COLUMBIA, S.C. — "I'm sad for my Dad," Tony Thompson was saying after plopping down in a booth at the bar of the downtown Hilton. I had been sitting there with Howie Morgan, a sometime campaign hand in Tennessee Republican campaigns and a supporter this time around of Mike Huckabee, who had just finished second to the now fully resurgent John McCain in the South Carolina Republican primary. Having spotted Thompson earlier on a cell phone outside the hotel, I had asked him to join us.
It was only about 10 o'clock on Saturday night, but Tony's party was clearly over. The amiable Nashville-based lobbyist was just then waiting for a cab to take him back to the Marriott, where his father, Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson, and various staffers and supporters of the former Tennessee senator were gathered.
Holding a wake, as one of them, longtime political hand Steve Allbrooks, had confessed before bailing out and heading back to Tennessee. Ex-Senator Thompson, who had been billed as the GOP's savior when various party pros had beseeched him to run in early 2007, had just climaxed — and probably concluded — his disappointing run with a distant third-place finish, well behind both McCain, the probable GOP favorite now, and Huckabee.
"I don't think he's made any plans to go on," the younger Thompson said carefully when asked about his father's future course. He sighed. "You know, he was drafted for this. He's always been drafted."
As I thought back, that was a fair description of Fred Thompson's career. Drafted in 1972 by his political mentor, then Senator Howard Baker, to serve as Republican counsel on the Senate Watergate committee, where Thompson ended up popping the fateful question, Did President Nixon tape any of his conversations in the White House?
Drafted again in the late 1980s for what turned out to be regular strong-man roles by Hollywood after playing himself in a movie about his law client Marie Ragghianti, who was the whistle blower in disgraced governor Ray Blanton's pay-for-pardons scandal.
Drafted once more in 1994 by Tennessee Republicans to try to win back the Baker Senate seat, which had meanwhile become Al Gore's, then was vacated as Gore ascended to the vice presidency. Thompson did win it back, though he had to do a late turnaround on his campaign's tentative beginning in order to finally beat Democrat Jim Cooper handily.
Thompson had spoken to that moment earlier this month in Iowa — the first of two states (South Carolina was the second) that had been considered must-wins if he was to overcome yet another feckless start. "You know, there were some who said, 'Old Fred doesn't seem suited for this. He doesn't seem to have the fire in the belly," he confided to a Holiday Inn crowd in West Des Moines.
He recalled an early political obituary that had appeared during that 1994 Senate race in The Tennessee Journal, the influential political weekly that was then published by Nashville's M. Lee Smith, who had been a significant player himself in statewide Republican affairs.
"What they said was regarded as gospel, and [Smith] was my old law school buddy. He didn't mean any harm," Thompson recalled. "But he said, 'Fred just can't do this.'" Thompson had let that sink in before continuing.
"Well, I did. I not only won. I turned a 20-point deficit into a 20-point victory margin." And, as he pointed out, he had gone on to win reelection to a full term in 2006 with the largest vote total for a statewide candidate in Tennessee history. "I've won some races in my time," Thompson said, as he urged that Iowa crowd to go out into the next day's caucuses and help him "shock the world."
It was an effective appeal, but, as things turned out, the best the folks in Iowa could do was reward Thompson with a third-place finish, behind Huckabee and Mitt Romney. It was less a shock than it was a defibrillator moment that barely kept his presidential hopes alive.
He had, as son Tony was saying, been drafted for this effort, too — only to see that "no-fire-in-the-belly" talk get started all over again amongst the Beltway media. That was something of a canard. The fact is that Thompson had just got tired of politics in general and the Washington brand in particular and had opted out of both a reelection effort in 2002 and another would-be draft the same year, for governor.
The unexpected death of Thompson's grown daughter, Tony's sister, had further capped his declining appetite for service in the Senate. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life up here," he had said then. "I don't like spending 14- and 16-hour days voting on 'sense of the Senate' resolutions on irrelevant matters."
What Thompson did was go back to acting, to portraying hard-bitten, ultra-authoritative District Attorney Arthur Branch on the long-running NBC show Law and Order. I had long suspected that Thompson's now notorious delay in beginning his presidential campaign — it was late summer before he got going, a tardiness that many considered ultimately fatal to his chances — owed something to contractual obligations, and Tony now corroborated this.
Yes, there had been a Law and Order rerun season to wait out (an earlier campaign from Thompson, who appeared in every episode, would have compelled its suspension), and there had been a contract to complete as fill-in reader for Paul Harvey as well.
There was also a fundamental flaw in the Thompson-for-President campaign, one that, earlier that day, I had seen a late flash of. The candidate had been booked for an election-day appearance at the South Carolina Arms Collector Association Gun Show, held at the sprawling Jamil Shrine Center, a big flea-market-style barn in Northwest Columbia, and I decided to check it out.
It was a cold, rainy day, and I was surprised to see the large parking lot area overflowing. Once having found a spot on the puddled periphery and having quick-stepped through the drizzle to get inside, though, I was quickly disabused of any notion that candidate Thompson was the big draw.
It looked like an armed camp inside. Table after table loaded with formidable-looking weapons of all sorts. Every species of rifle and nozzled gun imaginable, automatic and otherwise, was being swarmed over and sighted through and sometimes hoisted on the shoulders of a crowd that may have numbered in the thousands. Not to mention, brass knucks, spiked wristbands, and anything else that looked like it could be used for assault purposes.
The candidate himself finally arrived, in an entourage that included both son Tony and Bob Davis, the former Tennessee GOP chairman whose considerable accomplishments include the lifelong retention of a Skeezix-style shelf of lacquered hair that juts out at right angles to his forehead and has survived not only middle age but assorted weathers like this election-day downpour.
To be sure, Thompson attracted attention as he and the others moved through the vast building, aisle by crowded aisle. He is, after all, a familiar image from his movie and TV roles, and he was frequently asked to provide an autograph or pose for a picture. But he left little curiosity in his wake, as each parted wave of shoppers went right back to ogling and handling the shiny and menacing-looking table goodies.
Once, at least, toward the end of his last circuit, on his way out of the arena, the talk got expressly political. One of the vendors congratulated Thompson on his stout rhetoric defending the Second Amendment rights of gun-bearers and compared him favorably in that regard to rival Huckabee, who was generally conceded to have grabbed off much of the conservative hinterland vote that Thompson's campaign was aiming for.
"You don't see him here, do you?" the man said, in something of a non sequitur.
"Yeah, well, I've been doing this for a long time, a long time before I was in politics," Thompson said. And, after a few more thank-you, thank-you-very-much responses to such remarks, a few more autographs and pictures, he and his retinue were gone, and the huge crowd kept on swarming as before.
I remembered taking my girls to a production of Swan Lake at the Cannon Center a few years back and how, when the cast came out for curtain calls after the show, the dancer who had played the evil Black Swan and had performed superbly got noticeably subdued applause from the young audience and was visibly hurt by the fact.
That was Fred Thompson in 2008. A gifted and natural actor, as he had many times demonstrated, he had answered an audition call and been handed a role this year — champion of desperate last-ditch conservatives — that, in a year of patent voter unrest and desire for change, was bound to have a limited audience and fan base.
In South Carolina, as in Iowa, Thompson had fulminated against left-wing Democrats, upheld gun rights, deplored abortion and gay marriage, inveighed against the burden of taxation, and denounced illegal immigration and Islamo-fascism and Iran, all of which his chosen part called for. Sometimes he did it well, sometimes not so well, as with any touring road show.
But meanwhile, another player in the drama, former governor Huckabee of Arkansas, whose campaign had gotten a head start over Thompson's, was saying all these things and more, but more easily and elegantly and subordinating them to a sunnier outlook that had some progressive populist overtones. Put simply, the former preacher, a winner in Iowa and a contender elsewhere, had managed to upstage the ex-actor.
In the last few days before the GOP primary in South Carolina, the Thompson and Huckabee camps had been having at each other pretty vigorously — one reason why Howie Morgan had not exactly been advertising his allegiance as the three of us sat making polite conversation, Howie and I with cocktails, the teetotaling Tony Thompson without.
Finally, I made bold to say, as an aside, "Tony, I didn't tell you that Howie here is with the Huckabee campaign. I was sure you'd think that was okay."
Tony's face changed a little, only a little. And he said, "I'm not sure I do." He went on to talk about a barrage of "push polls" aimed at his father and clearly, to his mind, emanating from the Huckabee campaign.
The conversation might have taken a difficult direction, but just then someone from the hotel came to tell Tony his cab had arrived, and, after handshakes and a pleasant enough leavetaking, he was gone, presumably headed to commiserate with his father.
Tony Thompson's place in the booth was shortly taken by Jim Gilchrist, head of the Minuteman Project, perhaps the most zealous of the organizations opposed to illegal immigration and demanding both a fence and total repatriation of illegals, Mexican or otherwise, back to their homelands.
Gilchrist, whose endorsement of Huckabee (arranged, Morgan had said, by himself) had become controversial in the anti-immigration movement, was a friendly man with a surprisingly soft, even kindly face, and I had already talked with him at some length during the long ballroom wait for results at Huckabee's election-night headquarters at the nearby Convention Center.
At one point, he leaned over and asked me, "Jackson, why is it that the media are so intent on sacrificing the sovereignty of the United States and undermining the economic viability of America?"
I considered my options and answered, "That's one semantics, Jim. Another goes this way: 'Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.' Those are Emma Lazarus' words on the Statue of Liberty." Yep, I really did.
Let's just say that the conversation went on and failed to reach a consensus. In that respect, it bore a resemblance to the ongoing election scramble in both parties. The Democratic version of the South Carolina primary occurrs this weekend, and the Tennessee primary and the rest of Super Tuesday are just around the bend on February 5th, and, with no resolution in sight, things are still ...
To Be Continued.
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