Media ignore facts undermining "Reaganesque" Fred Thompson's image as anti-Washington populist

››› ››› KATHLEEN HENEHAN

On the June 3 edition of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, Fortune magazine Washington bureau chief Nina Easton said of former Sen. Fred Thompson's (R-TN) possible 2008 presidential bid: "He's going to be posing himself very much as an anti-Washington populist, very much like when he drove his red pickup around the state in 1994 in his Senate race. He's good at that sensibility. There's going to be a lot of talk about his Reaganesque appeal." Easton's suggestion that Thompson will display an "anti-Washington" sensibility and "Reaganesque appeal" echoes characterizations of him advanced by Republicans and conservatives and adopted by several other news outlets and media figures. But contrary to those who portray Thompson as an outsider, he spent 18 years as a lobbyist, and reports indicate that he was not above partisan politics during his eight years as a U.S. senator. Moreover, several observers characterized Thompson's first speech in the run-up to an expected presidential bid as disappointing.

The "anti-Washington populist"

In her comments on Fox News Sunday, Easton claimed that Thompson will present himself as an "anti-Washington populist" and claimed that he is "good at that sensibility," but she did not provide information that undermines that image. First, as Media Matters for America noted when The Washington Post reported that Thompson "will offer himself as a down-home antidote to Washington politics," as chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs committee in 1997, Thompson reportedly suspended an investigation into campaign finance abuses "[a]fter Republicans expressed concern that the Senate campaign-finance investigation could lead to a probe of GOP practices," as The Boston Globe reported (fee required) on November 1, 1997. The Los Angeles Times (fee required) also reported on the same day that Democrats "had planned to call witnesses to show" that Sens. Don Nickles (R-OK) and Sam Brownback (R-KS), both members of the committee, were involved in questionable fundraising practices.

Second, prior to his election to the U.S. Senate, Thompson spent 18 years as a lobbyist, during which he reportedly represented a company facing billions of dollars in asbestos claims. An article in the April 30 edition of New York Magazine noted that "[c]ritics point out that Thompson's aw-shucks, shit-kicker populism is more than a little bit phony" because "he spent eighteen years as a registered Washington lobbyist, doing the bidding of such high-powered clients as General Electric and Westinghouse, pushing for the passage of the deregulatory legislation that led to the savings-and-loan crisis of the eighties."

Moreover, Easton noted how Thompson "drove his red pickup around" Tennessee during his 1994 Senate campaign, but she did not mention that the "red pickup" was a leased campaign prop. Indeed, as Media Matters noted, a March 18 article by The (Nashville) Tennessean described Tom Ingram, who worked on Thompson's campaign, as "the political mastermind who had a hand in revamping Thompson's image by putting him behind the wheel of the truck." The Tennessean reported that "on Aug. 5, 1994" -- just three months prior to a special election for the Senate seat Al Gore had vacated following his election as vice president -- "Senate candidate Fred Thompson parked his black Lincoln Continental and started driving" the truck. The article further noted that the truck was leased by the campaign.

"Reaganesque" communication skills

Others in the media simply assert that Thompson is Reaganesque or possesses former President Ronald Reagan's communication skills, apparently based on his acting career and "star power":

  • On the May 31 edition of ABC's Good Morning America, guest host Elizabeth Vargas stated that the Republican presidential race is "about to get a shot of adrenaline from a man known to millions for his star turns on television and in the movies" and proceeded to tell ABC News chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos: "George, there were two references in just one of the many newspaper articles this morning that compared Fred Thompson to Ronald Reagan. One of them said, quote, 'He has Reaganesque communication skills.' He has got to like that." Stephanopoulos responded: "Oh, no question about it, Elizabeth. A lot of Republicans, a lot of conservatives look at Fred Thompson and they see Ronald Reagan, a great communicator, a clear conservative with crossover appeal to non-Republicans and Democrats, and as you point out, he has real star power."

While Vargas was making her comments, side-by-side photographs of Thompson and Reagan appeared on screen:

  • On the June 3 edition of NBC-syndicated The Chris Matthews Show, NBC News White House correspondent Kelly O'Donnell claimed that Thompson has "got that Ronald Reagan factor that is an echo for a lot of people that they love. If he can perform, if he can use all the skills ... that he obtained as an actor, mix that with what conservatives are looking for, I think he could be ... a real player."

But Thompson drew criticism for his May 4 speech at the Lincoln Club of Orange County in Newport Beach, California. Syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak wrote on May 7:

"It was not Reaganesque." "No red meat." "Too low key." That was the preponderant reaction I heard to Thompson's half-hour presentation (leavened by a few favorable comments, mostly by women, that he was more "statesmanlike" and "presidential" than the announced candidates). Lincoln Club members, like many conservative Republicans, have been unimpressed by the existing field of Republican hopefuls and envisioned Thompson as the second coming of Ronald Reagan. They did not get it Friday night.

[...]

Surprisingly for such an experienced performer, however, Thompson had trouble with the podium microphone as his low, conversational tones faded in and out. He ended his speech on a down note by reporting a recent visit to 6-year-old schoolchildren and what they had told him. Thompson worried that the long Lincoln Club program preceding his speech may have turned off the audience, but he may have been the one who lost his enthusiasm.

Novak revisited the issue of Thompson's first speech in a May 31 column, suggesting that hype over Thompson's communication skills may have been solely based on his career as an actor:

Discarding a speech he had written himself, Thompson ad-libbed from handwritten notes. It was not the second coming of Ronald Reagan that the Californians envisioned. Was all the excitement about Thompson engendered merely by his television role as a formidable Manhattan district attorney on "Law and Order"?

He stuck to his prepared cards for his second speech, at a state Republican Party function in Stamford, Conn., last week, and it was a considerable improvement.

On the June 2 edition of CNBC's Tim Russert, NBC News chief foreign correspondent Andrea Mitchell similarly noted that Thompson's "debut speech ... was not successful. It was very halting and reading from notes." Further, in a May 9 article, US News and World Report chief White House correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh reported that the speech "seemed underwhelming. He talked about the need for lower taxes, smaller government, and a strong national defense -- surefire conservative talking points -- but he didn't convey the excitement that Republicans are looking for. Media reports suggested that the attendees liked his message but were surprised that he didn't have the charisma they had been expecting."

Additionally, in a May 24 online column, Time editor at large and senior political analyst Mark Halperin used the May 4 speech to counter the common description of Thompson as "Reaganesque":

But unlike the genial Reagan, Thompson's manner can be brusque and his most natural expression is a scowl. Critics question his endurance: he has a reputation for resisting a demanding schedule and is undisciplined as a campaigner. In a recent speech to California Republicans, Thompson began with some jokes that were well received but then abandoned his carefully written text and rambled through remarks that left many in the audience underwhelmed.

From the June 3 edition of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday:

CHRIS WALLACE (host): Well, let's talk reality, Nina. I mean, the two knocks -- and [Fox News Washington bureau chief] Brit [Hume] referred to them -- are, one, that he did not have the most distinguished record as a senator, and, two, that he may not be the hardest worker in the political fields. How legitimate do you think those two knocks are?

EASTON: I think those are extremely legitimate. I mean, he's an actor -- he understands the importance of good timing -- and what better timing than this weekend, with frustration among conservatives at a high to jump into this race? He's going to be posing himself very much as an anti-Washington populist, very much like when he drove his red pickup around the state in 1994 in his Senate race. He's good at that sensibility.

There's going to be a lot of talk about his Reaganesque appeal. Ronald Reagan, however, ran a state.

And when you look at Fred Thompson and the three top contenders that he'll be up against, all of whom have done something very, very substantial and concrete -- and the question will keep coming up about Senator Thompson: "What have you done?"

From the May 31 edition of ABC's Good Morning America:

VARGAS: Now to the race for '08: It's about to get a shot of adrenaline from a man known to millions for his star turns on television and in the movies, former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson. Even from the sidelines, he's been running high in the polls and now he's about to toss his hat in the ring for the Republican presidential nomination, a move that could shake up the field. Joining us now live from Washington is ABC's chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos.

George, there were two references in just one of the many newspaper articles this morning that compared Fred Thompson to Ronald Reagan. One of them said, quote, "He has Reaganesque communication skills." He has got to like that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Oh, no question about it, Elizabeth. A lot of Republicans, a lot of conservatives look at Fred Thompson and they see Ronald Reagan, a great communicator, a clear conservative with crossover appeal to non-Republicans and Democrats, and as you point out, he has real star power. So, if he gets into this race -- and I just spoke to one of his aides moments ago who said the decision is likely to come in the first week of July -- if he gets in, he will change the race the day he gets in, Elizabeth. All of the front-runners -- Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John McCain -- will take a hit immediately and the rest of the field will just get swamped.

[...]

STEPAHANOPOULOS: But he can also expect questions about his one term in the Senate, whether it's a thin record or not. Democrats are already raising questions about that. He could also face questions, Elizabeth, about his health. About a month ago, he announced that he had a form of indolent lymphoma. He says he has no symptoms, no recurrence, but he'll get questions about that as well.

VARGAS: He will indeed, but as we hear those comparisons to Ronald Reagan this morning -- also another former actor -- it's interesting. Thanks so much, George.

Chris, that -- one of the many roles that Fred Thompson has played in many movie careers -- or in many movies, has been that of president. So a lot of people know him from his work in front of the camera.

CHRIS CUOMO (co-anchor): Maybe it gives him a little bit of a head start.

VARGAS: Hmm, just a tiny one.

From the June 3 edition of NBC-syndicated The Chris Matthews Show:

CHRIS MATTHEWS (host): So he's not a big a threat as Rudy.

O'DONNELL: But he's got that Ronald Reagan factor that is an echo for a lot of people that they love. If he can perform, if he can use all the skills as -- that he obtained as an actor, mix that with what conservatives are looking for, I think he could be -- he could be a real player.

From the June 2 edition of CNBC's Tim Russert:

MITCHELL: In fact, Thompson's first -- his debut speech in Orange County, California, was not successful. It was very halting and reading from notes. Then he has performed better in subsequent speeches, in Stamford, Connecticut, for instance. But the thing about him is that he's also a fiscal conservative. If you look at his -- the few interviews that he has done, he emphasizes bedrock Reaganesque positions on fiscal conservatism, pay as you go. And there's no one else in this group of Republican candidates who is as authentic as Fred Thompson on that conservative stream.

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