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Fred Thompson, The Empty Suit

By Richard Cohen

It's a shame that Fred Thompson is too young to have played Matt Dillon, the no-nonsense marshal of Dodge City in the long-running radio and television series "Gunsmoke." That role on the radio went to William Conrad (later TV's "Cannon") and on television to James Arness. But whether TV or radio, Marshal Dillon had the same policy for cowboys when they rode into Dodge: They had to surrender their guns.

The Marshal Dillon Rule is based on common sense, not to mention the law of averages: The more guns you have, the greater the chance they will be used. But both common sense and the law of averages escape presidential candidates, especially Republicans looking to assert their conservative bona fides. When it comes to gun control, they not only have to be against it, they have to insist -- in raging opposition to common sense -- that the more guns around, the safer everyone is.

This is how Thompson articulated his anti-gun control position recently on National Review Online. According to Thompson, the horrible massacre at Virginia Tech (32 dead) proved not that the shooter should have been in some sort of tightly controlled mental health program or that it was too easy in Virginia for a nut to buy semi-automatic weapons, but -- incredibly enough -- that there were too few guns on campus. If the university would not have had a policy prohibiting guns, then students would have been able "to protect themselves" -- presumably by reaching into their backpacks and gunning down the shooter.

Marshal Dillon begs to differ. He might point out that young people -- especially young men -- sometimes drink too much and have hormonal surges that compare, on a mild day, to Vesuvius on Aug. 24 of the year 79. (Goodbye, Pompeii.) To think that a university president in his right mind would permit his students to carry guns on campus so stretches the term "right mind" that it loses all meaning.

Mind you, while I subscribe to the Marshal Dillon Rule, I am on record as being sympathetic to those who like to keep a gun in the house. This is because I was burglarized one very dark night by a klutz of a thief who burst though my back door and ran around the first floor making so much noise that I was certain he was coming for me. (This was before the mentally deranged had recourse to e-mail.) I very much wanted a gun -- not to whack the intruder but merely to protect my life.

A little moderation is in order here. The rational desire to protect yourself and your family in your own home -- whether you approve of guns or not -- is understandable. Allowing college kids to party with guns -- and don't tell me they won't -- is another matter entirely. But Thompson, out to show he can non-think with the best of the right wing, has outlined a position that suggests either he has lost his mind or will out-pander the nimblest of them to become the GOP presidential nominee. I think it is the latter.

As if to make my point, Thompson suggested in a separate piece that scientists who believe in global warming could be likened to those -- the papacy, actually -- who suppressed Galileo. The metaphor is a bit tortured, but Thompson managed to mock scientists by saying that other planetary bodies -- "Mars and Jupiter, non-signatories to the Kyoto treaty" -- are also warming up. That may be the case, but it does not mean that little ol' Earth is not also warming up -- and since we live here it is best that something be done. The solemn obligation of all presidential candidates is not to offer moral support to those who would further pollute the atmosphere but to suggest, even to Republicans, that what goes up sooner or later is breathed in. Thompson can look that up.

His is the grand march of the empty suit, a modern-day Georges Boulanger, the 19th-century French general who cut such a marvelous figure while mounted that he gave us the phrase "man on horseback."

Now Thompson is the "man on horseback." It is his role to become the true conservative of the GOP nomination contest -- the one, that is, who has the best chances of winning. He is supposedly more reliably conservative than John McCain, more indigenously conservative than Mitt Romney, more consistently conservative than the pro-choice Rudy Giuliani and, of course, much better known than almost all of the others on account of his years on "Law and Order." He is the True Republican -- a credit to his party, a threat to us all.

cohenr@washpost.com

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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