If ever you wanted a true-to-life demonstration of the steadily rising tyranny of media hype over real-world substance, you could hardly beat the scene at the Polk County Convention Center last Thursday afternoon.
There we were, centurions in the ever-expanding legions of the world's chattering armies: reporters, TV pundits, commentators, and bloggers, awaiting the most anticipated event of the Republican presidential campaign so far. Fred Dalton Thompson, lawyer, movie actor, senator, actor again, and now the putative savior of a wounded Republican party, was at long last really, honestly, this-time-it's-actually-happening, no-turning-back, going to launch in person his bid for the party's 2008 presidential nomination.
It's customary to see media crowds at these kinds of events--the familiar, powder-puffed TV face, the battle-hardened campaign veteran, and the obligatory Japanese television crew. But there is usually some sense of proportion--a rough ratio of ordinary people to media that grounds the occasion in reality.
But this was different. Actual, interested Iowa voters were thin on the ground. One grizzled presidential campaign reporter, asked to describe the size of the crowd, muttered simply, "Small." Some of us counted maybe 200, though many of them looked suspiciously like campaign staff. And there were at least that many media people.
Usually at these events, before and after the candidate has done his stuff, each reporter will find two or three regular people to talk to who will handily convey the impression of The Real Voter. But on this occasion the media crush was so frantic that it sometimes looked like three reporters to each Real Voter.
At one point a nice young woman from the Associated Press came up and asked me what I thought of the senator. I briefly considered hiding my notebook and angrily denouncing Mr. Thompson's opposition to ethanol subsidies, but professional courtesy got the better of me and I revealed my press badge.
Given the expectations surrounding Thompson's candidacy, this formal entry into the presidential campaign waters was a disappointing event.
It was certainly not up to the cleverly choreographed, coast-to-coast media blitz of the night before, when Thompson craftily book-ended the evening's TV, stealing the show in advance of the Fox News candidates' debate in New Hampshire with his inaugural commercial and then announcing his candidacy on The Tonight Show at midnight.
On the ground in Iowa, where they like to see their candidates up close, Thompson has some work to do. The underwhelming impact of Thursday's launch was compounded by the Thompson campaign style.
This, I suspect, is purely an expectations-adjustment problem. We're used to seeing the actor-senator in decisive, laconic, fictional form, ordering underlings around at the CIA or in a submarine, or uttering folksy obiter dicta for his team of prosecutors on Law and Order.
Speechmaking demands different thespian qualities. His style is measured, ponderous. Off the screen, the gruff, no-nonsense southern drawl can come across as rather lugubrious.
Heather Baker (no relation and, as far as I could tell, a Real Voter) told me afterwards, "I didn't see the charisma the way I see it on TV. He just seemed to be reading his words, rather than really feeling them."
In fairness, one suspects that part of the problem with the infant Thompson campaign is that it's been so long in delivery. Largely thanks to our own efforts in the media, curiosity had waned even before the campaign started.
Rich Galen, the wily Republican consultant who has signed onto the Thompson team, spent a good deal of time Thursday explaining to the large crowd of slightly puzzled reporters that the low-key start was tactical.
He told me the election was like a football game. Everybody wants to play like Peyton Manning, flashy offense, throwing long-spirals to victory just like George Bush in 2000. But this year, patience will be rewarded, Galen says. A strong defense, not always the prettiest sight, is the key, together with a running game that will grind out enough yards to wear down the opposition.
It's certainly true that Thompson's substance is better than his campaign style. His speech dwells on the need to return to common-sense conservative values. His diagnosis of the Republican condition is spot on--that after the high point of 1994, the party lost its way and needs to reconnect with first principles of good governance.
His best line comes when he enunciates a simple creed that is the essence of conservative belief: "Some things in this changing world don't change."
And he may be onto something when he speaks of the urgent need to rebuild national unity and turn away from the lowering partisanship of the last ten years.