It’s hard to understand America’s love affair with movie stars, but clearly, it’s to the advantage of former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson as he toys with his inevitable entry into the next presidential sweepstakes.
True to form, the national news media – obsessed as usual with the horse race aspects of the campaign – gauge his success by his charisma and his instant name recognition. Mr. Thompson’s undeclared candidacy is the best evidence of how rare “real” reporting has become in the coverage of presidential candidates.
Lost in the coverage about Mr. Thompson is any hint of his track record as a senator or his success as a legislator.
While it would seem that this would be where the rubber meets the road traveled by his now iconic red pickup truck, we’ll read and hear much more about the 1990 Chevy truck than we will hear about the real measure of his years as a U.S. senator – his legislative history.
Listening to present and former local elected officials who dealt with him in those days, there’s admiration for his folksiness and story-telling but few compliments about the effectiveness of his office. To most, his detached view of legislative duties led to a staff that seemed tentative and unfocused.
There was a tendency in those years for his staff to give him the “star treatment,” refusing to take him news that they thought he wouldn’t want to hear. A visit to his office was preceded by a choreography fit for a movie set, and normally, if you could clear the hurdles to get on the calendar, Mr. Thompson would be found smoking a cigar in his rocking chair.
He routinely left policies up to others (in those days, it was usually to the much superior staff in Senator Bill Frist’s office). He was normally more interested in swapping war stories and telling humorous tales about political rivals than discussing the subject that provoked the request for a meeting in the first place.
As a result, his name isn’t attached to any grand legislation or any great reforms, but despite that fact and for what one of his Republican colleagues called his “cavalier attitude” about his duties, he seems destined to be a front runner for the Republican nomination.
Perhaps, in time, the news media will delve beneath the surface on him – and others in both parties. There are great issues to be debated and weighty decisions to be made, and voters deserve to know more about the candidates than vehicles, religious affiliations and the number of times they’ve been married.
But, as long as the focus stays on the political theater of it all, it gives home court advantage to a man so accustomed to being on the stage.