By BRAD WARTHEN
Editorial Page Editor
FOR MONTHS NOW, “conservative” Republicans have waited for their hounddog-faced Godot, Fred Thompson, to bring something to the presidential contest that was missing.
So it was that quite a few of us left our cool offices and moseyed down to Doc’s Barbecue Monday with a mind to learning what that something was.
The star of screen, lobby and courtroom swaggered onto the riser in the parking lot and launched into a hickory-smoked litany of what he had been talking about since his previous foray into electoral politics back in the ’90s. His delivery had a poetic — or perhaps “lyrical,” in a country-song-lyrics sense — quality:
… talkin’ about the val-yuh (that’s “value” to you pantywaist Easterners) of being pro-life;
talkin’ about the value of standing strong for the second amendment;
talkin’ about the rule of law;
talkin’ about the value and the rightness of lower taxes;
talkin’ about a market economy; talking about the ingenuity and the inventiveness of the American people and the value of competitiveness and how we would fare well in the international marketplace. We do more things better than anybody in the world, and it works for us….
OK, so maybe it got a trifle less lyrical there for a moment, but he got his rhythm back right quick:
We’re talking about first principles, things this country was founded upon,
the idea that there’s some things in this changing world that don’t change.
certain things such as human nature,
and the wisdom of the Ages that led us to the Declaration of Independence
and led us to the Constitution of the United States,
and they are not outmoded documents to be cast aside….
OK, Fred, all that’s great, but who said they were — documents to be cast aside, I mean? Who’s the bad guy here? Certainly not the men who’ve been running their fannies off seeking the GOP nomination while you were playing Hamlet all these months.
Sure, Rudy Giuliani might have a bit of trouble on the abortion thing, and so might Mitt Romney — depending which Mitt Romney you chose to believe from the assortment available on “YouTube.”
But that other stuff? Come, on, this is boilerplate, par for the course, warming-up exercises, the kind of stuff Republican babies cut their teeth on.
So what sets you apart, aside from the fact that you are obviously way-up-yonder tall? (I would have said “Rocky-Top tall,” but Fred and I are both Memphis State grads — from back when they called it Memphis State — so I can’t hang a U.T. image on him).
One thing, as far as I can see — and it goes back to the predicate in the first sentence of my third paragraph: swaggered.
That ol’ boy’s got more swagger on him than John Wayne in a roomful of Maureen O’Haras. It’s in his voice, and in everything he chooses of his own by-God free will to say with it. It’s in his accent; it’s in those jowls sliding off his face like McMansions on a muddy California hillside.
I’d say it was literally in his walk, if I could ever see how he walks, but he always has a crowd around
him, with his craggy head poking up above it.
Those crowds respond to him: The ladies like a man who sounds like he durn-well knows what he’s talking ’bout and don’t mind saying so, and the men can tell right off that he’s one-a them — or what they like to think of themselves as, from the swagger itself right down to that hot-dang wife a-his that smiles so purty when he brags about sirin’ them babies on her.
All of this can disguise the fact that this is a very smart man of rather broad-ranging sophistication (I mentioned he went to Memphis State, right?), but nobody holds that against him.
And so it was that he came a-ridin’ into town on that bus a-his with Johnny Cash boomin’ out of it, ridin’ to the rescue of… of what?
Once again, what was lacking? Who had to be saved from what?
Last month, ol’ Fred told David Broder that he only considered getting into the race because his friend John McCain had stumbled along the way. Before that, “I expected to support John, just as I did in 2000,” he said.
I remember him supporting McCain back then, because he came to see me at the time, and said we were wrong to have endorsed George W. Bush in the S.C. primary. And he was right.
So I found myself puzzled last week, a week in which the biggest political news was the resurgence of John McCain. A few days after a well-reviewed debate performance in New Hampshire, the Arizonan was back in Washington to hear Gen. David Petraeus — who might as well have had a “McCain in ’08” button wedged among those rows of ribbons on his chest — tell the world that the strategy Sen. McCain had advocated for the last four years had succeeded. Suddenly the guy who was supposed to have fallen on his sword over Iraq looked “prescient and courageous on the campaign’s most vital issue,” according to The Associated Press.
Sure, there are those Republicans who are still hot because Sen. McCain isn’t mean enough to Mexicans, whereas ol’ Fred leaves little doubt that he’d kick their Rio-moistened behinds clear back to Juarez.
But while I grant you the man sure can swagger, I still find myself wondering: Why’s he swaggering into town now?
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