Will Fred Thompson's Unorthodox Media Strategy Pay Off?
Years ago, I remember hearing from our then-political editor about an unusual tactic presidential candidate George W. Bush was trying in his first run at the job -- scheduling interviews with local TV stations to avoid the seasoned national press and speak more directly to voters.
I was reminded of that neat bit of media jujitsu while checking out Fred Thompson's long-delayed announcement that he's getting into this presidential race -- delivered, appropriately enough for an ex-actor, on the showbiz forum of least resistance, Jay Leno's Tonight Show.
When did the sophomoric Leno become the place where Hollywood-friendly pols reveal their ambitions? Like Schwarzenegger before him, Thompson was able to sidestep the crowd of Republicans gathered for yet another debate in New Hampshire with his own series of controlled, marginally hip announcements which played to his strengths while giving him the center stage.
"For those who talk about that New Hampshire situation...it's a lot more difficult to get on the Tonight Show than it is to get in any presidential debate," Thompson cracked to Leno, sounding more like a Left Coast insider than the plain-folks politician he's playing on the stump.
His Tonight Show flyby -- where the toughest test he faced was pretending the fake campaign bumpers stickers Leno cooked up as a visual gag were actually funny -- was only the beginning. Thompson also released a windy announcement on his Web site and ran an ad during last night's Republican debate.
Such stunts drive the traditional campaigners and political press crazy; it feels like cutting in line to get a concert ticket everyone else waited days to buy. But last night's media trifecta gave him exposure without the possibility of a gaffe or unexpected questions -- manna from heaven for a politician.
I'm not with those who think Thompson's getting in too late or looking lazy. Just because political hacks have been knocking themselves out for more than a year on this campaign, that doesn't mean the American people have spent much effort on it. They are only now starting to pay serious attention, and Thompson timed his announcement to capitalize on all trends: avoiding serious and stringent questions for as long as possible, only to enter the race at a time when people are finally starting to take a look, when he needs to start raising money.
Indeed, Thompson's only problem may be himself. Even on Leno, a forum he owned indisputably, the former senator looked a bit tired and lethargic. If you look unenthusiastic and reluctant when you're getting pitched the slowest softballs in the park, how are you going to look on a stage surrounded by eight other red tie-wearing, balding white guys who love Ronald Reagan? (he was, however, energetic enough to date country singer Lorrie Morgan, left)
Thompson may be the next Republican actor to walk in Reagan's shoes as a "great communicator." But first he has to look like he wants the part.
Check out how Fox gets Fred's fellow Republicans to take their shots at him during the debate: