He Just Plays a Straight Shooter
Fred Thompson has stepped out of character. To much of America, he is Arthur Branch, the district attorney he portrays on the TV series "Law and Order." Branch is a straight shooter, a no-nonsense kind of guy who says what he means and means what he says. In contrast, the actor who plays him can be quite a different man. I don't think Arthur Branch would vote for Fred Thompson.
Branch's problem, as well as my own, is that Thompson does not always tell the truth. He clearly did not when it was revealed that back when he was a lobbyist, he worked for a family-planning outfit. Such honorable work is, of course, verboten to most Republicans, and so, for understandable but inexcusable reasons, Thompson -- through a spokesman -- lied. There are nicer words, I know, but when you give the impression that what is true is false, that is a lie. Arthur Branch would understand.
"Fred Thompson did not lobby for this group, period," his chief spokesman, Mark Corallo, said in an e-mail to the Los Angeles Times. A bit later, Thompson himself tried the old disparagement dodge: "I'd just say the flies get bigger in the summertime. I guess the flies are buzzing.' " Arthur Branch would see through this folksy piece of evasion and note not only that Thompson now denies nothing but also that flies buzz around BS.
It hardly matters to me that Thompson once lobbied for the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. But the issue is not abortion, as some would have it, but truthfulness, candor, honesty -- call it what you will. The clear impression that we're entitled to take away from this episode is that when faced with some unpleasant truth, Thompson fibs. It ain't nice. It certainly ain't presidential.
Lest you think I am some sort of partisan hack, I have similar misgivings about John Edwards and his $400 haircuts. Here, too, the issue is not what he paid his barber but his apparent willingness to trim the truth. He can't -- I can't stop myself -- brush that away.
Not that Edwards hasn't tried. His spokeswoman, Colleen Murray, also attempted the old disparagement trick, comparing the haircut imbroglio with matters of cosmic importance. "Breaking news -- John Edwards got some expensive haircuts and probably didn't pay enough attention to the bills," she said. "He didn't lie about weapons of mass destruction or spring Scooter Libby; he just got some expensive haircuts."
Yes, he did. And he got them over and over again, sometimes summoning hairstylist Joseph Torrenueva of Beverly Hills to appointments on the campaign trail. When that happened, Edwards had to pay not only for the haircut but for Torrenueva's airfare and hotel as well. A session during the 2004 race cost $1,250. On at least one occasion, Edwards paid the $400 personally.
Contrast this detailed account of Edwards's relationship with Torrenueva with the candidate's initial explanation. Edwards said he had no idea that the haircuts were so expensive and -- in a reprise of Bill Clinton's reference to Monica Lewinsky as "that woman" -- called Torrenueva "that guy." You do not talk about your hairstylist like that. "When he called me 'that guy,' that hit my ears. It hurt," Torrenueva told The Post's John Solomon.
Edwards and Thompson have something in common: They both are all image. Neither has accomplished very much in public life. They are both ex-senators whose names are attached to no famous pieces of legislation. They have built no constituencies on the basis of their legislative records, and so they apparently feel they cannot afford to admit an inconsistency -- pro-choice lobbying by a proclaimed pro-lifer, or Euro-trashy indulgence by the proclaimed avatar of the poor.
FDR was a Hudson River patroon and Robert F. Kennedy had his mansion at Hickory Hill, but both had earned the trust of the poor by their evident sincerity and good works. Edwards ain't there yet. As for Thompson, he may be a good man, but for the moment he's more famous as an actor on television than as the champion of conservatives everywhere.
All presidents lie sooner or later. But Thompson and Edwards are not trimming for any noble purpose of state; each is just trying to protect a political persona that is somewhat concocted in the first place. Their rebuttals don't inspire either trust or strength and should give us all reason to worry. It's a long campaign, and there is time for both men to prove that they are of sterling character. In the meantime, though, they both hit the counter with the hollow sound of a counterfeit coin.