As former senator and current Law and Order district attorney Fred Thompson contemplates a run for the presidency, the comparisons with Ronald Reagan continue. “When some Republicans look at former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, what they see is the glory that was Reagan,” writes Richard Brookhiser in an April issue of Time magazine. The headline of one of Cal Thomas’s columns? MEET FRED THOMPSON, THE NEXT RONALD REAGAN.
Yet the differences between the two may be more significant than the similarities. Equally important, and something that has gone unmentioned, is that a Thompson run bears just as much resemblance to the 1984 candidacy of Democrat John Glenn, a “celebrity candidate” who was expected to make waves but foundered when he ran up against more seasoned pros.
Like Reagan, Thompson is an actor, with roles in The Hunt for Red October and Law and Order, and he has the communication skills that come with that experience. (The Hollywood sojourn came at a different point in each man’s career, however.) Both even did a fair amount of work for General Electric: Reagan as a spokesman and Thompson as a lobbyist.
But their political careers aren’t terribly similar. In the political realm, Reagan was the acknowledged leader of the conservative movement for more than a decade before he won the presidency. As a former Democrat, he knew how to craft an appeal to voters of both parties. And his tenure as governor of California, though controversial, attracted national attention.
In contrast, Thompson’s short Senate career, which spanned from 1994 to 2002, was notable principally for the ways in which he disappointed his followers, who even compared him with The Great Communicator. Thompson didn’t become a national figure. And his investigation into the Clinton administration’s campaign-finance spending went nowhere.
Instead, Thompson has been effective primarily behind the scenes, where lobbyists and staffers operate. As a young aide, he helped Howard Baker become a formidable figure during the Watergate hearings. More recently, he guided Supreme Court nominee John Roberts through the Senate-confirmation process.
As a result, his crossover appeal is unproven, and he’s viewed as somewhat hesitant as a candidate. In modern American political history it has been rare for an extant movement to draft a leader. The best such example comes from 1967, when Allard Lowenstein persuaded a then-reluctant Eugene McCarthy to carry the anti–Vietnam War banner into the Democratic primaries against Lyndon Johnson. Yet the conservative movement of today bears little resemblance to the anti-war movement of 40 years ago. Never mind that leaders usually help to create movements — not the other way around. Case in point: after Reagan narrowly lost to Gerald Ford in 1976, he spent the next four years correcting his mistakes and preparing for a second run. That doesn’t seem to be Thompson’s style, and it certainly won’t be the blueprint for 2008.
It may be more apt then to compare Thompson with Ohio senator Glenn. In 1983 Glenn, too, was a favorite of many pundits. And as a former astronaut and hero, he was already a national celebrity when he ran for president. The Right Stuff, a new movie in the fall of 1983 that immortalized his feats, only added to the buzz.