The Magazine

The Failure of Normality

The unhappy lessons of the Thompson campaign.

Feb 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 20 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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In his recent memoir, Alan Greenspan says he's been pushing a constitutional amendment of his own devising. It reads: "Anyone willing to do what is required to become president of the United States is thereby barred from taking that office." If the Greenspan amendment is ever enacted, it will at last clear the field for Fred Thompson, who might then become president. But not until then.

Thompson withdrew from the presidential race last week. He ended his campaign as he had conducted it, with a minimum of fuss and no wasted words. He released a withdrawal statement over the Internet. It was three sentences long, and he hasn't been heard from since. My guess is we'll be missing him dreadfully by spring.

The charge against Thompson, who entered the campaign last September when polls showed him a favorite among Republican voters, was repeated so often it became a cliché. Like most clichés it tells us more about the people who used it than about the state of affairs it was supposed to describe. His campaign lacked "energy." He didn't get out enough on the campaign trail, and, when he did, he didn't hold enough events. His speaking style was too low-key, and his speeches were too long, and more often than not his "performance" in televised debates was lackluster. He just didn't have the fire in the belly.

Fire in the belly: For those of us who suffer from acid reflux, this is a phrase full of meaning. In the world of politics, however, the meaning is vaguer. William Safire's New Political Dictionary defines "fire in the belly" as "an unquenchable thirst for power or glory; the burning drive to win a race or achieve a goal." It's bad, apparently, not having fire in the belly. The premise seems to be that vein-popping ambition, unrestrained avidity, is a necessary if not sufficient quality for someone who wants to hold the highest political position in a democratic country. Thompson himself seemed puzzled by the phrase and the premise underlying it. He was asked about it at a town hall meeting in Burlington, Iowa, in late December.

"Nowadays, it's all about fire in the belly," he said, with a touch of sarcasm. "I'm not sure in the world we live in today it's a terribly good thing that a president has too much fire in his belly."

He pointed out that he'd made financial sacrifices to run for president--he quit his various high-paying jobs and went without income for nearly a year--which should, he said, demonstrate his earnestness about the task before him.

And yet: "I'm not consumed by this process. I'm not consumed with the notion of being president. I'm simply saying I'm willing to do what's necessary to achieve it, if I'm in synch with the people and if the people want me or somebody like me. . . . I'm only consumed by very, very few things and politics is not one of them."

Thompson didn't give off the usual political vibe: the gnawing need to please, the craving for the public's love. A few voters and journalists found this refreshing, many more found it insulting. Some just found it fascinating, in a clinical sort of way: What kind of politician isn't consumed by politics--and what kind of campaign would such a politician run? Well, now we know. If Thompson could plausibly avoid an overnight campaign trip, he did, preferring to return home to his wife and children in suburban Virginia. He spent an inordinate amount of time with his briefing books. And his response to the chore of raising money--the chief occupation of every office-seeker in this era of campaign finance reform, which was intended to reduce the role of money in politics--seemed nearly pathological. Fundraising events scheduled to last two or three hours often guttered out when the candidate departed after twenty minutes. High-end donors complained of being uncourted, unpampered, unloved--even unphoned. At one party in a private home last year, Thompson made the rounds of money-shakers, delivered brief remarks, and then slipped into a bedroom to watch a basketball game on TV by himself.

Having become famous as an actor in TV and movies, Thompson might have been expected to be a showman. But he was resolutely prosaic. Only with the greatest reluctance did he agree to a photograph with the Iowa State Fair's "Butter Cow," and when a fireman in Waverly asked him to wear a helmet, he said he didn't wear "silly hats." As the critics charged, his public speeches really were unusually long, even at drop-bys along the trail, because he insisted on mentioning details of his plans to recalibrate the benefit formulas for Social Security, inject private incentives into Medicare, and develop an optional, two-tiered flat tax. So nobody should have been surprised that when it came time to film his final pitch to voters before the Iowa caucuses, the broadcast speech ended up being 17 minutes long--Homeric by the standards of political ads. Crowds did not go wild.