As the ten declared Republican presidential candidates traveled to Columbia, South Carolina, last Tuesday to participate in a nationally televised GOP debate, Fred Thompson stayed home. While the announced candidates put on suits, smiled, and fielded questions about Iraq, taxes, and terrorism, Thompson shot a homemade video to be posted on the Internet responding to a frivolous attack from lefty filmmaker Michael Moore.
To some, it was an odd decision. Why would Thompson choose to engage a hack propagandist looking for publicity while his would-be rivals discussed the important issues of the day at a forum designed to make them look "presidential" (even with Ron Paul on the stage)? It would take several days, but by week's end the answer would be clear.
Here's the backstory. Moore is preparing to release a new "documentary" on the U.S. health care system. He traveled to Cuba for some of the filming in an effort to contrast the care available to Americans with that provided by Fidel Castro's regime. (In Moore's world, the comparison favors Cuba. Seriously.) Thompson criticized the trip. Moore, seizing on a detail from a story in The Weekly Standard last month — that Thompson's office features many boxes of Montecristo cigars — wrote a letter to Thompson suggesting the former senator is a hypocrite for liking to smoke Cubans. Moore challenged Thompson to a debate on health care. The letter was first reported Tuesday morning on the Drudge Report, the news website once derided by mainstream reporters as too gossipy and now has become the most important political site on the Internet.
Two of Thompson's informal advisers made their way out to his Northern Virginia home with a cameraman and an Apple laptop. As they did, Thompson composed a response in his head. When they arrived, he did a quick run-through as they set up, and then recorded the 38-second video in one take. There was little discussion of the wisdom of a response. Thompson wanted to do it as soon as he heard about the letter from Moore, and four hours later his response was online.
"You know, I've been looking at my schedule, Michael, and I don't think I have time for you," said Thompson, sitting in a leather chair, chomping on a big cigar. "But I may be the least of your problems. You know, the next time you're down in Cuba visiting your buddy Castro, you might ask him about another documentary filmmaker. His name is Nicolas Guillen. He did something Castro didn't like and they put him in a mental institution for several years, giving him devastating electroshock treatment. A mental institution, Michael. Might be something you ought to think about."
The video response, released to the Breitbart.tv website and also linked on Drudge, was played more than 200,000 times that day. By the end of the week, that number would have more than tripled. Conservative blogs posted the video with their own commentary on Moore and Thompson, the former deemed moronic and the latter most excellent.
It wasn't just the Internet. CNN ran the Thompson video in full the next day. So did MSNBC. The Associated Press distributed a story about the confrontation on its wire. The New York Daily News highlighted the exchange and, more important, so did the Des Moines Register. That night, Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly replayed part of the video on his ratings-topping show and discussed it at length in his "Impact" segment. Said O'Reilly, "I'm giving it a win for Fred Thompson."
The GOP debate went well. Both Rudy Giuliani and John McCain turned in strong performances, and Mitt Romney, the clear winner of the first contest, didn't do anything to hurt himself. Still, Thompson's tête-à-tête with Moore ensured that he was mentioned in post-debate analysis. National Journal's Hotline, the insider's guide to campaign reporting and analysis, put it this way: "Thanks to Michael Moore, Fred Thompson may have upstaged the entire GOP field without even showing up to 5/15's debate." Thompson was named the winner of the debate in an unscientific poll on Glenn Reynolds's high-traffic conservative/libertarian blog, Instapundit.com. And on it went.
When Thompson and his advisers talk about running a "different kind of campaign," this is what they mean. They believe he can use the Internet — in videos, audio files, and written commentary — to communicate directly with voters. His message will be unfiltered and therefore somewhat protected from mischaracterization by a left-leaning press corps in Washington. Campaign events will be filmed and posted so that interested parties — in this case, very interested parties — can see for themselves whether a Thompson performance was actually "lackluster" or lackluster only in the eyes of reporters. It is all part of Thompson's plan.
And Thompson is planning to run for president. His friends and advisers have moved on from the will-he-won't-he talk of just a month ago. Now, they speak of an exploratory committee. Barring some new unforeseen obstacle, he will be in by late June.
Thompson has had a timeline in mind ever since he told Chris Wallace in early March that he was seriously considering a bid. Despite lots of advice about the timing of an announcement — most of it unsolicited — his timeline remains largely unchanged. (When I pressed him on whether he'd be a full-fledged candidate by the Iowa straw poll in Ames on August 11, Thompson demurred, saying only that he was well aware of the date.)
The current challenge is to keep uncommitted Republicans and other potential supporters in the uncommitted camp. Underneath the smiling public faces, Republican candidates have been engaged in a ferocious battle to secure endorsements, to build organizations in early primary states, and to land top fundraisers. Elected officials who have not yet committed to one of the announced candidates are being encouraged by those candidates — in some cases threatened — to do so soon, so as to keep them from waiting for a possible Thompson announcement.
Even as Thompson gets pressure to accelerate his schedule from those folks and others, he seems content to do things his own way. And he makes no apologies about the cigars, either.
"As to the cigars, they are the result of the generosity of a friend of mine who gives me a few from time to time. We intend to see to it that they are destroyed over the next few months." No doubt one at a time.
By Stephen F. Hayes