If you believe the American political reporters, we still don't know whether Fred Thompson will go after the Republican presidential nomination. Increasingly, however, they think it's likely that this actor, lawyer and former Tennessee senator will succumb, perhaps reluctantly, to the begging of his admirers, like those who send ardent postings to draftfredthompson.com. According to Thursday's Los Angeles Times, he's being urged to accept a role he's "not been gunning for."
"Not gunning for"? In truth, he's spent two decades running a stealth campaign. By astutely choosing his movie and TV parts, Thompson has surreptitiously installed in the national American subconscious the conviction that he's a leader. Since 1987, when he directed the CIA in No Way Out, his roles have implied that he's presidential. He combines shrewdness, fairness, thoughtfulness and (in his speech) front-porch folksiness. What else is there?
It's true, however, that his first appearance in a film probably wasn't part of this long-term scheme. In 1977, he was a lawyer in Tennessee when a parole board worker claimed she had been fired for revealing that the governor was selling pardons to prisoners. After Thompson successfully defended her, the case became the basis of Marie, a 1985 Sissy Spacek movie. Thompson played himself and launched his new career.
That must have been the moment when he realized that acting could take him to the White House. Norman Mailer claimed, in a famous 1960 essay, that John Kennedy united for the first time the two great sources of American mythology, movies and politics. Kennedy was not an actor but he looked like a star and he fancied movie stars as mistresses, a taste inherited from his father, whose longtime girlfriend was Gloria Swanson. More important, in the process Hollywood helped John Kennedy figure out how to capture the public imagination.
Kennedy managed to create a powerful and attractive image by combining the styles of Hollywood and Washington, the equivalent of category-blurring in the retail trade. He founded the tradition that brought Ronald Reagan to power 20 years later and now seems sure to produce the Thompson candidacy.
Unlike Reagan, Thompson was in politics before he was in show business and thus could plan his on-screen career as a way to prepare the voters for his presidential campaign.
Over the years, he's almost always played reassuring and mature authority figures, all of them serious and steady, people you could trust. A writer for Biography magazine claimed that in his first 14 movies he smiled a total of four times.
He's the only Republican candidate with Oval Office experience, having been both a 19th-century president (in a TV movie, Rachel and Andrew Jackson, 2001) and a fictional president dealing with 21st-century terrorists in Last Best Chance, a 45-minute drama ("The terrorists are racing. We are not yet racing to stop them") sponsored in 2005 by the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
In fact, Thompson has plenty of nuclear experience. He was a major -general when the Manhattan Project was designing the first atomic bombs in 1944 ( Fat Man and Little Boy, 1989) and a rear admiral ( The Hunt for Red October, 1990) when a Soviet nuclear sub was sneaking up on the American East Coast. He's been White House chief of staff ( In the Line of Fire, 1993) and a chief air traffic controller ( Die Hard 2, 1990) as well as a police detective and an FBI agent.
Thompson's most famous role, as district attorney on Law & Order for 111 episodes (so far), allows him to exhibit a magnificent combination of book learning and old-fashioned, down home common sense. He liked the image-enriching possibilities of the Law & Order gig so much that he grabbed it in the fall of 2002, becoming (till he left office early in 2003) the first politician ever to hold a steady acting job while still collecting his pay as a senator.
Once in a while, he accidentally plays a character who is not entirely distinguished. In the misbegotten 1993 remake of Born Yesterday he played (as I recall) a corrupt senator selling his vote to a boorish gangster (John Goodman). Fortunately, no one except critics saw that movie and if it causes trouble his supporters can buy up all extant copies of the DVD for $1.10 a gross.
Thompson also had a cameo in a Sex and the City episode titled Politically Erect. But that just proves he's human. It even carries a political advantage. It provides something to repent when he's chasing the Evangelical Christian vote.