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Fred Thompson Tears Down the Fourth Wall

By Maggie Gallagher

To an actor like Fred Thompson, the "fourth wall" is the invisible one separating the stage from the audience. For a politician -- like Fred Thompson -- the fourth wall is the line between him and the "fourth estate" -- the media who relay his words, then chatter and comment about them incessantly.

I imagine most politicians have to put some sort of psychic barrier between themselves and the relentlessly dart-throwing media, if only to stay sane during the grueling weird endurance marathon we call "running for president." But this week, in an exchange with National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru, Fred Thompson tore down that fourth wall, separating him -- a potential leader of the Free World -- and us, folks who chat for a living.

Few probably would have paid much attention to a mild little essay by Ponnuru taking Fred Thompson to task for votes on a couple of issues that, as even Ponnuru noted, few if any actual voters care passionately about, such as federal pre-emption of state laws and a federal cap on attorney's fees in state tobacco cases. "But if conservatives mean what they say when they complain about the dangerous rapacity of the trial bar," Ponnuru challenged, "they ought to ask Senator Thompson a few hard questions."

Ask and ye shall receive. Much to everyone's surprise, Fred Thompson quickly dashed off a response, posted on -- a devastating, substantive, smart, wry and above all personal response. For example, on his opposition to a bill that would federally regulate lawyer's fees in tobacco cases: "Get this: Under the amendment the states would have been required to send the attorneys' bills to the House and Senate Judiciary for approval," riffs Thompson. "As I said on the floor on May 19, 1998, 'I did not come to the Senate to review billing records from lawyers in private lawsuits.'

"For the record, I oppose the federal regulation of any fees negotiated by two competent parties at the state and local level. This goes for lawyers, doctors, butchers, bakers, or the occasional candlestick maker ...

"This discussion," Fred Thompson goes on to say, "is not an idle exercise. Republicans have struggled in recent years, because they have strayed from basic principles. Federalism is one of those principles."

It's one of those small incidents that speak volumes. Can you imagine McCain or Giuliani personally debating a senior editor on National Review's Web site? By tearing down the fourth wall, Fred Thompson announced to conservatives, more eloquently than even his words could, that he really is one of us.

Will he run? Forty percent of Republicans in the latest Gallup Poll say they are not yet satisfied with any candidate in the race. Newt Gingrich is often mentioned alongside Fred Thompson as the most likely to enter the race to fill that void, and among hard-core conservatives, Gingrich has a lot of hard-earned fans.

But Newt Gingrich is also, as the Gallup analysis noted this week, the only potential GOP candidate who is even less popular with his fellow Americans than Hillary Clinton: "Earlier this year, her favorable ratings reached 58 percent, but by mid-April they had dropped to 45 percent. Among the well-known contenders in both parties, only Gingrich is less popular at this point." In a March 2-4, 2007, Gallup Poll, 49 percent of Americans had a negative opinion of Gingrich compared to 29 percent who liked him, (see

With 2008 looking like a bad year for the Republican brand, do Republicans really want to try charging up the mountain with that heavy a load?

Copyright 2007 Universal Press Syndicate

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