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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Now, you can overstate the intellectual heft of a campaign that was launched by the candidate during an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He was a different kind of candidate but not an incompetent one. Indeed, his finest moment came in a debate before the Iowa caucuses, when the moderator asked the assembled candidates for a show of hands if they believed human activity caused climate change.

"Well, do you want to give me a minute to answer that?" Thompson said. When the moderator said she didn't, he said: "Well, then I'm not going to answer it. You want a show of hands, and I'm not going to give it to you."

The moderator looked as though Thompson had suddenly sprouted daffodils from his ears. So did his fellow candidates. After a stunned silence, they all courageously announced their refusal to show hands, too. They looked like the Little Rascals, hitching up their britches and flexing their biceps after Alfalfa clocked the neighborhood bully.

It's telling that his most notable moments were negative--marked by his refusal to follow some custom of the modern campaign. (From another debate: "Should government step in and help Chrysler and the other auto makers?" Thompson: "No.") Asked about education reform, he said: "It would be easy enough for someone running for president to say: I have a several-point plan to fix our education problem. It's not going to happen. And it shouldn't happen from the Oval Office." When journalists and candidates, with their typically childlike enthusiasm, suddenly began gumming the word "change" after the Iowa caucuses, Thompson pointed out the obvious: "Change has been part of every election since the dawn of elections, if you weren't an incumbent." He noted how easy it was "to demagogue" the issue of federal spending by dwelling on relatively insignificant earmarks: "All these programs that we talk about in the news every day are a thimbleful in the ocean compared to the entitlement tsunami that's coming to hit us."

Views like these might have earned another candidate a reputation for "straight talk"--maybe even the title of "maverick." But Thompson was more subversive than that; he was an existential maverick, and his campaign was an implicit rebuke to the system in its entirety. He was a man out of his time. With its reduced metabolism and procedural modesty, his campaign still might have served as an illustration of what politics once was like and--if we have the audacity to hope--might be again. After all, by the standards of a century ago, Thompson was a whirligig.

Political campaigns have always been boisterous affairs, but candidates themselves rarely took center stage till well into the 20th century. The first presidential candidate even to make an appearance on his own behalf was William Henry Harrison in 1840. When he showed up in Columbus, Ohio, to give a speech extolling his (exceedingly thin) record, the political world was scandalized. An opposition paper, the Democratic Globe, counted his uses of the pronoun "I"--there were 81 of them in his text--and pronounced the speech "a prodigy of garrulous egotism." The Cleveland Adviser, a nonpartisan paper, asked: "When was there ever before such a spectacle as a candidate for the Presidency, traversing the country advocating his own claims for that high and responsible station? Never!"

"The precedent thus set by Harrison," concluded the Adviser's editorialist, "appears to us a bad one."

But it wasn't much of a precedent. Active campaigning didn't catch on for another half century or more. (The exception was Stephen A. Douglas in 1860, the only one of the four presidential candidates that year to leave town to deliver a speech.) Candidates stayed home, receiving visitors and maintaining a quiet dignity while occasionally uncorking a speech in the neighborhood so the newspapers had something to report. Meanwhile surrogates scattered around the country, leading parades, holding rallies, and telling lies for which the candidates themselves couldn't be held responsible. Even the appalling Theodore Roosevelt, who would smooch babies at a train wreck if he thought it would get him votes, managed to contain himself and keep off the hustings when he ran for reelection in 1904. Eventually barnstorming became marginally acceptable, but only as the last recourse of candidates who, like Harry Truman in 1948, were so far behind they could risk looking desperate and undignified.