Politics & Policy

The Dark-Horse Effect

Once the pundits write a candidate off as a dark horse, they’ll stop at nothing to make the label stick.

The media are beginning to get restless. They are ready for the campaign games to begin, but the contestants are not lining up in the starting gate.

So, with space and airwaves to fill, we are now being treated to the speculative phase of the proceedings. Pollsters and pontificators tell us who is in, who is out, who may be in, who may be out, who is definitely out, and how the outs would do if they got in. Included is the obligatory “dissatisfaction with the field” phenomenon.

This results in another candidate category for the media — candidates who should not get in. These are your “dark horses,” recruited or drafted candidates who have obvious qualities, but who may not be committed to running for president, “deep within their bones.” Critics say these people sometimes wind up running out of a sense of civic obligation instead of an innate desire to spend endless hours in moldy basements with strangers. The pundits believe such candidacies never turn out well.

This is the theme of Ed Kilgore’s recent piece in The New Republic, “The Fred Thompson Effect.” Perhaps you can tell from the title who is being used as exhibit A for Kilgore’s thesis. The dark-horse-as-savior topic is an interesting one, but there is also a collateral issue: In the minds of some commentators, the candidate who enters the fray late (by media standards) is by definition a dark horse, and therefore suspect. That is, the candidate would not be a dark horse if his heart were truly in it. If he had the fire in the belly, he would not be late entering the field. Some writers will go to extremes to make the facts fit their thesis.

Kilgore writes that by the time I announced my candidacy for the 2008 nomination “it was already becoming clear that he lacked commitment. Even before his appearance on Leno [in September 2007], there were abundant signs that he was not running for president, so much as walking — or even riding a golf cart — with abundant stops for rest and ice cream. His first Iowa appearance, in August, was at the Iowa State Fair, a must-do for any candidate, and particularly one like Thompson, who had already skipped the official Straw Poll that serves as the major fundraiser for the state GOP. With the eyes of the first-in-the-nation-caucus state on him, Big Fred showed up at the sweaty, extremely informal event sporting Gucci loafers, and proceeded to spend the day tooling around the fairgrounds in the aforementioned cart — a very big no-no for anyone who wasn’t either disabled or a major fair donor.”

This was taken from a story that Fox News’s Carl Cameron did on my trip to the fair. The story, of course, hit all the media outlets and the blogosphere, and provided an immediate narrative for my opponents in the primary. The next thing I knew, Mitt Romney had a 30-second ad showing him sprinting through the woods, “working hard.”

A few weeks later, another story popped up on a New York Times blog claiming that I’d entered one of Iowa’s many diners, refused to shake hands with a single potential voter, and instead sought refuge from the great unwashed in a private room, where I no doubt propped up my Gucci loafers and indulged in large quantities of ice cream. The Times had to retract its blog post within hours because someone eating at the diner happened to post a cell-phone video showing me disturbing the dining experience of just about everyone in the said diner with handshakes, backslaps, and offers to top off their iced tea. None of that mattered, because such facts got in the way of the media narrative of the dark horse, the reluctant armchair candidate, the candidate with no fire in the belly.

Four years later, the embellishment to sustain the narrative continues. Kilgore himself does it by adding his own bit of fiction to the mix in the form of “abundant stops for rest and ice cream.” Four years from now, I fully expect to read about a 2007 trip to the Iowa State Fair where I was driven around in the back of a stretch Hummer with tinted windows while sporting mirrored sunglasses and a Moammar Qaddafi cape, and being fed grapes by a nubile campaign volunteer.

Here is what happened at the fair.

In the first place, I was escorted by my former colleague in the U.S. Senate, Iowa senator Chuck Grassley. Chuck is a grassroots, pig-farming citizen politician who visits every county in his state every year. Needless to say, Chuck has not spent a lot of time in a golf cart. We walked all over the fairgrounds, shaking hands and visiting with the butter queen, the pork queen, and every other queen that was available. I patted sows and kissed babies (and maybe vice versa). I made one impromptu speech to a little gathering. Chuck and I laughed and poked fun at each other as we worked our way around the fairgrounds. In other words, it was the same kind of day I had had countless times before in Tennessee.

Chuck and I dressed basically the same. As for the shoes: Ladies and gentlemen, I am prepared to take the oath: I am not now, and never have a been, a wearer of Gucci shoes. I have never tried a pair on. I have never been alone in the same room with a Gucci shoe. And I most certainly was not wearing a pair while I was visiting the pigs in Iowa. I must correct this slur upon my reputation! (Granted, I should have taken into account the probability that if Campaign Carl was in the neighborhood and saw anything but a lace-up or a plow shoe, it might befuddle him.)

As for the golf cart, it was getting close to the time I was supposed to do a live CNN interview on the other side of the fairgrounds. Chuck hailed a fair official in a golf cart who gave Chuck and me a lift over to the media interview area. As I recall, that was the end of our visit to the fair.

So Mr. or Ms. Dark Horse, you have not played by the rules, you late-comer, and your belly fire is suspect. And people will go to great lengths to prove their suspicions correct. Therefore, you must be willing to run over your grandmother, mortgage your soul, and behave like an over-caffeinated Elmer Gantry in order to make up for your insolence. Only then will they be comfortable with the idea of your being president.

— Fred Thompson, who represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate from 1994 to 2003, is an actor, lawyer, and political commentator.



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