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Fred Thompson Wants You to Think He Doesn't Want It

Fred Thompson

"Who, me? Really?"Photo: Getty Images

Tonight, coyer-than-thou Fred Dalton Thompson finally steps into the Republican race with ads on the always-friendly Fox News, a Leno appearance, a Webcast going live at midnight, and then a multi-state fly-around where he might actually talk with real people.

At the moment, it's unclear whether Thompson is the new Ronald Reagan or another Chauncey Gardner. He was right about one thing: He skipped the first half of Republican Death March to '08, and it so did not matter. Thompson didn't pay hard cash to grassroots get-a-lifers communing with the same seventeen Ames, Iowa, activists. There were no clandestine meetings with the South Carolina black ops guys who did in McCain back in 2000. Instead, Thompson smoked cigars at his Virginia home, played with his kids, and watched the field self-implode.

For all the talk of below-expectations fund-raising and staffing problems, Thompson's miscues dwarf the missteps of the guys already in the race. While Thompson was busy doing nothing, Rudy's South Carolina campaign manager was indicted for cocaine possession, his flighty wife fell victim to critical Vanity Fair and New York pieces, and New York firefighters called "fraud" on his 9/11 record. Romney's body guy was fired for impersonating a policeman, and he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to win an Iowa straw poll everyone has already forgotten. Meanwhile, McCain spent all his money, his campaign went into a coma, but might have done so early enough in the elongated process that he might regenerate again. The second tier? Still the second tier.

Sometimes, hard work spits in your face. Fallen presidential candidates watch The Fred Thompson Experience with awe and jealousy. "It seems the less he says, the higher his numbers go," marveled Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander on MSNBC. You can hear the bewilderment in Alexander's voice as he contemplates his 400 days on the road leading up to the 2000 presidential campaign that ended with zero delegates.

Of course, that doesn't mean that the candidacy of FDT, as his friends call him, won't flash and then piffle like the ratings of a Fox reality show. There's still a question of whether the Basset-Houndish Thompson can take ten-hour days, much less the eighteen-hour ones we expect from our candidates.

"A presidential campaign isn't an enterprise that rewards casualness, glibness, and off-hand jokes," says Jim Jordan who was one of John Kerry's campaign managers and now runs Chris Dodd's long-shot bid. "It rewards hard work and preparation and I don't think that's Thompson." So far, Thompson has spoken mostly in Matlock-tinged koans. During one of his elliptical appearances on Fox News, Sean Hannity asked Thompson whether "there has to be a certain destiny to becoming president of the United States." Thompson rambled for a bit before offering, "Certain doors have opened to me, from time to time in my life. I've not beaten down many of them, but oftentimes I walk through, and they've always worked out well." Hmm, not quite Jesus's footsteps-in-the-sand profound, but still, sounds deep!

Welcome to the country charm of Fred Thompson's choreographed accidental candidacy. Ask his buddies and they will tell you he's a modern Cincinnatus answering his country's call — just casting aside a Law & Order trailer instead of a plow. The key to Fred, they insist, is that he doesn't want it as badly as the other boys and girl. Each of the other candidates is ambition run amok: Hillary's Lady Macbeth, McCain sold out, Giuliani's been an autocrat since zygote, Barack "I was a state senator 32 months ago" Obama's more than a little nervy, and Romney's clearly avenging his ridiculed presidential candidate father.

Fred Thompson best exemplifies the Bush 2000 Postulate: If you pretend you don't need it, we might just give it to you.

Then again, those were simpler times.
Stephen Rodrick

Thompson Enters, Stage Right [Time]
Related: The Actor [NYM]
Earlier: The Fred Thompson Letters: 'Looking Forward to the Hamptons!"

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