Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sleepwalking in September

By GAIL COLLINS
Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
September 13, 2007

Fred! Fred!

He’s here. He’s tanned. He’s ready.

He looks like he needs a nap.

When it comes to overhyped underperformers, Fred Thompson’s entry into the presidential race was right up there with Britney Spears at the MTV awards.

The Republican Party’s great tall hope announced his intentions on Jay Leno’s show, and timed it to coincide with his avoidance of the candidate debate in New Hampshire. That was supposed to send the message of — what? A fear of crowds? A preference for answering questions only while seated? His performance certainly could not have been more low-key. You do not often hear somebody say “I’m running for president” in the same tone Jay’s guests use to announce that they’ve signed on for the next season of “Dancing With the Stars.”

Then Thompson climbed onto a bus for a trip through Iowa and other states that are going to be first to vote, even if they have to hold the elections tomorrow. It quickly became apparent that whatever our newest top-tier candidate had been up to during those long months of water-testing did not involve practicing a speech. In Iowa, he rambled. The Daily News reported that at one town hall meeting he seemed to be telling the audience that Americans were winning over Iraqis because of Al Qaeda’s no-smoking policy. He appeared to be developing a different position on Osama bin Laden for every state.

(Best guess now is that Thompson wants to see bin Laden “caught and killed,” then granted due process.)

On the subject of gay marriage, he told an interviewer for the Christian Broadcast Network that he had an idea for a constitutional amendment that would “prevent that one state moving from another and someone having to recognize it.”

This was supposed to be the answer to the Republican core’s primal pain. Find us somebody to nominate! Someone slightly less smarmy than Mitt and slightly less strange than Rudy. “My story is an American story ... a small-town kid of modest means and modest goals,” Thompson tells the voters on his Fred08 Web site. Viewers can feel free to recall that Mitt Romney’s dad was a business tycoon and governor. And you can be sure that Fred was not spending his teens founding a high-school opera club like some former New York City mayors we could name.

Thompson, by all accounts, was indeed an underachiever who rose to fame and fortune mainly through powerful friends and good luck. The perfect answer for a country reeling from two terms with an underachiever who rose to fame and fortune mainly through powerful friends and good genes. And so far at least, it’s working in the polls. An affable guy who doesn’t try hard — what could be more refreshing?

There was always speculation that Thompson’s supporters were trying to cast a president rather than nominate one, and that his big selling point was not a résumé or even a personal story, but simply that down-home aura — a drawl in a nice suit. What nobody really expected, though, was that the former senator/lobbyist/actor would emerge on the political stage in a state of apparent exhaustion. He’s 65, but compared to him, 71-year-old John McCain looks like a pup. Either the guy never had an edge, or he lost it somewhere between “Die Hard 2” and “Baby’s Day Out.”

Or maybe he’s a victim of trying to Have It All.

You may have heard that Thompson, who was long divorced, married a woman 25 years his junior in 2002. They now have a 3-year-old daughter and an infant son. Everybody started the campaign off together last week. Little Hayden showed a crowd how she could make like an elephant and Samuel got his diaper changed on the bus during a TV interview.

It’s not unusual for wealthy men to decide they can dive into fatherhood and Social Security at the same time. This presidential field is awash with candidates of late-middle-age whose kids can still qualify for Breakfast with Santa. But none are quite so old or have children quite so young as Thompson’s. And these days it’s hard for an overage dad to get away with absentee fatherhood, especially when mom is intimately involved in the management of his campaign, as Jeri Thompson, seems to be. Yes, his wife goes by Jeri Thompson. Maybe the combination of kids and campaigning has left him too ground down to glad hand. Too pooped to pander.

If so, a lot of women are going to find the story very comforting. Not that we’re resentful of the fact that men’s biological clocks never seem to ring. Or that they’re not the ones who have to decide if they can handle both children and a career.

If it turns out that mixing a race for the most powerful job on the planet with two preschoolers is too much for any one 65-year-old man to do, millions of women will say, welcome to the club, Fred. We know how you feel.

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