By Dana Milbank
Thursday, April 19, 2007
Everywhere Fred Thompson goes these days, he seems to be followed by inflated expectations.
Those waiting outside the Capitol Hill Club yesterday for the not-quite-yet presidential candidate to arrive counted 35 House Republicans entering the building to meet with him. One participant, Rep. Walter Jones (N.C.), reported that there were 40 in the room. Another, Rep. Patrick McHenry (N.C.), upped the figure to "45 to 50." Then the organizer, Rep. Zach Wamp (Tenn.) came out. "I think the number was 53," he said. "Between 50 and 60."
However hyped their numbers, the conservative lawmakers who came to hear the actor cum senator cum actor were of one voice when they spoke of Thompson as a possible white knight. To hear them tell it, the current crop of Republican presidential candidates has left them variably famished, parched and suffocating.
"People are hungry for leadership," said Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.).
"People are thirsting for a candidate that checks all the boxes," Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) reported after meeting Thompson.
"It was a breath of fresh air in the room today," added Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.).
So is Thompson running?
"He will if people let him know they're hungry enough," answered a positively ravenous Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.).
It doesn't take an Arthur Branch -- that's the district attorney Thompson plays on "Law & Order," for pop-culture illiterates -- to discern that the hunger pangs say less about Thompson than about demoralized conservatives and their distaste for the others in the Republican presidential field.
"Clearly, Republicans are not convinced by any candidate yet," McHenry confided. "You have 45 to 50 members of Congress that show up for someone who's not even in the race. I think that's a significant statement about the field."
Jones was even more blunt. "I'm looking for somebody who can excite America after seven failed years of George Bush," he said. And Wamp said plainly that "people are looking for an alternative and they're looking for more stature."
It's been a difficult few weeks for the GOP field. Mitt Romney misfired by describing himself as a "lifelong hunter" when, in fact, he never had a license and only occasionally took shots at "varmints." John McCain has self-destructed over his championing of the Iraq war. Rudy Giuliani has had more Bernard Kerik problems. And Tommy Thompson, a new entrant, quickly disqualified himself by telling a Jewish group this week that making money is "part of the Jewish tradition."
Among potential top-tier candidates, that leaves Newt Gingrich (who has more baggage than a bellhop) and Fred Thompson. And even some Thompson admirers have doubts about how energetic a candidate he would be; he was lackadaisical as a senator, and he has disclosed that he has been treated for lymphoma.
Then there's the small matter of what his political views are. In public yesterday, he spoke a grand total of 69 words, the substance of which was that he had come to "see some of my old friends and make some new friends and tell them what was on my mind and listen to see what was on their minds."
Thompson was only slightly more forthcoming in the private meeting. Where is he, for example, on Iraq? "He didn't talk too much about the war," Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) reported.
"He wants to put forward solutions that he thinks we need," recounted Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.).
And what might those solutions be?
"He didn't get specific," Capito answered.
But specifics can wait. For now, what's important is Thompson's mellifluous voice.
"Not everybody watches his show, but certainly you hear that voice and you know you've heard it," Capito said. "It's almost like James Earl Jones."
And don't forget his distinguished looks.
"The word 'presidential' was used," recounted Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), who offered to raise money for candidate Thompson. "The American people have seen him act in that role."
Actually, Thompson looked old and sallow as he faced the cameras for a few seconds before hopping into a waiting GMC Envoy. But his hour-long meeting was well staged. Five television cameras rolled and a mob of 50 journalists and tourists watched his arrival and departure, crushing tulips and pansies outside the Capitol Hill Club.
Not everybody had the hunger for Thompson, of course. "I already ate," explained Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) as he passed the Thompson gathering for a meeting next door.
But Thompson has appetites, too. And his performance on Capitol Hill yesterday made clear that, whatever his intentions, he wants people to think he is going to run.
"He thinks the man and times are lining up," Wamp reported after the session. "The man who came to see us today is preparing to run for president."