Fred Thompson’s Tall Order

The candidate, the press, and the way we were

It started, as most relationships do, with high hopes, romantic idealization—and even willful ignorance. Admiring his machismo, his gravitas, his charm, we often overlooked his shortcomings. We saw him, as Newsweek’s Holly Bailey put it, as “charismatic and down to earth, a baritone with an LBJ-like command of his large frame”—and as such, for some, “something of a political messiah, a latter-day Ronald Reagan who can lead their party out of the wilderness.”

The Politico put it more simply: a Fred Thompson run for the presidency “would shake up a field that has left many Republican faithful dissatisfied.”

So…yeah. Let’s skip the part about hindsight being 20/20: we didn’t know then, as was later reported, that Fred Thompson grew up “with a reputation for indolence that he has never quite shaken off, and little obvious sign of ambition,” or that the national attention of a presidential campaign wouldn’t be enough to shock the candidate out of that indolence. Retrospect later; for now, let’s wallow, just a bit, in the breakup. Let’s remember those early, heady days when the Tennessee stud was making his first, long-limbed strides onto the national political stage and into our hearts, convincing a group of generally jaded political reporters of his powerful personality, his political potential, and the intrinsic connection between the two—those days, not so long ago, when Chris Matthews was analyzing Thompson’s sex appeal and Time’s Mark Halperin was pointing out his magnetism and Laurie Morgan was praising his chivalry and Forbes’s Steve McGookin was eagerly anticipating the senator’s “sweeping savior-like into a lackluster GOP field”—those days when we thought he would, as the Washington Post’s David Broder had it, “try to shake up the establishment candidates of both parties by depicting a nation in peril from fiscal and security threats—and prescribing tough cures that he says others shrink from offering.”

And when, according to the Daily Telegraph, he still seemed to offer “a tantalising glimpse of the Reaganesque mix of patriotism, decency, plain-spokenness and simple values that he hopes will transport him to the White House.”

[misty, water-colored memories…of the way…we were…]

And when, as Mark Halperin noted, Thompson seemed to blend the best qualities of the other candidates:

As with Hillary Clinton, this is not his first rodeo (a phrase that rolls smoothly in his accent). Like Barack Obama, he is poised and compelling. Like Rudy Giuliani, he can fall back on bold self-confidence in the face of tricky questions. Like John McCain, he can appeal to independents. And like George W. Bush in 2000, he presents a decided equanimity toward his future.

That equanimity is a good thing, in retrospect, given that Thompson’s future doesn’t include the White House. And as for the Predictive Powers of Political Punditry? Make that strike three.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.