Tulip mania gripped Holland in the 1630s. Prices soared, speculation raged, bulbs promising especially exotic or intense colors became the objects of such frenzied bidding that some changed hands 10 times in a day. Then, suddenly, the spell was broken, the market crashed—prices plummeted in some cases to one one-hundredth of what they had been just days before. And when Reason was restored to her throne, no one could explain what the excitement had been about. Speaking of Fred Thompson ...
Some say he is the Republicans' Rorschach test: They all see in him what they crave. Or he might be the Republicans' dot-com bubble, the result of restless political investors seeking value that the untutored eye might not discern and that might be difficult to quantify but which the investors are sure must be there, somewhere, somehow.
One does not want to be unfair to Thompson, who may have hidden depths. But ask yourself this: If he did not look like a basset hound who had just read a sad story—say, "Old Yeller"—and if he did not talk like central casting's idea of the god Sincerity, would anyone think he ought to be entrusted with the nation's nuclear arsenal? He is an actor, and, as a Hollywood axiom says, the key to acting is sincerity—if you can fake that, you've got it made.
This is, of course, all about another actor. Republicans have scrutinized the current crop of presidential candidates and succumbed to the psychosomatic disease Reagan Deprivation. It is, however, odd that many Republicans who advertise their admiration for Reagan are so ready to describe Thompson as Reaganesque because he ... what?
Because he, too, is a Great Communicator? Reagan greatly communicated ideas and agendas. What Thompson enthusiasts are smitten by, so far, is his manner. His deep-fried Southernness bears a strong resemblance to the Southwesternness of, say, Midland, Texas, and the country may have had its fill of that flavor. Thompson, a longtime lawyer-lobbyist who will run as a Washington "outsider," lives inside the Beltway, but outside Washington, in McLean, Va.
In their haste to anoint Thompson as another Reagan, the anointers are on the verge of endorsing what Reagan's disdainers have long argued—that Reagan was 99 percent charm and 1 percent substance. In 1968, when Reagan was 57, one of his disparagers, Norman Mailer, wrote that Reagan radiated a "very young, boyish, maybe thirteen or fourteen, freckles, cowlick, I-tripped-on-my-sneaker-lace aw shucks variety of confusion." This style of dismissal was common then, before Reagan spent another 14 successful years in demanding executive offices and before the publication of his letters and pre-presidential broadcasts. Since then, Reagan has undergone what Alistair Cooke, speaking of someone else, called "the four stages of the highbrow treatment: first, he was derided, then ignored, then accepted, then discovered." So far, Thompson is 99 percent charm.
When the resolutely uncharming John McCain ran in 2000, only four of his Senate colleagues supported him. Thompson was one. Today Thompson is John McCain without McCain's heroism, Vesuvian temper and support for the current immigration legislation. Although Thompson presents himself as a strict constitutionalist and an advocate of limited government, he voted for, and still supports, the McCain-Feingold law, which empowers the government to regulate the quantity, content and timing of speech about government.
Because this campaign started so early, it may be shrewd for Thompson to bide his time until his rivals seem stale, and then stride onstage. But once there, the latecomer should have some distinctive ideas he thinks will elevate the debate. In a recent speech, Thompson expressed a truly distinctive idea about immigration. Referring to the 1986 amnesty measure that Reagan signed into law, he said: "Twelve million illegal immigrants later, we are now living in a nation that is beset by people who are suicidal maniacs and want to kill countless innocent men, women and children around the world."
Kids, do not try to deconstruct that thought at home; this is a task for professionals. Thompson seemed to be saying that the suicidal maniacs besetting us are among us—are among the 12 million. And that although the maniacs are here, they want to kill innocents elsewhere ("around the world"), too.
Well, Reagan, too, had his rhetorical pratfalls, and Thompson, a former prosecutor, must know how to sift evidence and formulate arguments. But as Thompson ambles toward running, he is burdened by a reputation for a less-than-strenuous approach to public life, and that opaque thought he voiced about immigration looks suspiciously symptomatic of a mind undisciplined by steady engagement with complexities. If so, a sound you may soon hear from the Thompson campaign may be the soft "pop" of a bursting bubble.