Tuesday, May 8, 2007
Mood Ring: If malaise, like revenge, is a dish best served cold, the Bush administration is keeping Republicans exceedingly well-fed. In the latest Newsweek poll, the president matched Jimmy Carter's record low with a 28 percent approval rating. It took Richard Nixon a quarter-century to have Seven Crises. For George W. Bush, seven crises is a pretty good week.
Republican presidential candidates are trying their hardest to look on the bright side. At last week's debate at the Reagan Library, the field mentioned optimism more often than bin Laden. Giuliani chanted the word four times—three times in a single answer. Bush's favorite word, resolve, didn't come up once.
Republicans may be right to miss Reagan—not because his policies worked, but because the country has so soured on their party that only an actor could still put on a happy face. That's the role many Republicans have scripted for Fred Thompson. They don't much care what he stands for, provided he can cheer Republicans up.
If that's his goal, Thompson got off to an odd start in an address to Orange County conservatives this weekend. Jonathan Martin, who covers Republicans for the Politico, said Thompson's speech was "low key and at times meandering." Robert Novak, conservatism's biggest grump, called it "a downer." (Ironically, the best part of Thompson's speech was his joke that he'd spent the whole night trying to keep Novak from seeing his notes.)
Far from helping Republicans escape their despair, Thompson couldn't stop reminding them of it. "We've had our ups and our downs," he said, insisting that the party's post-Watergate gloom wasn't as bad as it seemed at the time. He warned that we're "even hearing that old malaise talk we used to hear," then indulged in some, noting that there's "some concern that maybe we're slipping away like all the great powers have."
Thompson echoed another actor-turned-politician by repeatedly borrowing Arnold Schwarzenegger's trademark tic, "and things of that nature." He closed his speech by inadvertently giving a good impression of Reagan's famous "Highway 1" closing statement in the second 1984 debate. In Thompson's rambling story, a group of sixth-graders in North Hollywood asked him why he went into politics. The question made him think back to Washington, Lincoln, the Revolutionary War, and our common heritage. The answer: not clear.
But the award for most surprising performance by an anecdote in a supporting role goes to two other historical cameos in Thompson's speech. In a rare turn for the 2008 Republican campaign trail, Thompson praised Wendell Willkie, the Republican nominee who lost the 1940 election in a landslide but became one of FDR's most important allies.
More remarkably, Thompson went out of his way to stick up for perhaps the greatest wimp of the 20th century: Neville Chamberlain. The Bush administration has spent the last six years trying to tie Democrats to Neville Chamberlain. Don't even ask how he got there, but Thompson was working off a different set of talking points. He didn't defend Chamberlain's record, but he did paraphrase Churchill's eulogy to say, "Neville Chamberlain marched in the ranks of honor."
Perhaps that was Thompson's indirect way of saying something nice about Bush. The next line in Churchill's eulogy fits Bush even better: "It fell to [him] in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man." More likely, Thompson was just making the noble point that compared with politicians today, Churchill was a class act.
In any case, it's a modern political first: Fred Thompson could go down in history as the only presidential candidate in either party to put in a good word for Neville Chamberlain.
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