When an Iowa voter recently asked him about the intensity of his motivation for running, former Republican Fred Thompson admitted “I’m not particularly interested in running for president.” This statement confirmed the media spin on Thompson as too lazy and too disengaged. But Thompson’s admission may be the sanest statement a candidate has made on the campaign trail in years.
Years ago the venerable Washington Post columnist David Broder coined “Broder’s Law,” suggesting that all those willing to endure the indignities of the campaign thereby revealed they were “too loony to be trusted with the office.” Alas, too many of Broder’s journalistic colleagues take the opposite tack, assuming that running for president like crazy is a minimum requirement for being president. As a result, in the last few presidential cycles, marginal candidates like Ron Paul and Al Sharpton have enjoyed serious media exposure – exploiting reporters’ love of an offbeat story and the absurd party policies giving long-shot candidates equal billing in the joint candidate press conferences frequently mislabeled “debates.”
Perhaps these reporters are suffering from the same sleep-deprivation and fast-food highs they impose on the candidates. It is a funny thing. On one hand, the relentless media exposure and scrutiny do prepare a candidate for life as president. On the other hand, the campaign trail’s 24/7 chaotic, dyspeptic, but intensely democratic Holiday Inn-hop – especially in the demanding, one-on-one states like Iowa and New Hampshire – represents a dramatic contrast to the coddled monarchical splendor of White House life. The modern American president lives in a palatial cocoon cut off from the realities of everyday life. The campaign trail has its own illusory reality – but cushy, it ain’t.
On a deeper level, reporters frequently confuse ambition with ability. A longstanding, deep-burning desire for office should not be a qualification for the presidency. In George Washington’s day, excessive ambition was one of the qualities Americans most feared in a politician. While we need not return to the eighteenth century’s elaborate posturing, a little perspective on life and on politics can go a long way in grounding a leader. This lack of perspective is one of the distinguishing characteristics of both Hillary and Bill Clinton – and feeds many Americans’ deep suspicions of them. In 2000, one source of George W. Bush’s appeal was his relaxed approach to the presidential quest; Al Gore appeared far too keen, far too invested and thus far too desperate. (Of course, observers of the Bush presidency can make the case that a little more zeal and perseverance would make for a more effective administrator).
Fred Thompson needs to fine-tune his message, so that his insouciance does not appear to be lazy, sloppy, or contemptuous. His role model, Ronald Reagan, aptly conveyed that sense to the American people, showing just enough perspective to carve out time for napping, without appearing dismissive of the president’s serious responsibilities. Of course, Reagan’s casual detachment drove reporters to distraction.
Then again, maybe it was jealousy. When Reagan napped, reporters stewed, waiting for a story to file before deadline. When Reagan vacationed, reporters followed, having to hustle twice as hard for a story half as interesting. Thompson’s great offense may be suggesting he will be less worried about feeding the insatiable media maw and more concerned with doing his job while preserving some measures of privacy and sanity.