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He Sure Can Act the Part
In fact, Thompson was careful during his Senate tenure to avoid projecting the kind of raging ambition that defines so many other presidential hopefuls. In 1997, he told me that he purposely avoided traveling to states such as Iowa and New Hampshire because he didn't want the chattering classes to make something of nothing, to assume that he was laying the groundwork for a 2000 presidential bid. He avoided grandstanding, made speeches that touted conviction over party loyalty and got out of the Senate when he could have won reelection in a walk, because, his confidants tell me, he became disillusioned with Congress's upper chamber and all the garbage that goes along with politics.
All of which explains why a grass-roots movement has sprung up around the 64-year-old actor. Anyone who thinks the "draft" part of the movement is somehow phony, that Thompson is fueling this all himself, has never met the man, who seems to manage the perfect calibration of laid-back and serious.
"He wasn't born and bred to be president like Al Gore," says conservative Tennessee talk show host Steve Gill, whose boosterish book, "The Fred Factor: How Fred Thompson May Change the Face of the '08 Campaign," is set for release on Friday. He was "the kind of kid who had a lot of talent and no ambition."
But everybody loves an up-by-the-bootstraps story.
Rep. Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Nashville who lost to Thompson in the '94 Senate race -- despite being ahead by 20 percentage points nine months before the election and despite an enviable political bio that includes Rhodes scholar, six-term congressman and son of a former Tennessee governor -- thinks that Thompson's early reputation as an Everyman is "endearing" to Tennesseans. That's especially considering that Thompson went on to redeem himself by earning a scholarship to Vanderbilt University Law School and winning a plum role in the Watergate investigation by virtue of his association with Tennessee Republican Sen. Howard Baker.
"Boy Scouts are too boring to get elected," Cooper quips good-naturedly. "Tell me, I know. I'm an Eagle Scout."
Gill, whose book argues that Thompson is the only candidate who could beat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, predicts an announcement in June or July and says that Thompson is "moving toward" making the run. Thompson's recent announcement that he has lymphoma and is in remission is strong evidence that he's trying to head off any concerns about his health. "I don't think it's foregone. I think it's still just making the decision and engaging the prospect of whether he can win," Gill says.
Should Thompson announce, his general-election advantage is that he's not divisive. He doesn't evoke the kind of vitriolic hate that many other conservatives inspire. He's the kind of guy who could broker peace between Donald Trump and Rosie O'Donnell, someone who would bring red-state and blue-state America together.
Moreover, Thompson wouldn't be tarred with the Iraq war, and his many film and TV credits would buy him enough recognition to mitigate the fundraising disadvantage he would start with.
Of course, first he'd have to get through the primary. And as Cooper points out, that's the tough part: "He comes from the Howard Baker tradition, which is so moderate that they have had a tough time getting elected." And the rap on Thompson is that he's lazy, that he never worked as hard as his colleagues in the Senate. Even some of his supporters concede that's true. But what he lacks in that respect, even some Democrats say, he makes up for with his people-pleasing ability -- the Reagan factor -- and almost Clintonesque communication skills.
A case in point about Thompson's undeniable allure: At an April 18 gathering of about 60 members of Congress, organized by Rep. Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republican, Thompson was asked about his dating history during the nearly two decades between his two marriages. In response, the one-time beau of country music singer Lorrie Morgan offered an honest assessment of his romantic history. "I was single for a long time, and, yep, I chased a lot of women," he said. "And a lot of women chased me. And those that chased me tended to catch me."
It was vintage Thompson, and there's more where that came from.