I was Fred Thompson’s first hire. In fact, I moved from ABC Radio, where I worked with him on the Paul Harvey show, first into the exploratory committee and then the campaign proper. When the campaign turned its focus and limited resources to the mechanics of traditional primary politics, my role ended.
FDT’s decision to drop out of the race at this point is entirely logical. It is, nevertheless, truly depressing.
This is a particular moment in history. After a brief respite, during which it appeared that the dangers posed by imperialistic totalitarian ideologies had abated, we are facing more seriously deranged enemies than ever. This time, however, they have billions in petrodollars and at least the possibility of acquiring nuclear or biological weapons.
Here on this island where I live, just off the West Coast of Florida, we regularly have high-speed boats land dozens of foreign nationals on our beaches — having totally avoided our Coast Guard and other so-called defenses. Boats this big and powerful are capable of delivering to any coastal city in America even conventional nuclear weapons. Truly miniaturized weapons, if they exist, could be carried on foot across the border into even Chicago, Washington D.C. or Las Vegas. The possibility that one of the petro-rich madmen who has promised to see America destroyed is thinking right now about finding a way to give some suicidal terrorist group an untraceable nuclear weapon is, in my opinion, too great a danger to ignore.
FDT clearly understands this. Just as critically, he also understands that our own government represents a danger in and of itself. More than any other candidate, I think he presented the best chance of keeping the beast quick and strong enough to deter our enemies but fully in check. His Federalist insistence on the separation of powers and decentralized governance irritated big government types from both parties, but it would have provided a non-partisan and tolerant middle path at a time of vicious partisanship. He also made it clear that he understands that the national debt and uncontrolled spending are just as existential a threat as nuclear terrorism.
So what happened?
In retrospect, I suspect that the critics who said he started too late were right, though not for the reasons that most posited. Fred was correct when he quipped on Leno that the American people would not hold it against him that he waited a few months to officially declare. Everybody I know, however, underestimated how important it is to have political allies lined up ahead of time.
Most of the leading candidates were working behind the scenes for years, making unofficial deals with the people in every state who know how to wield influence and mobilize the rank and file. Fred, on the other hand, honestly never lusted for the power of the presidency. He agreed, upon significant urging, to run because he believed it was the right thing to do for his children and the country. Politics, however, apparently requires more.
I spoke with a good friend of mine here in Florida who controls one of the state’s most sought-after forums for candidates. An experienced political veteran, he tells me that the value of staff, both paid and volunteer, is demonstrated in the wake of a candidate’s appearance. Both Mitt Romney and FDT have appeared at this venue, and they both generated considerable enthusiasm and interest among local politicians and activists. Romney’s organization was prepared to harvest the excitement he generated, having spent years forming a national organization capable of doing so. The buzz that FDT created was just as great if not greater, but the organization he put together so late in the game was not on the ground to take advantage of the good will he created for himself.
The consensus of GOP insiders in Florida seems to be that it may have been impossible for Fred to create that organization so late in the game. Romney, Giuliani and McCain had already cherry-picked the best and the brightest; especially Romney. I’ve heard from people who had committed to other candidates well in advance of the campaigns but deeply regretted not having been able to join the Thompson Team without breaking promises. Ultimately, I think, this disadvantage proved to be insurmountable.
Certainly, one can argue that he might have overcome that disadvantage if he had done things differently. In theory, at least, I agree. In practice, however, I think that he was battling other and formidable disadvantages.
One was anti-Southern prejudice that I found particularly distressing. I’m not, y’all, actually Southern, having been raised in the linguistically neutral Northwest, but I was surprised by the sniping from our side at Fred based on his sincere and gentlemanly Southern manners. Several important conservative bloggers, including some here at Pajamas, made repeated jokes about his language and style as if they are affectations. They are not. The problem, though, is larger and there is a Northern prejudice that interprets the slower, deliberative Southern style as just dim.
I also think that the political classes, including conservatives, managed to marginalize Fred’s wife, Jeri Thompson. Jeri is extraordinarily astute and created some of the RNC policy shop’s most effective new media strategies in her day, which came well after she had already built a noteworthy and trail-blazing career as a woman at the corporate level for Coldwell Banker in Chicago. By making her an issue and blaming on her the problems that came from late entry to the race, they kept her out of the fray where she would have been extremely effective — as we began to see late in the campaign.
FDT is a brilliant and compassionate conservative, able to recognize both the dangers of a government unable to protect Americans from our enemies and the dangers of a government that can rob its citizens of their civil liberties. He was the only authentic heir to the Reagan tradition in the race, though I still hold out hope for one or two of the remaining candidates.
My editors here are asking for some copy so let me finish up by saying that FDT’s campaign was immensely good for the country. He reminded the movement what it was about, and his consistent principled standards will remain a part of the debate.
Moreover, his constitutional and moral bone fides are better known and admired by those who matter than ever before. Personally, I’m hoping that he does not accept one of the political appointments, which he shall surely be offered. Ultimately, the reason that his ideas couldn’t overcome the advantages of organization is that ideas still do not count for as much as they should in the 21st century. Fred, however, is in a better position today to spread and explain those ideas than he ever has been; sort of a Newt Gingrich without the baggage.
His clout and connections in Hollywood put him in a unique and valuable position. If the good Senator chooses to do so, he can do for the entertainment business what Rupert Murdoch did for television news. Just as a monolithic leftist media bias opened a hugely profitable door for Murdoch to walk through, Fred Thompson can use the door created by a a leftist and exclusionary Hollywood. In the end, he may be able to use his increased respect and visibility to create a pro-freedom, pro-American studio that teaches the principles of the Enlightenment not just to Americans but to the world. If he does, he may actually accomplish more than a Thompson presidency could have.