Fred Thompson says he is “not consumed by personal ambition.” He says that he won’t slit his wrists if he loses the presidency. He says “I’m not particularly interested in running for president, but I think I’d make a good president. Nowadays, the process has become much more important than I think it used to be.”
The press is having a field day, of course. They love it when a candidate seems to confirm all the supposedly nasty things they’ve been saying about him. Go here for a full transcript of what Thompson said in response to an earnest question from a voter who asked “if I caucus for you next week, are you still going to be there two months from now?”
It’s too late for Thompson to change the minds of the press regarding the importance of having an overweening ambition to be president. Collectively, it appears they have decided that this is an extremely relevant and serious criteria by which to judge a candidate’s worthiness for high office. Somehow, a candidate’s thoughtfulness, integrity, instincts, temperament, and views on the issues have become secondary to an artificial measurement of the heat given off from how much fire is in his belly.
Our gatekeepers are, if nothing else, consistent in their criticism of Thompson’s commitment to running for president. Ever since the first weeks of the campaign when the press woke up to the fact that Thompson was going to run the campaign his way and not the way that everyone (including the press) expected him to run it, the conventional wisdom developed that it didn’t matter what Thompson was saying or what he believed. What mattered is that he failed to meet the arbitrary standards set by the media denoting what might be termed “the cup of desire” test. Thompson refused to drink deep draughts and has been skewered for it.
I can’t think of any other candidate in the last 35 years who has been judged by such extraordinarily shallow criteria. There were whispers prior to Reagan running for President in 1980 that the candidate was too laid back. Indeed, Reagan’s loss in Iowa in 1980 was attributed to a “lazy” campaign. But no one accused The Gipper of lacking desire for the office or even that his laid back style disqualified him from consideration.
This is an entirely new phenomena in politics and is directly related to the fact that running for President has become pretty much of a 4 year undertaking. A large part of the reason for that is the ungodly sums of money that must be raised to build what amounts to a $100 million nationwide business whose only product is electing the candidate president. Those few candidates who can accomplish this have a huge leg up in the race.
Declaring early means wrapping up the party “whales” and “bundlers” who invest in a candidate as they would a promising stock or top performing mutual fund. When you consider the fact that the top 4 fundraisers in the race had all been mentioned as possible presidential candidates as far back as 2004, you begin to see where a candidate like Thompson, already at a huge disadvantage, would seek to break the mold and run a different kind of campaign, freed from the necessity of living up to anyone’s expectations about how a successful run for office should unfold.
Unfortunately, mold breakers are inevitably punished for their apostasy. In Thompson’s case, the candidate himself hasn’t helped much. Voters may not have been asking the questions raised by the media about Thompson’s demeanor and desire, but judging by the poll numbers, those questions may have been uppermost in their minds. The fact is, Thompson has failed to adequately address the issue – until he hit a home run with his response yesterday. Predictably, the press spun the story the way they wanted – an easy task given the complexity and subtly of Thompson’s argument. But an examination of his explanation reveals a refreshing honesty about the candidate’s inner thinking and what exactly is motivating him to run.
Surprisingly, the reasons are no different than any other candidate. A desire to serve, a belief that he can accomplish “special things,” the confidence that he is running for “the right reasons.” So if it is not his motivation for running that is in question, what exactly is it that has the press so doggedly determined to portray him as “lazy” or “lacking fire in the belly?”
In an age when candidates run campaigns that are dependent on emotionally connecting with the voter (usually by trying to frighten them to death about their opponent), Thompson seeks to engage people on an intellectual level. Rather than using rhetoric to inflame passions, the candidate tries to make the voter think. There is little pizazz and less of the campaign superficialities in Thompson’s effort than one finds in any other campaign. In short, as entertainment, the Thompson campaign receives failing grades. The candidate does not make good copy nor do his appearances necessarily make good TV. Rather than giving off sparks, the campaign emits a stolid, steady feeling of seriousness.
The press uses code words like “lazy” simply because they can’t bring themselves to describe the campaign and the candidate as “boring” – a description that would reveal them to be as stupid, shallow, and cynical as we all know that they are. In our media saturated world where people (and the press) demand to be constantly entertained, Fred Thompson fails miserably.
That is his greatest sin. He has broken the mold of what the press expects of a candidate and a campaign and is being punished for it. Not a very elevating reason to eliminate a candidate from serious consideration for the presidency but given the reality of presidential politics and the times we live in, it is perhaps not surprising.