Thompson — the first Zen master to run for president

It’s been a great week for Fred Thompson, with the National Right To Life Committee endorsement coming right as Rudy Giuliani’s honeymoon is cut short by his old friend’s sleazy indictment. But when it comes to the Hollywood actor-turned-late-campaign-bloomer, still second in some national polls, you have to ask just what exactly does good news mean to Big Fred?

The heavyweight pro-life seal of approval, which is not only the biggest moment yet for the Thompson campaign but is one of the most critical endorsements of the entire GOP primary process, was released with impeccable timing for Thompson, directly after Giuliani’s nod from Christian High Commander Pat Robertson. Yet it didn’t inspire much enthusiasm or even relief from the former senator from Tennessee. “I just think that it would mean that those who look at these matters the most and consider them the most carefully know my record and know me and would be supportive of me,” he said.

ADVERTISEMENT
Perhaps he momentarily forgot that fellow candidate Gov. Mike Huckabee’s anti-abortion position is as strong as his, if not stronger, and that unlike Thompson, Huckabee never did lobbying work on behalf of an abortion rights group. Or perhaps for Thompson, gratitude and politics don’t mix.

Is Fred Thompson, who some hoped would be the second coming of Ronald Reagan, the first Zen master of presidential politics who can authentically combine confidence with resignation? Some days from the look on his face you might think he’s been taken hostage. Compared to the rest of the field, his trips are fewer, his remarks shorter and his exuberance on the trail, well, it’s in check. He created a go-down-in-campaign-history moment recently by having to ask a small audience for applause in Iowa. And of course there has been little interruption to the constant stream of bad stories about the inner sanctum at Team Fred, the former coffee klatch that was once so small and spontaneous but is now an official, wildly dysfunctional presidential campaign.

But to the “so be it” candidate, the exact words he has uttered numerous times when asked about the final outcome, it’s all good. He’s doing things his way. Thompson’s running as a common-sense conservative, despite the fact that his feisty federalism tends to get in the way of conservative voters opening their collective arms to him. And unlike Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, Thompson is running as a non flip-flopper. Recently he said he likes having a record to run on because, “people know where you stand ... and then it’s in the hands of the Lord and the people, and that’s exactly the way it ought to be, and that will satisfy me.”

There is something so attractive about that cool-cat routine; it’s great that Thompson isn’t drooling over the presidency. It’s as if Fred has the big picture and sees more from up there at 6-foot-6 than Mitt or Rudy ever could down here. Or he doesn’t care, but that’s the point — we don’t know what he’s thinking. Fred is that guy (or girl) in high school that just wasn’t that interested in us, no matter how hard we tried to ignore him.

Ah. Would that Thompson’s distance from the ludicrous game of presidential primary sweepstakes actually represent maturity, independence and more concern for solutions than political power, we could all throw our support behind him today. Don’t we crave someone who gets the joke, refuses to be trapped by formulas, and can’t fake it through the begging and buttering-up required to land the job of Most Powerful Person in the world?

Unfortunately wrapped inside the vulgar packaging of would-be presidents must exist some leadership that Thompson hasn’t exhibited. It doesn’t come just from policy initiatives but is apparent to voters who watch and listen closely to the candidates. They know in a strange way there is leadership in actually wanting the job. Being president is the ultimate thankless job — a minefield of bad surprises and grind of steady criticism. A reluctant candidate, or the person whose candidacy was someone else’s idea, is simply not ready to take the pain. Just ask George W. Bush.

To his credit, while he lacks the lust his rivals bring to the table, Thompson’s no lightweight. This week he proposed a comprehensive military expansion and has also dared to push for tax code overhauls to address toxic political problems like Social Security and Medicare. Bold though he may be, he doesn’t always have a way with words. He recently offered up this sentence about his willingness to occasionally journey the road less traveled, which he thinks makes him a “credible” candidate: “That I’m not just coming up with sound bites that sound good to people that are safe and then plan on doing something else once I get in.”

It’s hard to imagine Thompson “in” the White House. And it’s hard to imagine if Thompson is really trying to be our next president, or if he is counting the days until he withdraws and, I predict, endorses Sen. John McCain. Even he may not know, but as of a few days ago he was insisting to ABC News, “Not to brag, but I’m the only so-called front-tier running nationwide here that’s never lost an election and I don’t intend to lose this one either!”

So be it.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill and a regular contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog.