The Unbearable Lightness of Fred

The Big Voice announces for president.


No one noticed the wince. If they did, no one wanted to talk about it, because Fred Thompson's campaign staff (which still exists, the fresh exodus of three top staffers aside) had set up his presidential launch on The Tonight Show so deftly. This was history, and when history's being made you can forgive Jay Leno's dying-man groping for punchlines or a 10-minute giggle-proof lead-in segment where burly housewives and shirtless yokels bumped, grinded and cross-dressed to Rihanna tunes. Sweat it out. You'll want to tell your grandkids about the night you watched Fred Thompson begin his quest for the White House.

You'll ignore that, in doing so, he looked utterly bored and uncomfortable. He bantered with Leno for a little while ("How's the water?" "Nice and warm.") and lumbered with a brontosaurus' velocity to his big moment.

"We're, uh, right where we need to be right now," he said, raising his eyebrows. "That's one of the things I wanted to talk to you about." It was uncomfortable, doing this sitting parallel to a desk, thighs splayed out, craning his neck over at Leno, so he turned to the audience, camera right. "I'm runnin' for President of the United States."

Wince. Thompson pursed his lips, his great jowls flapping like opera house curtains. The audience was in the palm of his hand and he didn't crack a smile. He just nodded regally in their direction and bobbed his head. "Thank yeeeww."

And Leno applauded like a vaudeville tramp. "Wow! Very excited."

Yes, it would have been exciting if the movie star at the center of all this had only looked excited. Why did he have such a sober, hang-dog mug? It looked for a little while like he wasn't actually enjoying himself. He was forgoing millions of dollars of radio commentary lucre, after all, and passing a safe role on Law and Order to the pencil-necked Sam Waterston.

But he was enjoying himself. The sourness and the shrug were just Fred Thompson's idea of looking serious. He couldn't just enter the race with a smile. When he bears teeth he looks like an Edward Gorey ghoul, sure, but more importantly, when he smiles he looks like he's running for fun. He can't do that. Thompson needs to pretend that he running by the grace of God, that history's heavy mantle has descended on him and, because he loves his country so, he is going to grab onto that mantle and allow us to make him our president. That tingling feeling in your frontal lobe? That's gratitude.

When Thompson made his first run for the Senate in 1994 he rented a 1990 red Chevy pick-up truck, raided Lamar Alexander's wardrobe for plaid shirts, and stumped the state as if he were hawking moonshine. That campaign's been called phony, which it was, and the model for his current campaign, which it wasn't. Thompson's old schtick was prefab small "p" populism. He told the story of a good old boy of modest, Dickensian (this was a time before John Edwards) means who wanted to scare the Washington crowd right out of their Gucci loafers.

This wasn't true for Thompson: He was already rich in 1994, and he owned at least one pair of Gucci loafers. (He still does.) But it rang true because there are everyman candidates who charm their way into Congress with a mess of aw-shucks stumpin' and speechifyin'. Just this year, a doctor and gadfly candidate named Paul Broun won a congressional seat from Georgia over a Republican state senator with everyone on his side: the state party, the widow of the congressman whose unexpected rendezvous with Jesus opened the seat up in the first place.

The angry, outsider populist comes to Washington with two questions to answer: What's wrong with you idiots and why are you still here? And when that was Thompson's political strategy, he did all right for himself. Senator Thompson was a playboy who didn't work too hard and walked in a state of constant wonder at how badly the federal government seemed to screw everything up.

He didn't excel in the Senate, but at least he believed his own guff. Tasked to run the committee that investigated Bill Clinton's re-election fund-raising scandals, Thompson belittled fellow Republicans who wanted to bring down Clinton's presidency. ("Jesus Christ!" he said when New Hampshire's Bob Smith called Clinton's dealings "probably the biggest scandal in the history of the Republic.") The hearings collapsed partly because wiley Democrats rolled the big guy, and partly because he never much believed in the investigations anyway.

But that was Senator Thompson: Defeated by Washington and just smart enough to know it. In 2001, quickly losing interest in his Senate career, Thompson and a gaggle of Senate researchers produced "Government on the Brink." (PDF) It's the rare government report that sounds like a reason article, not coincidentally because it quotes from reason contributor Jonathan Rauch and the analysis that fed his book Government's End. Its basic conclusion: We're in trouble, folks, and I don't know quite what to do about it.

In "Government on the Brink," Thompson brings together a hodgepodge of gloomy stats about federal government waste, bureaucratic bungling, programs gone wrong: the sort of things he'd fretted about the first time he clutched his Chevy's steering wheel. And he suggests cutting the fat, firing bureaucrats, shutting down departments and turning them into skating rinks? Not really. "Obviously," the report said, "the government must improve its recruiting and hiring processes…fundamentally, they must find ways to get good people to want to work for the federal government."

With that, we've spent more time pondering Thompson's previous political career than the man himself does. As the Norman Hsu scandal burned up, he remained mum about his own gumshoeing about shady Asian financiers. "Government on the Brink" is plugged in his 15-minute campaign launch video, but not with much detail: "I led an investigation and held hearings on the failure and shortcomings of our government….It outlined these deficiencies and made recommendations to cut waste and save billions."

So how does Thompson reinvent himself as the serious candidate, the man who can actually solve the problems he used to dance away from? Actually, he doesn't. He plays at it with a wince and a dash of pretension, but so far it's clashing like a bad skin graft. When he moans to Jay Leno about the need for new Lincoln-Douglas debates—"thoughtful discussion over a period of time to get to know what people are really thinking and what they're really like"—he follows it up with cant. On Iran:

So we've got to take that situation very seriously, but obviously a military attack is the last thing in the world that you want to have to do, and there's some things that we can do that probably will not necessitate that.

On terrorism:

I think part of what we've got to do with regard to the global terrorist problem I talked about is for all the forces of civilization, all of our friends and people who love freedom need to understand that this is a battle against freedom and tyranny worldwide, that the good guys need to be on one side.

On Social Security—keeping in mind he used to support Social Security privatization:

Bipartisan leadership must address this issue as part of a national conversation, remembering that those yet to be born also have a seat at the table.

He can set his jaw and wince all he likes, but this isn't someone who's torn up over the serious issues. It's the speech of someone who gets that a presidential candidate should, you know, probably sound and look serious.

The rationale for Thompson's run has been refreshingly phony: It's all about his looks, his voice, his personality. His backers have confused all of that with leadership, and Thompson, like the worst actor, is starting to believe his reviews. That's a mistake. The point of Fred Thompson is that he was never serious.

David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.