MEMPHIS, Tenn. — With clockwork regularity, the duck master marches his team of mallards over the red carpet and into the marble fountain in the lobby of the stately Peabody Hotel. Dutifully, the ducks swim around for several hours, then are ceremonially withdrawn up to their luxurious penthouse on the hotel’s roof.
I mention the famous ducks only because on a trip to Tennessee to check out how the home-state folks feel about Fred Thompson’s existential candidacy for president, well, the ducks were about as interested as anyone else. More on this later.
There is something in the water of this long, horizontal, two-time-zone state that causes its politicians to think they should be president, beginning, probably, with Andrew Jackson, who actually held the job.
In the 1950s, Estes Kefauver ran twice, campaigning in a coonskin cap. Kefauver was the country’s first crime crusader, using Senate hearings to introduce America to a criminal organization called the Mafia. He won the most primaries, but the Democratic Party bosses didn’t like his style and nominated Adlai Stevenson twice, who lost twice.
Sen. Al Gore Sr. tried (unsuccessfully) for the Democratic vice presidential nomination at the 1956 convention. After a lull in Tennessee ambitions, GOP Sen. Howard Baker ran in 1980, losing Iowa to George H.W. Bush and New Hampshire to Ronald Reagan before dropping out. In 1996, Gov. Lamar Alexander donned a plaid shirt and played “Tennessee Waltz” on every piano he encountered in Iowa and New Hampshire. He came in third in both and dropped out. In 2000, Alexander made another try and quit after losing the Iowa straw poll.
Then, of course there was Al Gore Jr. who ran (poorly) in 1988, was on the winning ticket with Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and then ran on his own again in 2000, winning and then losing the presidency.
Then came heart surgeon Sen. Bill Frist, the Tennessean who once was considered the probable GOP frontrunner for 2008. Frist pandered heavily to the Christian right, including offering a long-distance diagnosis designed to keep the vegetative Terri Schiavo alive. Eventually, Frist burned out and bowed out, quit the Senate and left politics.
Whew! You can see why the citizenry here feel no necessity to get excited about another possible presidential wannabe, especially one who really can’t quite get himself up to say for sure that he’ll really run. Fred Dalton Thompson, actor, senator, lawyer and lobbyist, has now pushed his decision date into September.
This year, there are advantages to hanging out on the margins. The Republican faithful is clearly dissatisfied with the choices now offered. Currently, “none of the above” leads the GOP field, with 23 percent. Rudy Giuliani has 21 percent (down from 35 percent in March), and Thompson is next with 19 percent.
There is very little doubt that Thompson is more famous for his acting career than for his modest accomplishments in the Senate. Memphis is at the far, west end of Tennessee, the Democratic part of the state, and the largest concentration of Republicans in this city was probably at the Dixon Museum for the opening of Louisiana artist George Rodrigue’s retrospective exhibit. They took my questions about Fred Thompson with mild disinterest.
“I loved him in ‘Law and Order,’ ” said one woman, surprised to find herself queried about politics. Another corrected me: “His name, I think, is Frank Thompson.” A man on the smokers’ bench outside the gallery, who assured me he was a loyal Republican parishioner, crinkled his nose and replied, “You really think he’s going to do it?”
Laying out suits Thompson’s laconic style and also allows him to avoid the pitfalls of an active campaign, like spending himself into oblivion as John McCain did. He can avoid the Iowa straw poll and the Republican YouTube debate, meanwhile burnishing his credentials with the GOP base. He supports George Bush 100 percent on Iraq. Thompson also advertises his 100 percent pro-life voting record, though researchers already have dug up the fact that he once allowed that, “The ultimate decision must be made by the woman.”
Thompson’s “testing the water” phase has not raised as much money as his campaign hoped, though he did cash a $2,300 check from from former University of Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning.
In one of his movies, “In the Line of Fire,” Thompson barges out of the room, exclaiming, “Excuse me! I’m in the middle of a campaign here!”
In the movie, yes. In real life, Memphis folks think that’s still very much a maybe.