Thursday, June 21, 2007

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How should I feel about Fred Thompson in 2008?

Gideon Rachman went to hear Fred Thompson give a big foreign policy speech in Lodon and came away unimpressed:

I'm afraid that what he had to say was utterly platitudinous.

The US is "an inspiration for all those who seek freedom"; Tony Blair is a "gallant friend" of America; the uncoupling of the Atlantic alliance would be a bad thing. Winston Churchill was a great man; Neville Chamberlain was not so great. We should worry about Iran because - "If we know anything from modern history, it is that when fanatical tyrants pledge to wipe out an entire nation, we should listen." He even had the nerve to quote that Harold Macmillan line about the biggest problem in politics being "events, dear boy, events." Haven't heard that one before.

Admittedly, he was marginally more interesting in the q&a. He thinks it would be a good idea to blockade Iran, which he describes as a "very, very serious threat." He still thinks it was right to invade Iraq and that there is some evidence that the surge is working. But he is clearly worried that American politicians are going to pull the plug prematurely - "We have a multi-year plan, which the political process might give only weeks or months."

As for the goal in Iraq - "We need to do everything possible to avoid the appearance of utter weakness." And America needs to strive to leave the country in something "better than terrible conditions." That, at least, struck me as a fairly realistic assessment of what is achievable.

I find it hard - or perhaps just alarming - to imagine Fred Thompson as president. He seemed to me to be not terribly bright.

Click here to read Thompson's speech and judge for yourself. After reading it, I'd say two things:
1) His sense of humor is better developed than his policy recommendations for the Middle East.

2) You ain't gonna find a lot of difference between this speech and Mitt Romney's Foreign Affairs article.

What do you think?

posted by Dan on 06.21.07 at 02:12 PM


Platitudes is certainly apt. "We have a multi-year plan which the political process might give only weeks or months." Someone should inform him that the US has been in Iraq for 4+ years.

He sounds like a real idiot marketing type, who when told the advertising campaign isn't working, says (1) 2 years isn't enough time and (2) we need to double the ad spend.

Put this guy on the podium with other candidates ready to press him, and I doubt that he will grow in stature.

posted by: Gene on 06.21.07 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

Wow, a politician speaking in platitudes. Will wonders never cease?

posted by: Norman Pfyster on 06.21.07 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

"I find it hard - or perhaps just alarming - to imagine Fred Thompson as president. He seemed to me to be not terribly bright."

WOW!!! What an absolutely novel, never-before-been-used description of a Republican president/presidential contender! I'm shocked that a journalist from a liberal European newspaper would reach such a conclusion!

This only makes me like Fred more. Based on their track record, any presidential contender liberals and Europeans deem to be "not terribly bright" is alright by me!

posted by: Dan on 06.21.07 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

"This only makes me like Fred more. Based on their track record, any presidential contender liberals and Europeans deem to be "not terribly bright" is alright by me!"

I mean look at George W. Bush who liberals and Euros deemed not to be terribly bright; boy has he ever proven them wrong!! Damn liberals and Euros, what the heck do they know. I wish Bush could run for another term. Sigh.

posted by: Brainwashed Conservative on 06.21.07 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

Bush's problems haven't stemmed from stupidity, I'm afraid. Besides, by all measurable criteria, he's smarter than Gore or Kerry.

Nixon and Carter were pretty bright--not such good results, though. Within the range of electable persons, I'd bet that the IQ-performance correlation is pretty close to zero.

posted by: srp on 06.21.07 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

"measurable criteria"?

Bush did achieve marginally better grades than Kerry at Yale, but take a look at what they wasted their time on.

I'd agree, though, that GWB's problems seem independent from issues of intelligence, and more to do with issues of temperament. OTOH, inadequate critical-thinking and critical-analysis skills do appear to be a major reason for his troubles.

posted by: Daniel Nexon on 06.21.07 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

I don't know who Gideon Rachman is or why Dan thought him worthy of quotation here. He just didn't seem to have that much to say.

I'm not a Fred Thompson admirer, because I think an aspirant to the Presidency should demonstrate some commitment to public service. Thompson has done that in his career only intermittently, when he has felt like it. That's not good enough.

But this speech, for the most part, was the kind of gracious discourse on Anglo-American friendship that most American politicians not eager to make news would choose to make in a similar forum. I don't find this kind of thing platitudinous at all, as prone as we are in this country to take good things for granted. And Anglo-American friendship is a very good thing.

Now, as to Thompson's remarks on terrorism, Iraq and Iran: they are, primarily, consistent with the first rule of Republican Presidential candidates this year, which is to appeal to the hard core of the Republican base by echoing President Bush on this subject. The reasoning is that, however difficult it might be to win a general election next year by sticking so closely to an unpopular President, one cannot win low-turnout Republican primaries in any other way. The alternative -- going off on one's own and trying to build up support among those Republicans who always vote from scratch -- seems too daunting not only to Fred Thompson but to all the other leading Republican candidates and most of those who have no hope whatever of winning the nomination.

That part of Thompson's speech is just boilerplate. Any GOP candidate this year (except for Ron Paul) could have said what Thompson did, exactly the way he said it, and most of them have. I don't think the resort to boilerplate hides any great depth of thought on Thompson's part; in his public career he never made any effort to establish himself as an authority on foreign policy or national security affairs. But what he was really doing in England was sticking to a script, fulfilling the requirements of the campaign. He appears, gets polite applause, and is quoted by American media saying things the remaining supporters of President Bush will tend to agree with. That's it.

How unusual is Thompson among Presidential candidates in sticking faithfully to a script written in the service of a campaign strategy? He isn't. It isn't so much that what he or any of the other leading contenders says in a speech of this kind suggests he shouldn't be President. The problem is that he and the other candidates are focused so tightly on the requirements of the campaign that they won't think like a President, either now or after they are elected. The requirements of the campaign are all-consuming for them now, and will be as long as there is another race, sometime in the future, to run.

posted by: Zathras on 06.21.07 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

Those who will be voting in primaries are looking for platitudes because real answers and insight would be far too disturbing - so it's hard to tell if the Actor and the Mormon are idiots or just saying what they need to say in order to get idiots to vote for them. The Mormon I tend to think is not an idiot - he's just too good of a liar and I think lying that well takes a certain degree of cleverness. The Actor on the other hand - well, I work in the film business and have seen enough of actors to know being an idiot generally comes naturally to them. You caught a break with Reagan, don't push your luck.

posted by: hymn's a her on 06.21.07 at 02:12 PM [permalink]


I don't get this idea that Fred Thompson really hasn't had much interest in public service in his life. He was an assistant US Attorney, minority counsel for the Watergate Committee, special counsel to Lamar Alexander when he was governor, special counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, special counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee, a member of the Tennessee Appellate Court Nominating Commission, a US senator for 8 years and a prosecutor (which is how he got his start in acting). But b/c he was an actor, we assume he's shown no interest in public service?? At the risk of sounding like Dan Quayle comparing apples to oranges, Thompson has far more public service under his belt than Reagan did when he ran for President. You can argue Reagan's stint as governor was better experience for being President, but you can't argue Thompson has shown no interest in public service.

You also argue that the GOP contenders are trying to sound the most like Bush with regards to Iran, terrorism, etc. That's actually not really true since Bush has been silent about Iranian activities in Iraq, except for a mention in a speech here or there - no action. Petraeus came out this week and said Iranian interference in Iraq is far greater than we even thought before, but we get no acknowledgment of this from the White House or Foggy Bottom. So the candidates are actually staking a position different from Bush.

posted by: Dan on 06.21.07 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

At last a candidate who truly understands the "freedom agenda"!

posted by: Barnes on 06.21.07 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

To Dan's point upthread, I just have to say I'm not impressed by ticket-punching, which defines Fred Thompson's career in public life. Ronald Reagan had, as Governor of California, a record of accomplishment that voters could analyze and debate. He had done things. Fred Thompson has only filled positions.

Let me say also I have no problems with actors as such. Thompson is a very good one. But his primary career when he hasn't been in government hasn't been as an actor. It's been as a lobbyist. That's not a crime, but it's also not a qualification for the Presidency, especially when it involved mere trading on his access to one particular former Senate colleague, as his most recent lobbying work appears to have done (

I'd finally point out that a guy who bailed out on the Senate to cash big, easy paychecks as an actor and lobbyist during the very period when foreign affairs emerged as a salient policy concern and political issue is not the guy you want in the White House now dealing with foreign affairs. I think that's no more than common sense.

posted by: Zathras on 06.21.07 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

I started reading your blog just recently. I got interested in your writing because of Instapundit references. Can you point me to Middle East policy recommendations that you like and think a US president should consider? It may sound like a silly question, but that's because I'm new to your blog. Thanks!

posted by: Ivan Lenin on 06.21.07 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

"I don't know who Gideon Rachman is or why Dan thought him worthy of quotation here."

He's a veteran foreign correspondent who used to head things up at the Economist Asia desk but is now at the Financial Times. He's quite high-profile and pretty highly regarded.

Thompson's speech was just boilerplate. People can spin it how you like, but it was just a plod through all the usual platitudes. That said, if you get anyone in a situation like that who is not operating under the Chatham House Rule you're going to get boilerplate and not much else - in fact, the higher the speaker's profile, the more dreary a time you'll have, by and large. Unfortunately, although I'm not sure this can be taken as a serious condemnation of him, I haven't really seen that much to convince me that he's somebody with what it takes to run a country. The bottom line is that while people are trying to compare his record favourably with Reagan's, Reagan had lengthy executive experience and knowledge of the day to day nuts and bolts activity involved in keeping things running - Thompson's non-acting career consists of a string of relatively short-lived non-executive positions interspersed with periods of making lots of money doing lobbyist work connected to whatever his last job was. I like the bloke and I have heard some good things about him from people in a position to know, but... hmm.

posted by: Anthony C on 06.21.07 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

Zathras, if your argument is that Fred Thompson hasn't had accomplishments in office, that's one thing, but it's a very different complaint than "lack of commitment to public service." I think the last thing we want in a president -- or any officeholder, really -- is someone who has spent his life in (so-called) "public service."

posted by: David Nieporent on 06.21.07 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

Uhh, Zathras - he left office in 2002 because his daughter had just died from an accidental prescription drug overdose. I think I forgive him for leaving office.

posted by: Dan on 06.21.07 at 02:12 PM [permalink]

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