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Can Thompson Find His Motivation?

By Richard Cohen

Some years ago, I ran into Fred Thompson at Washington's Reagan National Airport and had a chat with him as we waited for a (very) delayed flight. I found him to be affable and nice -- good company, if you want to know -- but I cannot remember a single thing he said. Alas, it is about the same with his Senate career.

If Thompson's name came up in some sort of free association game, he would be a genuine stumper: Thompson and what? There is no Thompson Act, Thompson Compromise, Thompson Hearing, Thompson Speech or Thompson Anything that comes to mind. No living man can call himself a Thompsonite. Instead, Thompson came and went from the Senate as if he was never there, leaving only the faint scent of ennui. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life up here," he once said. "I don't like spending 14- and 16-hour days voting on 'sense of the Senate' resolutions on irrelevant matters." As a call to action, this lacks a certain something.

Such a sentiment may be the telltale tick of a normal man. But the presidency that Thompson now seeks is not won by the normal, the average, the ordinary, but by people fueled by an explosive combination of overriding ambition and charming megalomania. The world needs them, they are convinced. God wants them, they have been told. The country calls; they answer, and march smartly into history. This is the stuff of parody (and I exaggerate a bit), but you don't get to be president by waiting for others to ask -- unless you are the son of one. Let us not repeat that mistake.

Thompson is often likened to Ronald Reagan. In fact, if you couple "Thompson" with "Reagan" and do a data search of newspapers, you will be inundated with quotes, observations and references -- nearly 1,000 of them in the last month alone. The similarities are obvious -- both tall, good-looking men, personable and, most important, actors. The conclusion is supposed to be almost inescapable: If Reagan the actor could become president, why not Thompson the actor? If the host of TV's "General Electric Theater" could do it, why not District Attorney Arthur Branch of "Law & Order"?

For all I know, this is precisely what will happen. Yet, that possibility ought to give us some pause. Reagan, you might remember, went from show business to politics while Thompson, for the moment, has gone the other way. He went from being bored in the Senate to waiting around a movie set so he could mouth words written by others -- maybe not all that different than the Senate, when you think about it. If there is a passion, an overriding sense of purpose in Fred Thompson, it is not apparent from his record. More apparent, clearly, is that he lacks any such thing.

Here is where he is so different from Reagan and why the comparison is wrong. Reagan was an ideologue. He had converted from New Deal liberalism to Barry Goldwater and Bill Buckley conservatism. It animated his life or, if not that, then at least his political career. He had a deadly serious reason for going into politics and it was not, as it seemed to some at the time, a continuation of show biz by other means. This is why he sought and won the California governorship, and after two terms, he ran for the presidency -- and lost the first time out. By then, he was no more an actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger is a competitive body builder. Reagan had transformed himself. He was the dominant politician of the conservative moment. He was no pretty face.

Neither is Thompson, in all fairness. Yet he indisputably lacks the passion, the concern, the fire-in-the-bellydom that Reagan had -- not just for winning, but about issues themselves. Thompson never showed that he was out to change matters, to right some major wrong, to fix the god-awful mess the country is in. I contrast him to a senator I recently chatted with who took virtually child-like delight in being a senator -- being able, as he said, to be a player. He savored his power -- one of only 100. What a difference he could make!

The presidency is where a person can make the most difference. But the emergence of Thompson shows that a fatigued Republican Party is not interested in making any difference at all -- just in hanging on. What commends Thompson to the presidency -- the only thing anyone ever mentions -- is his TV fame. If that is all it takes, then Thompson can look forward to being more than a president. He'll be an American Idol.

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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