What Makes Thompson Different

(John P. Filo/CBS)
Jeff Greenfield is senior political correspondent for CBS News.
There's an almost compulsory list of items to tick off when you talk about Fred Thompson's now-certain Presidential campaign:

- Watergate lawyer asking the "smoking gun" question to Alexander Butterfield about a taping system inside the White House...check.

- Actor who played roles ranging from White House chief of Staff to President of the United States to pro-life conservative Manhattan DA Arthur Branch on "Law and Order"...check.

- Won a Senate seat in 1994 campaigning in a red pickup tuck to symbolize just-plain-folks roots...check.

- Married a much-younger, attractive woman whose credentials as a veteran political staff person get blithely ignored...check.

But here's the part about Thompson's campaign that really intrigues me. It just could be that he intends to run a very different kind of campaign--stylistically and substantively.

The "style" part comes in large measure from his comfort in front of the camera. One of his most eye-opening moments came on a YouTube video when he mocked filmmaker Michael Moore, who'd attacked him as a hypocrite for being anti-Castro while smoking Cuban cigars. In the video, he is revealed with a huge stogie in his hand.

But the more significant potential break with tradition is the nature of his message. A couple of years back, in an interview with me long before the prospect of a Presidential run had entered his head, Thompson spoke with passion about the unwillingness of many politicians to speak plainly, clearly, and bluntly with voters. They're afraid, he said--afraid if they take a risk, they'll lose their jobs. The fact is, he added, voters will embrace that kind of honesty.

In a recent speech to Midwest Republicans, Thompson seemed to be testing that premise. He spoke of the danger facing the country--of the possibility that "if we continue on our present course, we will be a weaker, less prosperous, more divided" nation. He spoke of the current economic trends--especially the growth of entitlements--as "unsustainable."

When he finally, formally throws his hat in the ring, it will be fascinating to see if Thompson practices what he preached back then. If he does, it will add yet more spice to one of the intriguing pre-presidential years I've ever seen.