"They seek him here! They seek him there! Those newsies seek him everywhere! Is he abed? Is he ahead? That demmed elusive Mr. Fred!"
— Apologies to Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s “The Elusive Pimpernel”
Ask any declared Republican presidential candidate if he’d dare miss the next “debate,” 9 p.m. EDT, Wednesday on Fox News Channel. Then ask Fred Thompson.
Wild horses couldn’t drag the declared ones off that stage at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. They stand glued there by their own epoxy of precipitous political conformity. To hop down now from that made-for-television lineup of usual suspects would be to throw in the towel and not answer the bell for the next round.
Yet, a groaning, red pickup truck in low gear couldn’t push Thompson into that bizarre, televised side show to appear like the last kid on the block, pleading: “Wait for me, follows. Wait for me.”
If he sticks with the smarts he’s shown so far, it will be a cold day in the Vast Wasteland before he sets foot on the phony set of one of those non-debate, cluster debates.
Instead, Fred has business elsewhere. (Hey, that’s not a bad line for a bumper sticker: Fred Instead.)
Ready Fred’s unofficial, undeclared campaign already resembled those “demmed elusive” University of California scat backs running semicircles around University of Tennessee mannequin-like, business-as-usual defenders in their season-opening football game.
For most of this year, Thompson has withheld announcing his candidacy, which everyone knew was sure to come. But when?
Meanwhile, all the self-outed contenders were running breathlessly, raising millions, spending millions, getting on television into the faces of as many voters as the law allows. They have smiled, shook, howdyed, hugged, baby kissed, postured and proclaimed their ways to and fro, back and forth across the continent like sewing machines in a hurry-up, crazy-quilting contest. Only heaven and Al Gore know how much jet fuel they may have burned off into the atmosphere. No wonder it’s been so hot this summer. Ad agencies have created like crazy. Coffers of broadcast stations have swollen in exchange for air time these candidates have used up and nailed down in advance. Pollsters have conjured ’round the clock. Paid political strategists have been soaked up into campaign after campaign. Pundits and alleged journalists have snooped, probed, repeated and worn thin just about all that’s fit or unfit to print about those worthies.
The results? No overt candidate in either party seems to have won the hearts, minds and enough popular support to elect (still 14 months from now) anyone to anything. No Democratic or Republican glass slipper tried on so far seems to fit.
Indeed, the more the galloping herd of saddled-up candidates thunders on, the more popular Thompson becomes, merely by standing there and watching them run. This infuriates the established-media geniuses. After all, by their commentaries they are supposed to make the news happen the way they think it should happen. And Fred Thompson is not at all what they’ve had in mind.
They really don’t know how to play him, and it’s delicious to watch their frustrations. Just by breathing in and breathing out, Thompson has given the masscomm moguls one migraine after another.
Now look what that man is doing to them. He’s taking the spotlight, not to mention most of the oxygen, away from their approved list of candidates.
On Wednesday, Sept. 5, perhaps thousands of folks all across America will be tuned in breathlessly as those certified GOP candidates, once again, submit serially for their allotted few seconds of response to cunningly culled questions. Meanwhile, along with most of the millions of other Americans, Thompson – who has shrewdly shunned all previous cattle calls – will be both absent and scarcely interested.
Immediately before the event is televised to a quivering world, Thompson will air a simple, 30-second commercial “revealing” what he’s going to announce formally the very next day.
What’s everyone in the guess-my-name Republican beauty contest going to be waiting for? It will not be what each other has to say. They’ve all heard all that before. It will be what Thompson has to say, even though they all know what he will say – just not how he will say what he’s going to say. It’s got to drive them bug-swattin’ nuts.
They have a choice. They can try to ignore him. That’s about like going all the way to the Grand Canyon in order to ignore the Grand Canyon. Or they can try to talk about him, try to be funny about him, try to welcome him to where they are standing but where he has better sense than to be standing, try to analyze him (good luck with that) or try to blast him and, thus, pay the penalty about which Ronald Reagan warned for speaking ill of fellow Republicans.
It gets worse, for them. That very night, late that night, Thompson will happen to drop by NBC’s Tonight Show with Jay Leno. How many of those other Republican contenders will enjoy a good night’s sleep after that?
Then, as Orphan Annie prophesied, there’s always tomorrow. On this particular tomorrow, Thursday, Sept. 6, the news will still be all about Thompson, very little about the rest. That’s the day he transmogrifies out of his chrysalis into a full-fledged candidate.
On the heels of the Great Depression, the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald was singing: "Oh, ’tain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it, ’Tain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it . . . That's what gets results."
That’s what Thompson will be doing, and getting results.
Anyone can stand up and announce, “I’m running for president.” At times it seems that’s what everyone and his little brother and older sister have been doing. Thompson, however, has struck upon a refreshing, atypical way to do it. He’s holding a huge house party – not the usual house party, either.
This house party takes advantage of the virtual-campaign capability only the Internet has to offer. The Thompson house party is a well-conceived, artfully conducted nationwide house party – virtual, to be sure. It is one, big house party, comprising an indefinite number of small, Internet-linked house parties all over the landscape. American politics are rapidly transforming from traditional touch-me, feel-you campaigning.
Long gone is the whistle-stop speech from the observation car of a train chugging along the tracks. No more prop-stops, flying from one tarmac audience to the next. Zillions of dollars of slick TV commercials and non-stop radio spots won’t cut it anymore. People have learned to tune those out. Newspapers, other than the Wall Street Journal, have been relegated, thanks to their own arrogance, to wrapping mullet and lining Polly’s cage.
Today, the nation is turning to the Internet’s bountiful, digital cafeteria for its information and analysis. Almost overnight, the multifaceted politics of the land have gone virtual.
Better than anyone before, or now, Thompson has seen this happening, understood it and put it to work for him.
So, on Thursday, Sept. 6, Thompson will make his very-real announcement at the virtual nationwide open house on I’mWithFred.com.
The bad news just goes on and on. No sooner than he enters into millions of computer sets all across America on Sept. 6, he will press the other button on his point-counterpoint campaign – to demonstrate he really does stand six foot six. For the ensuing couple of weeks he will be making non-virtual and virtual appearances in Iowa (Des Moines, Council Bluffs, Sioux City, Mason City, Cedar Rapids and Davenport), New Hampshire (Portsmouth, Manchester and Nashua) and South Carolina, (Greenville and Columbia), Florida (where he would be at home in any of the 67 counties) and Tennessee (first Nashville, his campaign headquarters, and then Lawrenceburg, for a homecoming celebration).
While that’s going on, that other hemisphere of his campaign, the all-virtual one, will still be in full swing.
Let no one confuse you: This really is a whole different kind of campaign – in how the money is raised, how the money is spent, what the candidate will say, how he says it and to whom he says it.
With such a campaign, Thomson can avoid, to the extent it can be avoided, the ugly politics of confrontation. He understands how Americans have come to disrespect and detest that. He will not have to run against other candidates, not against any past or present president. Let the other candidates do their own thing. Fred Thompson will be running for the presidency, not against anyone.
One serious added benefit: Such a candidacy will free him to call for help – before and after Election Day – from those candidates who will have opposed him, both Republicans and Democrats.
Ms. Fitzgerald to the contrary notwithstanding, the what of Thompson’s campaign – what he stands for, not only how he communicates it – will determine whether he becomes the next president.
If he relies simply on conservative ideology, he risks losing it all. But if he approaches every issue with the litmus test of what makes common sense – for that’s what most Americans are, commonsensical – then he will have tapped the mother lode of American politics.
The reassuring thing is that most conservative principles do make common sense. Try that test on the liberal ideology.
John L. Perry, a prize-winning newspaper editor and writer who served on White House staffs of two presidents, is a regular columnist for NewsMax.com.
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