Saturday, May 5, 2007

Fred: The Early Days

In 1996, Fred Thompson won election as Senator from Tennessee, coming from a large deficit to outpace his rival. Knox Metropulse tells the story, and how they see it reasonably likely that Fred Thompson can succeed in much the same way in his run for the presidency:

. . . Fred Thompson, on his first campaign appearance in East Tennessee, assumed (not incorrectly) we were a group of local rednecks. We surrounded him like a bear in a ring and started peppering him with questions. The death penalty. Abortion. Taxes. Gun Control. To each question Thompson replied with a long, carefully guarded lawyerly answer. . . .

As I recall it was our consensus opinion that Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper, a pretty good conservative, would eat this guy alive in the upcoming Senate race. Thompson's answers sounded like Belle Meade cocktail party chit-chat, rambling and evasive and politically correct. We were naturally suspicious of him anyway; he was U.S. Sen. Howard Baker's protégé. You know Baker—the guy conservatives say enabled Jimmy Carter to give away the Panama Canal. The Tennessee Conservative Union has a reputation as an anti-income tax group, but the organization was originally formed to fight the Panama Canal decision.

The myth has arisen that Thompson has never had a hard political race. At the beginning of the 1994 Senate campaign he was down 20 points to Cooper, and East Tennessee conservatives were just not that impressed. . . .

. . . As the campaign wore on that spring and summer Thompson seemed to begin to remember that bike plant and the people he worked with and grew up with. He began to set aside the lawyer and Senate staffer persona he had taken on over the years. His speeches became shorter. More to the point. He started to connect with people.

I think the turning point came at Mule Day in Columbia, in the spring of 1994. He put on jeans and boots and got on a horse and rode in the parade. He was a huge success; the crowd went wild. He kept the cowboy boots, and often, the jeans. He famously mounted up in a red pickup truck and toured around the state. The stuffy lawyer disappeared. Instead there as an assured public persona that connected with people on a very personal level.

Given Thompson's movie roles and his role on the current television series Law & Order , his critics might say he was just an actor who finally got into the good old boy role. His friends would point out — he ain't that great an actor.

Lamar Alexander wore a plaid shirt and walked across Tennessee, but no one ever confused him with a good old boy.

The red truck has been derided as a gimmick since Thompson had spent his adult life as a Washington lobbyist and an attorney. The Cooper campaign suggested a limo was more his style. But if the truck had not been authentic it would have been about as successful as Michael Dukakis in a tank—the photo op that came to symbolize a losing 1988 presidential campaign. Fred fit in the truck. Dukakis didn't fit in the tank.

At another political event in early summer 1994 I noticed that the crowds that used to come to cheer on Sundquist were still enthusiastic for him, but the crowds went nuts for “Fred.” He was now the focus of political gatherings, and he got mobbed afterwards.

Major Garrett is now a reporter for the Fox cable news channel. In 1994 he was a political reporter for the Washington Times . He came down and followed Fred on a tour of East Tennessee. After a hard day of campaigning we were sitting on the front porch and I asked him what he thought.

He described an incident from that afternoon. They stopped at a convenience store in Sevier County. They left the red truck in the parking lot; there was no one else there. They got soft drinks and Fred spent some time talking to the store clerk. When they came outside, cars and trucks were pulling into the parking lot and people were gathered around the truck. Fred pulled the tail gate down, got up and gave a short speech, and everyone hooted and hollered.

Garrett said he had covered political campaigns all over the country that summer and the usual problem for politicians was trying to find a crowd and jump in front of it. He was amazed that Fred could conjure one up in an empty parking lot in rural Sevier County.

It was that rock-star quality that led Thompson to win the Senate seat. As a quote from a book about that election had it: “People in Tennessee liked Jim Cooper. But they loved Fred.”

The lawyer we had dismissed the previous summer as hopeless had become a natural. His frustrations with the conventions of political campaigning led him to just cast them aside and do it his way. The question now becomes whether he can cast aside the traditional method of running for president and invent his own way of doing it. The probability now is that Thompson will enter the presidential race, possibly by next month. It is not likely Thompson would put Baker, Bill Frist, Zach Wamp, Jimmy Duncan and Beth Harwell out there on a limb heading a Draft Fred movement were he not serious about running.

. . . But the key to Thompson's hesitation may lie elsewhere: It's what presidential candidates have traditionally had to do to get elected. You go hat in hand and you beg money from people who have had enough success in life to give them a sense of entitlement. If you've had the ability to make millions selling plumbing fixtures, shouldn't you have some input on the next Secretary of State?

It is this sort of system that produces a George Bush as a presidential candidate. I had a conversation with a rich young man, more thoughtful than most, who has had some success in politics. He had been in one of those rooms with Bush, everyone there just like him, just like Bush. He wondered if Bush ever met anyone other than the people just like him—wealthy, confident and privileged. Is this a system that produces a president that has any idea how most of the people in America live?

The worst time running for president is in the early months, going door to door like a condo salesman, asking the guys with check books to invest in your campaign. Mitt Romney is great at it. Thompson hates it. His strategy may be to come in in the middle of this campaign, capitalize on the discomfort Republicans have with the field and gamble on good poll numbers to create excitement. If that happens, the money will come.

. . . Can Thompson win? Since 1976 four out of five presidents have been from the South: Georgia, Arkansas and Texas. Can he win the Republican nomination, with primaries dominated by conservatives?

If Thompson can convince anti-Baker Tennessee conservatives of his conservative credentials, he shouldn't have any trouble with national conservative groups. . . .

National conservative groups gave Thompson high marks during his Senate career, giving him better credentials in Republican primaries than McCain or Giuliani. Business groups gave him 90 to 100 point ratings, the Christian Coalition gave him a 92, the American Conservative Union gave him an 85. The National Taxpayers Union gave him an A rating. The NRA, which has problems with Giuliani, McCain and Romney, has consistently supported Thompson.

. . . Fred Thompson's campaign in Tennessee demonstrated that he does not consider conventional campaigning as a strait-jacket from which he cannot escape. If he chooses to run for president he will do it on his own terms. It is a risky strategy. If he fails he can expect the political establishment to pillory him for his deviation from orthodoxy. The “Fred is lazy” tag will come back. He may lose the nomination. But nine out of 10 of the current GOP candidates, running conventional campaigns, will lose as well.

The problem with our politics is that the people who can get elected president are the people we wouldn't want as president. If there is anybody who can upset the status quo, create a new dynamic and overcome the process it would be Fred Dalton Thompson.
Read the entire article here.

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