman who served in Congress as a libertarian-minded iconoclast before becoming a martyr fighting Santa Anna’s Mexicans at the Alamo.
This kind of reaction to an honor that almost any politician would embrace — former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson announced his presidential run from the Gov. Tommy G. Thompson Athletic Center — is one more example of why the prospect of a Fred Thompson candidacy has so many voters genuinely excited and political consultants, candidates, and members of the chattering class either buzzing or looking warily over their shoulders.
It’s a sense that the prospective Thompson run has a “lightning in a bottle” feel, with a candidate who is less packaged, prepped, and primped, and more at ease with the ideas and positions that he talks about. This is probably due in part to Thompson’s physical stature, but also his demeanor on the stump. His basso profundo voice is as reassuring as his commonsense conservative worldview. And his positions appear to be more genuine and grounded in ways that put red staters at ease and blue state moderates at attention. Spend enough time with the man and you sense that all of this is not knee-jerk, but natural and instinctive. Which brings us back to his current jobs.
THOMPSON CLEARLY BELIEVES IN THE POWER of personality to shape change. In the world of modern communications we now live in, he thinks a key element of any president’s success is his ability to connect with the American people. “The power of the bully pulpit is greater than ever,” he says. “Reagan proved just how much you can accomplish if you can look the American people in the eye and tell them he needs their help to make tough choices that will make the future of themselves and their children brighter.”
But Thompson says those tough choices shouldn’t include the tax increases contemplated in the new budget released by Senate Democrats. “The phony static accounting the government uses has obscured just how successful the 2003 tax cuts have been in boosting the economy,” he says. “Lower marginal tax rates have proven to be a key to prosperity now by Kennedy, Reagan, and Bush. It’s time millionaires serving in the Senate learned not to overly tax other people trying to get wealthy.”
Thompson clearly has empathy for people who are trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. He is the grandson of a sharecropper and the son of a used-car salesman who worked a succession of ten jobs to put himself through college and law school. His understanding of how hard it is for a family to buy the things it needs to survive drives his support for free trade.
“There is a tremendous benefit to making the world economy work for us, rather than fighting it,” he says. That said, he has clear concerns about the desires of China and other potential adversaries to secure dual-use technologies that could be used against the U.S. or its allies. He notes that an American company has recently been handed a stiff fine for shipping night-vision goggles to China that could easily be used by their military. “We shouldn’t shoot ourselves in the foot with protectionism,” he says. “But we can also make sure we protect our vital interests by keeping our eyes open on how people want to take advantage of us.”
IT’S TIME TO WRAP UP OUT INTERVIEW. Thompson has to wake up at 5 a.m. the next morning so he can tape three separate shows on the ABC radio network. The week I speak with him he is substituting for radio legend Paul Harvey, whose show is heard on more than 1,200 stations.
Fred Thompson changes out of the expensive Italian suit the Law & Order wardrobe shop has decided befits his character of New York prosecutor Arthur Branch so he can don a houndstooth sport coat and slacks. As he packs up his briefcase, he ruminates on just how he would conduct a presidential campaign that would break new ground. “I really mean it when I say the American people are ready for something beyond sound bites and imagery,” he says. He recalls that Adlai Stevenson once said: “The trick is to do what’s necessary to become president and still deserve to be president.” As we amble out to his waiting car, it’s clear that Fred Thompson is working hard on coming up with his own blueprint on how he can do both.