Editorial: Thompson’s final scene

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Success in the modern political arena, the thinking goes, depends more on having a photogenic face and the ability to connect with a television audience ó or at least make them think you’re connecting with them ó than on having presidential substance and leadership abilities.
But that doesn’t exactly gibe with the rapid rise and fall of Fred Thompson, who dropped out of the Republican presidential contest on Tuesday after an anemic showing in South Carolina. Thompson didn’t just appear to be a candidate straight out of central casting. He was a candidate out of central casting. In addition to his real-life role as a U.S. senator, Thompson was a blunt-talking D.A. on the TV series “Law & Order.” He also played a fictional president in the film “Last Best Chance” and a historical one (President Grant) in the HBO movie “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” But even with his imposing physical presence and resonant cadences, Thompson couldn’t translate his popularity on screen to success in the voting booth. He had warned that a lackluster showing in South Carolina would probably doom his candidacy, and a distant finish behind Sen. John McCain and Mike Huckabee, with Thompson polling only about 16 percent, proved the fatal blow.
While not unexpected, his withdrawal from the field is a bitter disappointment for supporters who seized on Thompson as a conservative’s conservative who might claim the mantle of another actor who went on to great success in politics, Ronald Reagan. But the reality is that, while modern campaigns may live and die by the sound bite and media exposure, they succeed through infusions of cash and the ability to communicate a clear message, and Thompson’s campaign came up short on both. He polled better as a potential candidate than a real one, with his campaign chronically beleaguered on several fronts. He got a late start, delaying his official entry into the race until a fall appearance on the “Tonight Show” with Jay Leno, and then his candidacy suffered from lackluster financial support, staff shakeups, weak debate performances and nagging questions about whether the easygoing Thompson really had the requisite ambition and drive to be president when the cameras weren’t rolling.
Whatever the failings of his campaign, Thompson’s engaging celluloid persona couldn’t overcome them. He’s out of the race now, and other GOP candidates are already making pitches for his backing, which still leaves himwith a supporting role in the race. It’s not the script he had in mind, but that’s how it goes in the gritty world of presidential primaries. You can’t reshoot the scene until you get it right. Now, as other critical primaries loom for the GOP and Democratic fields ó and speculation mounts about the continued viability of the candidacies of Ron Paul, John Edwards and even Rudy Giuliani ó the question is who will be next to follow Thompson off stage.