By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 12, 2007
In the swampy soup of hopefuls for the 2008 presidential election, there is a man with a funny name. (No, not that one.)
We're thinking of the one named Fred (Thompson).
Say it out loud. Do it. Fred. Fred. In the South, Fray-ud.
It has the tonal quality of something being dropped on the floor, something heavy and damp-ish.
Waterlogged paper towel.
The phonetics of the name seem integral to its image problem: On Urbandictionary.com, a "Fred" is defined as "a person who does stupid, annoying, or idiotic things" (Fred Flintstone, Fred Mertz). The best-case descriptors a Fred can hope for are terms like well-intentioned, predictable, benign (Fred Rogers).
There has never before been a major presidential candidate named Fred. There were two Alfreds, in 1928 and 1936. But Alfred, being all British and Batman-y, is not the same.
Then, out of almost nowhere, came Thompson, who is transcending the notion of Fred.
Recent media accounts of the guy (who has not yet officially announced his candidacy) would have us believe that being a Fred means Law & Orderly sex-in-a-suit, a name exuding such flypaper pheromones that people find themselves helplessly drawn in. Chris Matthews dedicated three minutes of a recent "Hardball" to exploring Thompson's sex appeal. London's Sunday Times last month interviewed a bevy of his ex-girlfriends, all of whom have drunk the Fred-Aid: "He's majestic," said country singer/Fredophile Lorrie Morgan. "Women love a soft place to lay and a strong pair of hands to hold us."
Why? Is there something about the craggy actor we're not getting? Maybe he's ugly-sexy, like Mick Jagger?
Or maybe the name Fred is etymologically close to obviously sexy names like Dirk, Clint, James?
Grant Smith is an onomastician at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, who studies the branch of linguistics dedicated to proper names. He specializes in dissecting the monikers of political candidates and says he has a 65 percent success rate of predicting elections, based solely on name analysis. Not entirely convincing, but those odds would play in Vegas. "The name Fred is basic and homey," says Smith. "It should give people a reassuring image."
But is it, Dr. Smith, a sexy name?
"I would not say that. The name Fred does not suggest blatant sexuality at all."
Thompson is a strong name, he says. Thompson is a name with natural trochaic rhythm, which replicates a heartbeat and thus starts building appeal in the womb. "Does he ever go by Frederick?" Smith asks hopefully. FRED-erick THOMP-son would be a winning combination.
But he doesn't. He goes by Fred. Going by Fred, he still has amassed a clan of pitter-patter, all-a flutter followers.
* * *
At the Fredquarters of the Fred Society in Palm Springs, Calif., "Head Fred" Fred Daniel has been defending his good name against charges of boringness and dolt-itude for 23 years. Daniel, 52, founded the society in 1984 by combing the Los Angeles phone book for Freds and sending out a 500-person mailing. There are 5,000 Freds in the organization now, but Daniel must fight for every member. "Unfortunately, Fred has fast fallen out of favor," he laments. From 1885 to 1896, it was the 15th-most-popular boy's baby name. But the last time Fred appeared in the top 1,000 was 2002.
It's a natural cycle. Onomasticians know that names reach points of saturation, points where every Tom, Dick and Harry is named Fred. Parents want baby names that feel unique yet familiar. So once 20- and 30-somethings forget that monikers like Emily and Jacob (the top boy and girl names for 2006) have actually been around for centuries, they start to use them again.
The Fred Society is attempting to speed up the rebirth of Fred with aggressive campaigning: bumper stickers reading "Name your next baby Fred," coffee mugs that are "Built Fred Tough," postcards from Fredhenge and Freddywood.
Fred Thompson is good for the cause. "We at the Fred Society are overjoyed that he might be running for president, because he'll skyrocket the name," says Daniel. He quickly adds, "That's not an endorsement, though. We can't afford to alienate one single Fred -- Democrat or Republican."
And as a fellow Fred, can Daniel understand Thompson's overwhelming appeal?
"I can see how he would make some women's and men's hearts go boom-boom, just like the opening of 'Law & Order.' "
* * *
We are trying to understand.
We are willing to admit that that some people find Fred Thompson, yes, sexy.
But we still cannot understand what that means.
What does it signify that we, as a country, are choosing to deem yummy a guy named Fred?
Motivational speaker Mark Sanborn has a theory about that. Sanborn is the author of 2004's "The Fred Factor" (not to be confused with the same-titled Fred Thompson bio released this May). Sanborn's Fred is a mailman from Denver who delights in performing his unheralded job well. Sanborn wrote "The Fred Factor" to extol the pleasures of hard work, which he says the name represents.
"It's the quintessential American name," he says. "It might be dated, but the time we date it back to, the 1950s, was a very bucolic one. Middle-class success, a rising standard of living. Working hard was all you needed to succeed."
Maybe that's it.
The love of Fred Thompson is like the comfort food renaissance -- a longing for green bean casserole. If the name Fred were popular now, we wouldn't be able to long for it. Because it would be here already. But it's not, so we do, and ordinary "Fred" seems as exotic as Mick Jagger.
Fred Thompson is not ugly-sexy. He's stodgy-sexy. He is that onomastic combo of unique yet familiar. We once had Freds. We want them back.
Will that be enough to win him the nomination? We can't say. Daniel, that hopeful proponent of all things Fred, only knows this: "We haven't seen anything like him since Fred Astaire."