So, now (or just about now) — Fred Thompson, Republican candidate for president! As Jack Benny replied when the stickup man gave him the choice of his money or his life, "… I’m thinking."
One thing I’m thinking about is the eclipse in our time of the commanding figures who used to line up for the privilege of running America — the Goldwaters, the Tafts, the Ikes, the Roosevelts, the Johnsons, the Nixons. Where did they all go?
I mean no disrespect to ex-Sen. Thompson of Tennessee, for whom I might well vote. We tonsorially challenged souvenirs from the great year 1942 should stick together. Besides, he’s a conservative.
And yet what an odd epoch it is in which we find Democrats disputing among themselves over the tendered services of a trial lawyer, a senator barely dry behind the ears and the wife and partner of a president more famous for his scrapes than his achievements — from which point the Democratic search for quality gets more hectic yet: a governor best known for being half-Hispanic and a couple of East Coast senators no one in Dimmit County, Texas, ever heard of.
The Republicans’ jihad involves an ex-big city mayor, a couple of ex-governors, and an ex-media darling (that would be Sen. McCain.). Now an actor. Given how much credit President Reagan bestowed on his original profession, and how theatrical a pastime politics is anyway, we should cut a little slack for Fred Thompson. Still, we’ll have to think about this one. And about the general absence of human skyscrapers on our modern low-rise political cityscape.
Public men and women of hard-won, well-understood substance aren’t in oversupply right now, and the question is why? Why so many Kerrys and Doles and Dukakises, not to mention Trent Lotts, Harry Reids, Chuck Schumers, Chuck Hagels and Barbara Boxers? Why, Lord?
Because the ideal of public service — as exemplified, say, by the Tafts — somehow gave way to self-serving promotional activity on our leaders’ part? You could make such an argument. You could say a kind of narcissism drives a large number of decisions to enter public life and stay there. Our teeming media — the biggest and busiest in all of history — are there to record your every move once you go public, to relay your words and images … everywhere (how about that?).
Does that excite you? It would never have excited the frosty Bob Taft. On the other hand, Lyndon Johnson, no political firefly, loved every millisecond of attention he ever received.
It can’t be alone the media that lower the quality of political presentation at the national level. It has to be something more. Something like the frustration of trying to achieve anything that matters? The government, meaning the bureaucracy, runs itself, irrespective of challenges from the outside. Social Security and Medicare are on a collision course with reality. We have over-promised. We can’t deliver. The tax system confuses and stultifies.
Beyond that, interest groups stand ready to block any attempt at meaningful change. Beyond that, no two interest groups agree with each other — the AARP, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Greenpeace, the AFL-CIO, NARAL Pro Choice America. It’s a mighty careful candidate who manages to thread his way among these advocates. By the time he does, does he care any more? Does he remember what he wanted in the first place?
We all know it won’t stay that way forever. Nothing stays the same in the varied circumstances of human life, so subject both to shock and evolution. Meantime it’s reassuring to reflect that even when those assigned, nominally, to maintain the political universe blow it again, life goes on in those places where live the real mainsprings of human existence — mothers, fathers, children, plumbers, cooks, music teachers, golf partners — doing the humdrum things that require no votes, no legislation, no lobbying.
It’s amazing how much simple good you can do outside the purview of presidential candidates and campaign strategists. Maybe we should try it more often!