Newsweek, September 10, 2007

The Editor's Desk
Jon Meacham
SECTION: SOCIETY; Pg. 4, 599 words

Howard Baker sensed it early. In 1966, after he became the first Republican senator from Tennessee since Reconstruction, he asked his aide Bill Hamby to keep an eye out for fresh talent for the nascent state GOP. By 1972, when Baker was running for re-election, Hamby had found someone to help the senator in Middle Tennessee: Fred D. Thompson, the son of a used-car salesman from tiny Lawrenceburg. "Fred was a tough young man," Baker said last Thursday from his law office in Huntsville, Tenn. "We were driving around, and I remember thinking, Hamby found a good one here.”

Hamby had indeed. A surprising amount of political history gets made on long stretches of highway as aspiring young staffers or volunteers drive congressmen or senators from stop to stop. Politicians and their aides tend to bond in these hours of moving from barbecues to Rotary clubs to editorial-board meetings. When Thompson--lawyer, actor and former senator--announces his candidacy for president this week, he will, in a way, be completing a journey that began with Baker in the 1972 campaign. A journey of such epic scope would have been unthinkable if not for another car ride, this one in early 1973, when Thompson rode to the airport with Baker after a Tennessee Association of Accountants luncheon in Nashville. On the way, Baker asked whether Thompson would be interested in serving as minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee. It was Thompson’s first, but hardly his last, turn on the national stage.

Thirty-four years later, Thompson is about to audition for the biggest role of all and, as Holly Bailey reports in our cover story, he faces an intriguing challenge. One of his clearest assets, his laid-back persona, is also a potential liability, for he must make clear that his slower pace manifests serenity rather than laziness. The question is so widespread in political circles that Steve Gill, a Nashville radio host, felt compelled to raise it (if only to knock it down) in his 2007 pro-Thompson book "The Fred Factor." In a section titled "Yeah, but ... " Gill writes: "Is Fred a lazy campaigner? ... The so-called 'fire in the belly' is seen as an essential element of winning the White House by many pundits. Many have expressed doubt that Fred Thompson has it.”

Our view, as we say in our cover line, is that Thompson is lazy like a fox. He may appear detached, but no one rises as far as he has without talent and toil. We will soon see whether his light Senate record (four bills to his name in eight years) will be held against him, or whether his commanding presence and presidential pitch, whatever it may be, will win out as he chases front runner Rudy Giuliani and defines himself against Mitt Romney and John McCain.

Presidential candidates are ultimately judged on conviction (what they believe, and which policies they pursue) and on character (who they really are, and how that affects the decisions they make). Promises about policy are easier to evaluate than matters of temperament, which means perhaps the most elusive questions for voters are these: What are those who would be president really like? What are their passions, predilections, sins and strengths? How would they govern? Character matters, and in the coming months we hope to explore the lives and careers and hopes and ambitions of the field.

Asked about the laziness rap on Thompson last week, Baker replied, "Fred was grumping about that to me the other day, and I told him, 'They've got to criticize you for something, and that's not a bad one, because you can disprove it'." Now is his chance.

-Jon Meacham