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Thompson's Bold Vision

By Dennis Byrne

As Fred Thompson proclaimed his presidential candidacy on NBC's "Tonight Show," the most telling moment came when he sparked wild cheering as he spoke this truth: America has laid down more of its blood and treasure in the cause of freedom than all other countries combined.


If Thompson's advisors don't know what his campaign theme should be, they know it now. It is, indeed, a grand and visionary statement that leaves all opponents of both parties quibbling in the dust over the details of public policy and personal qualifications.

Naturally, Thompson will be accused of trying to imitate Ronald Reagan. That's fine, because the former president in a time of deep national depression elevated America to, in no special order, victory in the Cold War, renewed optimism, economic prosperity and moral awareness. The rest of the details followed.

Jay Leno's audience may have sensed it. Fairly quiet from the beginning, the audience's sudden eruption of cheering and applause rocked the house. Maybe I'm naïve and the whole thing was scripted by Thompson's handlers and planted members of the audience, but I don't think so. The outburst seemed genuinely spontaneous, inspired by words that resonate with the pride that Americans feel about their role as the model and inspiration for a free world. Even if the audience response was scripted, Thompson's declaration of freedom had to stir millions of viewers across the nation.

America was not the first culture to come up with the idea of democracy, but it was the first one to make it work on a grand and stable scale, even before Great Britain figured out that it could govern itself without a monarch. From the French Revolution onward, the American blueprint-turned-prototype-turned-reality has inspired peoples to reject centuries-old notions that they were incapable of governing themselves. At base, it is this understanding that informs our policy in Iraq and the war on terror.

Thompson has enunciated a truth: Without us, other free nations are unwilling or unable to take the leadership in the worldwide struggle for freedom. While others will shrink from this reality, painting the sentiment as xenophobia, chauvinism, bellicose, blah and blah, the reaction on Leno's show reflects or plays on the deep feeling among Americans of just pride and earned obligation. An America withdrawing from Iraq and relinquishing its power to others less determined to preserve liberty is not an America we know. Nor is it the America we should become. This is an understanding that has been stewing underneath as the useless and negative chattering goes on in Washington and the "elite" media.

Thompson's message is an antidote to the nightly newscasts, in which the sole measure of the Iraq war's success or failure has become the number of American GIs killed. We would never have gotten beyond the Bataan death march if that were how we measured progress in World War II. Thompson's vision is what is required of an effective leader in a national crisis.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist.

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