For hard-core political junkies, few pleasures compare to those afforded by the official release of presidential fund-raising numbers. Here we have an opportunity to indulge in an orgy of the picayune (How much does Hillary Clinton pay Mark Penn? How much has John McCain spent on flowers?) and also to speculate feverishly about what the buck-raking totals mean for the future of the race. And yet, last week, when the numbers came out, I found myself thinking less about their implications for the crop of announced aspirants than about what they might portend for a pair of current sideline-dwellers—two men whose much-mooted entry into the fray would, as they say, change everything.
The men in question, you might have guessed, are Fred Thompson and Al Gore, both Tennesseans whose political histories are intertwined. It was Gore’s elevation to the vice-presidency that opened up the Senate seat that Thompson claimed in 1994. And it was Thompson who later led the (largely futile) investigation of Clintonian campaign-fund-raising misdeeds, in which Gore, with his cash-trawling trip to a Buddhist temple, had an infamous part. Now, after restorative stints in private life—Thompson focusing on his work as a screen actor and Gore on his as a global-warming Jeremiah—both are hovering in the wings, being begged by advisers and acolytes to take center stage again.
The most fervent pleading appears to be directed at Thompson. Until early last month, his name was rarely mentioned as a conceivable candidate, but then he turned up on Fox News Sunday and declared that he was giving a run “serious consideration.” Suddenly, a Thompson boomlet was inflating faster than the body count in Iraq. In polls of Republican-primary voters, he vaulted instantly into third place; and by early April, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey put him in second, behind Rudy Giuliani but ahead of the foundering McCain. Meanwhile, Thompson has stoked the flames: meeting last week with dozens of House Republicans, heading to California next month to speak at a splashy GOP rah-rah dinner—and possibly to schmooze Jay Leno. (Stop the presses!)
Thompson’s rapid ascent in the polls owes much to his celebrity. For the past four years, he has played the hangdog, hard-line prosecutor Arthur Branch on Law & Order and any number of its offspring. His film résumé is long, if unvaried, studded with roles that are mostly variations on one theme: grave authority. (He has played a president, a White House chief of staff, a CIA director, an FBI director, and a wide array of military officers.) Before he began to dabble in acting, Thompson was a lawyer—he served as the minority counsel to the Senate Watergate committee—and his account of his movie and television career has always been charmingly self-deprecating. “When they needed some middle-aged guy who worked cheap, they’d call me,” he once told Sam Donaldson.
Thompson’s thespianism often earns him comparisons to Ronald Reagan—and, as anyone who witnessed up close his 1994 Senate race (as I did) knows, he’s a similarly gifted politician. In that campaign, Thompson’s challenger, Jim Cooper, was a popular conservative Democratic congressman who led the race by nearly twenty points in the early going. But Thompson came up with a genius gimmick: driving around the state in a red pickup truck, delivering speeches from the flatbed in which he assailed his opponent as an elitist who had “never seen the inside of a pickup.” Thompson ultimately won with a staggering 61 percent of the vote.
Critics point out that Thompson’s aw-shucks, shit-kicker populism is more than a little bit phony. That he spent eighteen years as a registered Washington lobbyist, doing the bidding of such high-powered clients as General Electric and Westinghouse, pushing for the passage of the deregulatory legislation that led to the savings-and-loan crisis of the eighties. They note that as a bachelor senator, Thompson developed a reputation for being lazy—for spending more time chasing skirts around the capital than crafting legislation. (“Really lovely women just seem to like Fred,” Senator Orrin Hatch remarked memorably years ago.)
Thompson’s friends say that his skirt-chasing days are behind him. (He’s married now to his second wife, who, according to columnist Robert Novak, is urging him to run.) And heaven knows that faux populism, convincingly executed, has never hurt anyone with the Republican-primary electorate. What matters instead to that electorate is that Thompson is a real-deal conservative. And while his record here isn’t quite spotless—his support of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, in particular, rankles the right—it’s pretty freaking close. He has declared himself to be ardently pro-life and adamantly anti–gun control, and he’s one of the louder proponents of the notion that George W. Bush should (must) pardon Scooter Libby.