Saturday, April 14, 2007

Meet the 800 Pound Gorilla

Great profile of Fred Thompson by Stephen Hayes. Thompson comes across as almost too good to be true: a recognizable, non-threatening, self-assured, Presidential, conservative from humble beginnings, whose comfortable in front of a camera and not 'from Washington.' A few highlights:

Over the next two decades, Thompson would appear in dozens of films and television shows as a character actor, often one who personifies government strength. It is a role that seems to fit. "Literally, I don't think Fred ever acts," says Tom Ingram, a longtime friend from Tennessee who now serves as chief of staff to Senator Lamar Alexander. "He played himself in Marie, and he's been playing himself ever since."

There's a key. People don't know Fred Thompson; they know the roles he plays. You have to suspect that since he's played the same character over and over, that that's what you'll see if exposed to him frequently over the course of a campaign. But it's nice to hear that from someone who knows him.

Thompson ran on a strong small-government--even antigovernment--message. "America's government is bringing America down, and the only thing that can change that is a return to the basics," he said. "We will get back to basics and make the sacrifices and once again amaze the world at how, in America, ordinary people can do very extraordinary things." Thompson emphasized issues that would appeal to disaffected voters--making laws apply to the members of Congress who pass them; congressional pay raises; entitlement reform.

This message doesn't even need much fine-tuning for use this year and next...

In his final months in the Senate, Thompson concentrated his efforts on legislation that would create the Department of Homeland Security. He fought efforts by Democrats to subject the new workforce to union and collective bargaining rules that apply to federal employees more broadly. The bill passed two weeks after the 2002 midterm elections, on a vote of 90-9.

"This is the most significant thing I've been involved in and certainly the most significant thing I've had my name on because it involves the main function of government, and that is protecting its citizens."

More than four years later, munching on a turkey sandwich and sour cream and onion potato chips at his dining room table, he displays an unusual willingness to second-guess his own decision. After Thompson criticized the growth of bureaucracy under the new director of national intelligence, I asked him why the new bureaucracy under Department of Homeland Security is any different.

"Well, to tell you the truth, in retrospect, we may conclude that it wasn't any different. But it got to the point where almost anything would have been an improvement," he says. "A lot of those agencies were in and of themselves dysfunctional, so bringing them together was not going to make everybody greater. . . . But you've got to start somewhere and you can't wait until everything is just right until you start coordinating. So we were kind of jumping aboard a moving train."

It was an admirably honest appraisal of what he once pointed to as the crowning achievement of his career in Congress. As we spoke, I was struck by the fact that Thompson didn't seem to be calibrating his answers for a presidential run. On issue after contentious issue, I got the sense from both his manner and the answers he gave me that he was just speaking extemporaneously. Many of his answers would drive a poll-watching political consultant nuts.

My suspicions were confirmed when Thompson asked at one point if he could have a transcript of our interview. "I found myself talking on some subjects that I haven't really thought that much about," he explained. "Oh, so this is what I think, huh?"

Thompson addresses issues candidly and without talking points. He tells you what he really things: a genuine straight talker. Better still - he seems like a straight talker!

It sure seems like Thompson has decided to get in, and now all that awaits is the announcement. And once he does get in, he seems like he'll be awfully strong. I have to think that given his attractiveness and his strong conservative record, he could crowd out Romney and McCain very quickly - leaving essentially a two-man race with Giuliani. His record will be pretty thoroughly scrubbed, but if nothing untoward emerges, you have to think he will be a very strong candidate in the general election.

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