Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Thompson's Approach to the Truth Would Make Him W, Part Two

I believe that Tom, while a very nice guy, is the Devil. ... What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he's around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I'm semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation ...
- Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) talking about news reporter Tom Grunick (William Hurt) in the 1987 film "Broadcast News," written by James L. Brooks

As usual, with CNN tied up covering its attractive-woman-in-peril story of the moment yesterday, I had to go in search of "real" news online. While trying to find out what was happening in the world beyond the murder of a pregnant Ohio woman, I read a Yahoo!/AP article about former U.S. Senator (R-Tenn.) and future presidential candidate Fred Thompson's comments addressing his past as a lobbyist, work that earned him, according to the article, more than $1 million.

According to the article, Thompson said, "Nobody yet has pointed out any of my clients that didn't deserve representation." Then, that very article noted that he had represented deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (a proponent of "necklacing," the killing of people by placing gas-soaked tires on them and lighting them on fire), as well as "a savings-and-loan deregulation bill that helped hasten the industry's collapse and a failed nuclear energy project that cost taxpayers more than a billion dollars."

A June 7 USA Today article revealed that Thompson lobbied for "Equitas Ltd., a British reinsurance company set up to handle billions of dollars in claims by asbestos victims," working with Harold Ickes, a Clinton aide he investigated while chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs. According to a article, the goal of working with Equitas was to "limit its liability from asbestos lawsuits."

Thompson might be proud of his lobbying record, but it's quite clear that he wasn't pushing for clean air, safe cars or the airing of more "Law and Order" spin-offs.

Now, nobody is accusing Thompson of doing anything illegal. He is allowed to cash in on his government service by exerting his influence on behalf of causes that are legal, even if they may be distasteful to most people. After all, the tobacco companies are staffed up at every level with people willing to make their livings off of something they know is killing massive amounts of people.

But, Thompson is about to toss his cowboy hat (the one he wore as he campaigned for the Senate in Tennessee as a "country lawyer") into the ring for the presidency, so the nature of his past work is fair game in deciding if he is fit to hold the highest office in the country. Republicans are quick to point out that John Edwards was a personal injury lawyer, so it must be relevant that Thompson worked for savings-and-loan criminals and a dictator (according to the Yahoo!/AP article, Aristide said of necklacing, "The burning tire, what a beautiful tool!") and against asbestos victims.

Unfortunately, Thompson seems to be adept at running plays from the George W. Bush playbook, building a persona that has no basis in reality, but one that the American people would nonetheless buy into.

Bush was the son of a president and the grandson of a U.S. Senator (from Connecticut of all places!), and yet he passed himself off as one of the guys, just a jovial shit-kicker with a ranch in Texas who would rather clear brush than hang out with elitists and intellectuals (you know, people that know stuff and, gasp, read newspapers). Bush then campaigned as a "compassionate" conservative, but based on his policies, the only things he seems to be compassionate to are rich people, oil companies and funeral homes. He certainly didn't show much compassion to the people of New Orleans, nor is he showing any compassion to the Reserves and National Guard troops who have essentially been drafted for a misguided escapade in Iraq. And, most of all, Bush portrayed himself in 2004 as being the man most deserving of serving as commander in chief in a time of war, even though he used his family connections to weasel out of having to serve in Vietnam, and then couldn't even complete his cushy Guard duty handed to him to avoid having to see action.

Thompson is a career politician and lobbyist whose allegiance is to the same people Bush has bowed down before and served for the last six-and-a-half years. But, like Bush, Thompson is portraying himself as an outsider, someone Americans can view as "just like them." Being a professional actor, especially one typecast in roles of tough-but-fair authority figures, doesn't hurt his ability to fill out a persona that is appealing, even if it is wholly false.

Albert Brooks's character in "Broadcast News" might as well have been talking about Thompson when he gave the speech quoted at the top of this article. Thompson is an engaging, folksy, likable, comforting figure as an actor, but just like his work in film and television, as a politician, he is playing a role. After all, if he came out and said, "I'm a hard-line, right wing, extreme conservative who will fight for the profits of corporations before the day-to-day problems facing average Americans, and I will push through a religiously-influenced, conservative social agenda that is not supported by a majority of the country's citizens," he could not get elected. (Although, that stance might guarantee him the Republican nomination.)

Thompson is trying to lull Americans into a sense of comfort, so he can lift their wallets and send their young adult children off to war. It worked for Bush, so why wouldn't it work again? One of the commentators on "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos last Sunday made the argument that in 2000 and 2004, the electorate voted for the more "likable" candidate. But, after six-and-a-half years of one disaster after another in the Bush administration, in 2008, Americans are looking for competence over personality. It's a nice theory, but, sadly, I don't buy it. The premise of his argument is that Americans are paying attention, but I'm not sure that's true. I saw on television recently that 40 percent of Rudy Giuliani's supporters didn't know his stance on abortion. When push comes to shove, it's going to be about Thompson's folksy charm for too many voters.

Which brings the discussion back to Thompson's lobbying history. Everyone has to earn a living, but it takes a certain kind of person to be able to completely compartmentalize the morals of a client in order to make a fast buck. Thompson might be charismatic, but he had no trouble shilling for a brutal dictator and white collar criminals. The fact that he's made those choices, to me, shines a light the size of the sun on who he is and how he would govern as the president. Unfortunately, for every one person that read even one of the articles on Thompson's lobbying history, there are thousands (maybe millions) who have followed the murder of the pregnant woman in Ohio, as if that was the important story of the day. How many Americans even know Thompson was a lobbyist? As a result, Thompson will mostly likely be able to thrive without his work history so much as slowing him down.

Brooks's "Broadcast News" character, Aaron Altman, doesn't get what he really wants, the love of Holly Hunter's Jane Craig, who chooses to run off with William Hurt's Tom Grunick instead. But, Aaron does figure out that Tom had to fake crying while doing an interview with a rape victim, and his tip to Jane leads to her dumping Tom before they leave on their island vacation. It's up to the Democrats, in Aaron's position, to make the American people, taking Jane's place, understand that Thompson, like Tom, is the devil. Like Jane, the American people will not fall in love with the Democrats, but, like Aaron, the Democrats have to do just enough for the American people to see Thompson's true nature. It's their only chance for a quasi-happy ending.