‘We need to deserve to lead. And this is what this is all about; it’s about deserving to lead.”
That was Fred Thompson on Saturday in South Carolina during a sincere, passionate, well-grounded speech that sounded like his farewell to the campaign trail. With his announcement Tuesday afternoon that he has withdrawn his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president, we now know it was. It was a bittersweet moment for any conservative who had been watching his campaign and wished it had been a more effective one earlier in the process. It was also a moment for the ages — one that every civics class in America should reflect upon: Politics is about policy and service to this great nation; that’s what makes the campaign worthwhile. That’s why you put up with the trophy-wife slanders and Chris Matthews’s questions.
It was about a year ago that Thompson filled in for radio legend Paul Harvey on ABC radio. In commentaries we reprinted here on National Review Online, the former Tennessee senator took on Ahmadinejad, anti-Americanism, Hugo Chavez, feminists, Islamic radicals, and even the Sainted Al Gore’s inconvenient religion. He praised the work of our men and women in uniform. He took on immigration plans offered by the president and John McCain.
You got the sense from those commentaries that he just gets it. He cares about his country and he cares about common sense. The good conservative sense Thompson articulated certainly resonated — the blogosphere got enthused for a possible presidential run. They could get into this guy.
That enthusiasm showed in national polls before he even got into the race. And once he got in, what he lacked in fire on the trail, he made up for with solid conservative policy on Social Security, immigration, and the size of the military. He raised the bar for detailed policy prescriptions. You get the impression from what he says and from how he says it that he’s got consistent conservative instincts. He’s grounded.
You believed him when he said Saturday night, “It’s never been about me. It’s never even been about you. It’s been about our country and about the future of our country …. Our party is being forced to look in the mirror….” If it was about him he’d probably have kept his comfortable Law & Order paycheck (nevermind the syndication paychecks!) and let someone else brave the Iowa State Fair heat and reporters’ comments on his Guccis and golf cart.
They say he had no “fire in the belly.” As he’s put it: If the worst thing you can say about him is that he does not want to be president desperately enough, that’s not a bad position to be in.
What his campaign may have lacked in organizational luster and ambition it made up for in authenticity and charm. You knew his greatest dream in life wasn’t to be president. You knew he’d be happy living life with his family, advising those who wanted his opinion and expertise, talking federalism with Beltway friends on weekends. When he was on Meet the Press a while back, Claremont’s Seth Leibsohn said, admiringly, “Fred came off like his hour there was not the most important thing he had to do that day.” There’s something attractive about that. And that it won’t get you elected president is today’s reality, it’s a reality to reflect on.
“He’s a depth guy,” is the way Rush Limbaugh described the senator. Much, much worse could be said. He has something politicians ought to emulate, who too often have their thoughtfulness media-trained right out of them from the get-go. You saw it in his policy positions; you saw it when he debated our Ramesh Ponnuru on federalism last year; you saw it at times during the debates — especially the last one in South Carolina, where he was clear, commanding, entertaining — and, of course, conservative.
Whoever winds up the Republican nominee for president this year, he’d be doing his country a service if he read Fred’s pre-caucus message to Iowa voters that Thompson posted on his website. In it he listed “the fundamental, conservative principles that have unified us for over two centuries.”
-First, the role of the federal government is limited to the powers given to it in the Constitution
-Second, a dollar belongs in the pocket of the person who earns it, unless the government has a compelling reason why it can use it better
-Third, we don’t spend money we don’t have, or borrow money that our children and grandchildren will have to pay back
-And the best way to avoid war is to be stronger than our enemies. But if we’re caught in a fight, we need to win it because not doing so makes us much more likely to be attacked in the future
-Also the federal judiciary is supposed to decide cases, not set social policy — and bad social policy at that
-And the bigger the government gets, the less competent it is to run our lives.
“Doing our part. Stepping up to the plate. Stepping up for service. Stepping up to do the right thing.” That’s how Fred Thompson put it on Saturday night. That’s what he’s done. And no pandering or hand-holding (or -raising!) along the way.
There’s no doubt we’ll be seeing him again — he’s too invested in this country he loves for us not to. Thank God for Fred Thompson. May he inspire more to serve. And may he encourage us to rethink our may-the-man-with-the-best-soundbites-win electoral process.