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Fred Thompson's Revealing Announcement

Fred Thompson’s Tonight Show announcement for president last night had none of the drama of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Tonight Show announcement for governor of California four years ago. It could not have, for it’s been expected for months. But it was probably more revealing.

Thompson missed the latest of the Republican presidential debates, but those haven’t amounted to much and he impacted far more people with his Tonight Show/Internet video announcement than by going the traditional route.

While the parallel with Schwarzenegger was unmistakable — both actors, both announcing their candidacies on The Tonight Show — the differences were greater. Schwarzenegger, with whom I was in contact throughout the run-up to his candidacy, had made it plain he intended to run, if he could work certain things through. The rest of the press chose not to believe that, which irritated the action superstar at first but in the end made him quite happy. While I expected him to run, I didn’t know for sure that he would until the day before. I don’t know if host Jay Leno knew for certain that his old friend Schwarzenegger was running when he showed up at the Burbank Studio to tape the show, but some of what they did was worked out in advance, such as the famous gag with the sound going out the first time Schwarzenegger said what he would do. The Fred Thompson had none of those dynamics.

Superficially, however, it began in a familiar vein. With Leno in quipster mode in the monologue: “He has something major to announce. He’s either pregnant, gay, or running for president. Have you seen Fred’s wife? She’s beautiful, I think you can rule out the gay part. He got married when he was 17, which caused a huge scandal in his small town in Tennessee. Apparently, he chose to marry outside the family.” And so on.

When Thompson came on the set, Leno started out with a little humor: “You said you were testing the water in June. You’ve been in the water for a while now. Are you getting a little wrinkly?”

“These wrinkles,” replied Thompson, looking fit in a sharp black pin-striped suit with red tie, “don’t come from the water.” As for testing the water, “That’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. I’m running for president of the United States.”

“It took a long time to decide this,” Leno began.

“Not really,” said Thompson, interjecting a bit defensively. “We started mentioning it for the first time in March.” Thompson went on to talk about the other candidates starting much earlier than usual.

Intriguingly for a veteran performer, Thompson cleared his throat repeatedly in the beginning, and spoke fairly rapidly. When he speaks more slowly, his voice has a deeper timbre. More rapidly, it has less resonance, less of the air of casual authority that is his trademark.

“I don’t think people are going to say, you know, ‘That guy would make a very good president, but he just didn’t get in soon enough.'”

Leno held up the Newsweek cover on Thompson, with the header “Lazy Like A Fox,” and asked the former senator if he likes to campaign. “No, I like the part where you get out with the people,” said Thompson. He talked up his first U.S. Senate race, in 1994, in which he was running 20 points behind a popular Democrat before he ditched the suits and the campaign van with staff and switched to casual wear and driving around the state in a pickup truck. Thompson actually won two Senate races in Tennessee, a state which Bill Clinton carried twice, both times by 20-point margins, as he pointed out.

Leno noted that Thompson was getting some criticism for doing his show rather than appearing with the rest of the Republican field in New Hampshire. On the debates to date, Thompson said: “I don’t think much of ’em. I would do them in small groups, preferably one on one. A thoughtful discussion over a period of time to see what people are really like. Now, you’ve got 10 guys with 30 or 40-second sound bites. It’s not designed for the American people, it’s more designed for the people who put the debates on. I’ll do my share, but I don”t think it’s a very enlightening forum.”

Dispensing with any of the banter he’d had with his friend Arnold, Leno dove into Iraq, eliciting a hardline stay-the-course answer from the former Law & Order star.

“You got to remember what it’d be like if we’d not done what we did,” said Thompson. “Saddam would still be there, having defeated the United Nations and all its resolutions, continued its nuclear weapons program, putting people in human shredders and attacking their neighbors and in a nuclear competition with Iran sitting on all those oil reserves. We stay till we get the job done.”

And what, asked Leno, does it mean to get the job done?

“Until it is pacified enough for those people who walk through those lines with people shooting at them in some cases and voted for the first time in that part of the world,” replied Thompson. “Till they have the opportunity to have a free life and to not be killed by Al Qaeda and others fighting in that part of the world. I think that that’s do-able. I think it’s tough. But I think we can’t afford to go into a situation and not show resolve. I think the most dangerous thing in the world that could happen to the United States of America is for people to think, ‘well, we can divide her.'”

“There is a much bigger picture,” noted Thompson, “Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a global war going on and we are the main target. The enemy is ruthless, Al Qaeda, and it’s here. They are strong, they are trying to get their hands on nuclear weapons.

“If the wrong result happens in Iraq, and we’re perceived the wrong way by friends and enemies alike, it’s gonna make the situation more difficult and we’re gonna be more vulnerable. It’s a choice of two bad choices, it’s not a good and a bad.”

Leno then asked Thompson about Iran, wondering “where does it all end?”

“Iran is clearly responsible for more and more of our problems,” claimed Thompson. He went on to ascribe many of the problems in Iraq to Iran, saying that Iran backs Hezbollah and Hamas and is “probably planning another attack on Israel,” declaring that “they support terrorism all around the world.”

Leno asked Thompson what he would do about America being disliked around the world much more than in the past. “Part of that comes with America being the most powerful, most prosperous country in the history of the world. I think that goes with the territory. We’re more unpopular than we need to be, that’s for sure. But you know, our people have shed more blood for the liberty and freedom of other peoples than all the other countries put together. I don’t feel any need to apologize for the United States of America.

“We make mistakes,” said Thompson. “I think we can do some things better with regard to the global terrorist problem. All of the forces of civilization, the people who love freedom, need to understand that this is a battle between freedom and tyranny, worldwide. That the good guys need to be on one side.

Thompson said the key is better sharing of intelligence and coordination of military operations.

Leno, after absorbing this answer which didn’t particularly address his question, ended the interview, saying: “So, you’re off to Iowa tonight.” Which Thompson was. The first state on a week-long tour of early primary and caucus states.

So, what to make of this? I think the Republican race is very open. Rudy Giuliani is effective and resilient, far more so than most imagined. But he seems pretty much the same candidate from the first time I was around him during that his very big week in California in February. Mitt Romney is clever and has leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, but we’ll see what happens when other candidates actually start running ads, too. John McCain has seen his leadership position melt down twice this year. Another comeback will be very difficult. Of the others, only Mike Huckabee has shown movement in early state polls.

Fred Thompson I’ve met but don’t know. He’s a likable guy. I think in part because he’s always been a big man that he’s learned the knack of being authoritative without being overbearing, relaxed but focused. Plus he has a great voice, which didn’t come across at first during his Tonight Show appearance because he was speaking a bit too rapidly.

Politically, as you see from his answers in what most assumed would be a lightly comedic appearance, he is clearly running up the right sideline, promoting a notably Manichean world view. With Giuliani more moderate on social issues and generally less us vs. them and Romney having authenticity questions after his much more liberal time as a governor and U.S. Senate candidate in Massachusetts, there is probably a big opening there. Thompson has some of the questions Romney has as well, but far fewer.

Outside of politics I recall watching him on TV and in movies for 20 years. Of course part of that recollection is that he’s been in some of my favorite movies and shows. I remember him in Wiseguy, one of my favorite TV shows, when he played the white supremacist leader. The Los Angeles Times tried to make something of that, as if voters can’t grasp he was playing a character in a show. Then he was the CIA director in No Way Out, an early Kevin Costner breakthrough. And, of course, he was an admiral in The Hunt for Red October.

I watched that again recently, because of Thompson’s impending announcement and because of Sean Connery’s 77th birthday and retirement from acting. Thompson’s role is actually somewhat smaller than I remembered, but you recall it because of his manner and his delivery of a few key lines.

He’s not really a movie star, more a movie presence, but he is definitely a TV star. Of course a really big movie star in a political campaign can be overwhelming. Fred Thompson is a strong presence in Red October. Sean Connery is a blow-the-doors off presence. I can’t imagine someone like Connery running for public office. Even Arnold with his years of selling restaurants and fitness and all that was still way too hot at times early on, especially when he did his shakedown cruise for a future run in 2002, with his Proposition 49 after-school programs initiative.

Telling a conservative magazine writer that he has “a shitty body,” as Schwarzenegger did in that campaign, is generally not a good idea for an aspiring big-time politician. But that was Arnold. Really big movie stars have an air of danger about them, of mystery, be it physical, sexual, psychological. They’re compelling up on the big screen. But a regular diet can be too much.

Ronald Reagan was fortunate in that he was not a big movie star. There was nothing scary about his cinematic persona. And he had become a TV star, with Death Valley Days, well before he ran for public office.

TV stars we welcome into our living rooms on a weekly basis. They’re exciting, too, but they’re more comfortable and familiar, less threatening. Like Reagan, Thompson has that going for him. We’ll see if he has Reagan’s ability to crystallize his thoughts, to turn a phrase. If he does, he can be the Republican nominee.