The unhappy lessons of the Thompson campaign.
by Andrew Ferguson
The Weekly Standard
02/04/2008, Volume 013, Issue 20
In his recent memoir, Alan Greenspan says he's been pushing a constitutional amendment of his own devising. It reads: "Anyone willing to do what is required to become president of the United States is thereby barred from taking that office." If the Greenspan amendment is ever enacted, it will at last clear the field for Fred Thompson, who might then become president. But not until then.
Thompson withdrew from the presidential race last week. He ended his campaign as he had conducted it, with a minimum of fuss and no wasted words. He released a withdrawal statement over the Internet. It was three sentences long, and he hasn't been heard from since. My guess is we'll be missing him dreadfully by spring.
The charge against Thompson, who entered the campaign last September when polls showed him a favorite among Republican voters, was repeated so often it became a cliché. Like most clichés it tells us more about the people who used it than about the state of affairs it was supposed to describe. His campaign lacked "energy." He didn't get out enough on the campaign trail, and, when he did, he didn't hold enough events. His speaking style was too low-key, and his speeches were too long, and more often than not his "performance" in televised debates was lackluster. He just didn't have the fire in the belly.
Fire in the belly: For those of us who suffer from acid reflux, this is a phrase full of meaning. In the world of politics, however, the meaning is vaguer. William Safire's New Political Dictionary defines "fire in the belly" as "an unquenchable thirst for power or glory; the burning drive to win a race or achieve a goal." It's bad, apparently, not having fire in the belly. The premise seems to be that vein-popping ambition, unrestrained avidity, is a necessary if not sufficient quality for someone who wants to hold the highest political position in a democratic country. Thompson himself seemed puzzled by the phrase and the premise underlying it. He was asked about it at a town hall meeting in Burlington, Iowa, in late December.
"Nowadays, it's all about fire in the belly," he said, with a touch of sarcasm. "I'm not sure in the world we live in today it's a terribly good thing that a president has too much fire in his belly."
He pointed out that he'd made financial sacrifices to run for president--he quit his various high-paying jobs and went without income for nearly a year--which should, he said, demonstrate his earnestness about the task before him.
And yet: "I'm not consumed by this process. I'm not consumed with the notion of being president. I'm simply saying I'm willing to do what's necessary to achieve it, if I'm in synch with the people and if the people want me or somebody like me. . . . I'm only consumed by very, very few things and politics is not one of them."
Thompson didn't give off the usual political vibe: the gnawing need to please, the craving for the public's love. A few voters and journalists found this refreshing, many more found it insulting. Some just found it fascinating, in a clinical sort of way: What kind of politician isn't consumed by politics--and what kind of campaign would such a politician run? Well, now we know. If Thompson could plausibly avoid an overnight campaign trip, he did, preferring to return home to his wife and children in suburban Virginia. He spent an inordinate amount of time with his briefing books. And his response to the chore of raising money--the chief occupation of every office-seeker in this era of campaign finance reform, which was intended to reduce the role of money in politics--seemed nearly pathological. Fundraising events scheduled to last two or three hours often guttered out when the candidate departed after twenty minutes. High-end donors complained of being uncourted, unpampered, unloved--even unphoned. At one party in a private home last year, Thompson made the rounds of money-shakers, delivered brief remarks, and then slipped into a bedroom to watch a basketball game on TV by himself.
Having become famous as an actor in TV and movies, Thompson might have been expected to be a showman. But he was resolutely prosaic. Only with the greatest reluctance did he agree to a photograph with the Iowa State Fair's "Butter Cow," and when a fireman in Waverly asked him to wear a helmet, he said he didn't wear "silly hats." As the critics charged, his public speeches really were unusually long, even at drop-bys along the trail, because he insisted on mentioning details of his plans to recalibrate the benefit formulas for Social Security, inject private incentives into Medicare, and develop an optional, two-tiered flat tax. So nobody should have been surprised that when it came time to film his final pitch to voters before the Iowa caucuses, the broadcast speech ended up being 17 minutes long--Homeric by the standards of political ads. Crowds did not go wild.
Now, you can overstate the intellectual heft of a campaign that was launched by the candidate during an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He was a different kind of candidate but not an incompetent one. Indeed, his finest moment came in a debate before the Iowa caucuses, when the moderator asked the assembled candidates for a show of hands if they believed human activity caused climate change.
"Well, do you want to give me a minute to answer that?" Thompson said. When the moderator said she didn't, he said: "Well, then I'm not going to answer it. You want a show of hands, and I'm not going to give it to you."
The moderator looked as though Thompson had suddenly sprouted daffodils from his ears. So did his fellow candidates. After a stunned silence, they all courageously announced their refusal to show hands, too. They looked like the Little Rascals, hitching up their britches and flexing their biceps after Alfalfa clocked the neighborhood bully.
It's telling that his most notable moments were negative--marked by his refusal to follow some custom of the modern campaign. (From another debate: "Should government step in and help Chrysler and the other auto makers?" Thompson: "No.") Asked about education reform, he said: "It would be easy enough for someone running for president to say: I have a several-point plan to fix our education problem. It's not going to happen. And it shouldn't happen from the Oval Office." When journalists and candidates, with their typically childlike enthusiasm, suddenly began gumming the word "change" after the Iowa caucuses, Thompson pointed out the obvious: "Change has been part of every election since the dawn of elections, if you weren't an incumbent." He noted how easy it was "to demagogue" the issue of federal spending by dwelling on relatively insignificant earmarks: "All these programs that we talk about in the news every day are a thimbleful in the ocean compared to the entitlement tsunami that's coming to hit us."
Views like these might have earned another candidate a reputation for "straight talk"--maybe even the title of "maverick." But Thompson was more subversive than that; he was an existential maverick, and his campaign was an implicit rebuke to the system in its entirety. He was a man out of his time. With its reduced metabolism and procedural modesty, his campaign still might have served as an illustration of what politics once was like and--if we have the audacity to hope--might be again. After all, by the standards of a century ago, Thompson was a whirligig.
Political campaigns have always been boisterous affairs, but candidates themselves rarely took center stage till well into the 20th century. The first presidential candidate even to make an appearance on his own behalf was William Henry Harrison in 1840. When he showed up in Columbus, Ohio, to give a speech extolling his (exceedingly thin) record, the political world was scandalized. An opposition paper, the Democratic Globe, counted his uses of the pronoun "I"--there were 81 of them in his text--and pronounced the speech "a prodigy of garrulous egotism." The Cleveland Adviser, a nonpartisan paper, asked: "When was there ever before such a spectacle as a candidate for the Presidency, traversing the country advocating his own claims for that high and responsible station? Never!"
"The precedent thus set by Harrison," concluded the Adviser's editorialist, "appears to us a bad one."
But it wasn't much of a precedent. Active campaigning didn't catch on for another half century or more. (The exception was Stephen A. Douglas in 1860, the only one of the four presidential candidates that year to leave town to deliver a speech.) Candidates stayed home, receiving visitors and maintaining a quiet dignity while occasionally uncorking a speech in the neighborhood so the newspapers had something to report. Meanwhile surrogates scattered around the country, leading parades, holding rallies, and telling lies for which the candidates themselves couldn't be held responsible. Even the appalling Theodore Roosevelt, who would smooch babies at a train wreck if he thought it would get him votes, managed to contain himself and keep off the hustings when he ran for reelection in 1904. Eventually barnstorming became marginally acceptable, but only as the last recourse of candidates who, like Harry Truman in 1948, were so far behind they could risk looking desperate and undignified.
As late as the 1970s, the constant motion that modern presidential candidates subject themselves to was still of recent enough vintage that Nelson Polsby and Aaron Wildavsky, in their great book Presidential Elections, felt the need to account for it. "Everybody does it because it is the fashion," they wrote, "and the spectacle of seeing one's opponent run around the country at a furious pace without following suit is too nerve-wracking [for a candidate] to contemplate. It is beside the point that no one knows whether all this does any good."
The traditional restraint of old-time presidential candidates wasn't arrogance or sanctimoniousness, the twin accusations that wised-up politicos made against Thompson during the campaign. There was a philosophical component to it too: By not seeming overeager--no matter how eager they were--candidates paid tribute to the democratic idea that political power is best sought, taken on, and used reluctantly. It was also a matter of seemliness, and Thompson, alone among recent candidates, felt its pull. In his stump speech he often mentioned George Washington, once a staple of political rhetoric for his willingness to walk away from the power that was thrust upon him. Today Washington's restraint seems nothing more than an archaism. And by extolling it Thompson sounded merely odd.
"If people really want in their president a super type-A personality," Thompson said at that Iowa town hall meeting, "someone who has gotten up every morning and gone to bed every night thinking for years about how they could achieve the presidency of the United States, someone who could look you straight in the eye and say they enjoy every minute of campaigning--I ain't that guy."
But does "super type-A personality" really describe the kind of person who runs for president nowadays? It's not pleasant to think of the life they lead, these Americans who would be president, from the first hints of dawn to well past midnight, this life of endless demands, this succession of superficial sociability, in which you smile and smile and pop your eyes wide open in delighted wonder at the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of faces and places that circles before you, and you haven't the time or leisure to settle on a single one. Charming countryside, pretty little towns, sprawling centers of commerce and industry fly by and you haven't a moment to enjoy them or learn their tales. You rush to meet hundreds of people a day and never have a meaningful exchange of words with any of them.
From the backseats of freezing cars and vans you're hustled into overheated coffee shops and those packed school gymnasiums with the stink rising to the rafters and then the oppressive hush of corporate meeting rooms, where your nose starts to run and a film of sweat forms under your wool pullover, and you press the outstretched hands that carry every bacterial pathogen known to epidemiology. You open your mouth and you release the same cloud of words you recited yesterday and the day before. And in the Q&A, when you stop to listen, you hear the same questions and complaints from yesterday, the same mewling and blame-shifting, all imploring you to do the impossible and through some undefined action make the lives of these unhappy citizens somehow edifying, uplifting, and worth living. And you always promise you will do that; you have no choice but to tell this kind of lie.
There's no rest, because there's not a moment to waste: The handful of minutes away from the kaleidoscope are spent chatting with the scorpions of the press, the ill-dressed, ill-mannered reporters from the prints and the pretty, preening peacocks of TV, each of them either a know-it-all or a cynic or a dope, take your pick, and each of whom, for professional and other reasons, will deploy all his energies and cleverness to the task of trapping you into a misstatement or ungenerous remark or expression of irritation so he can convey to his editors and the world that--at last!--you've made a gaffe; and if you won't make a gaffe then he will convey to his editors and the world how "scripted" and "over rehearsed" you sound; kind of slick, almost robotic, inauthentic.
When the scorps are dismissed, in the seconds before you pass from the freezing van to the overheated gym or boardroom, a sycophant whose name you can't remember hands you a cell phone that connects you to a rich man whose face you dimly recall from another boardroom last summer and you beg him to give you money, or more often--considering the grinding pressure you feel for cash, always for cash--you beg him to assemble a circle of other rich men that he can beg on your behalf, and when you sign off you don't have time to be grateful. There will be more calls before dinner and after dinner, and dinner is a cold thigh of chicken in a sump of clotted gravy served from a steam table in a freezing cinderblock banquet room at the Lions Club, and a hundred pairs of eyes fix themselves on you--a celebrity, someone they've seen on TV--as you dribble the gravy on your shirtfront. And after you release the same words and hear the same complaints you go to bed in a Hampton Suites for five hours of sleep on starchy sheets with dimly visible stains whose origins are impossible to discern, and from the corner the digital display on the microwave flashes 12:00 12:00 12:00 . . .
And you do all this so you can wake up the next morning and do it again. Because you like it.
The man or woman who seeks out such a life and enjoys its discomforts is not normal. Not crazy necessarily, but not normal, and probably, when the chips are down, not to be trusted, especially when the purpose of it all is to acquire power over other people (also called, in the delicate language of contemporary politics, "public service" or "getting things done on behalf of the American people"). The case is made, in defense of the contemporary campaign, that this is an efficient if unlovely way to choose leaders: It winnows out those who lack the stamina and discipline necessary to lead a rich, large, powerful, and complicated country. By this argument, Thompson failed because he deserved to.
But the opposite case is easier to make--that the modern campaign excludes anyone who lacks the narcissism, cold-bloodedness, and unreflective nature that the process requires and rewards. In his memoir -Greenspan remarks that of the seven presidents he has known well, the only one who was "close to normal" was Jerry Ford. And, as Greenspan points out, Ford was never elected.
Fred Thompson probably feels terrible at the moment, but he should be honored to be in Ford's company.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.