He’s an actor-turned-politician in the mode of Ronald Reagan, someone who is at ease in front of a camera or a crowd, a man who can charm an audience with a folksy tale or a clever turn of phrase.
But is Fred Thompson truly Reaganesque?
Reagan was, after all, the Great Communicator, a leader so skilled at connecting with his subjects that he has become the standard by which all would-be presidents are judged.
Thompson’s admirers, elated over his decision to seek the Republican nomination for president, already are hailing his candidacy as the second coming of Reagan.
The former Tennessee senator, an ex-prosecutor who plays a stern district attorney on the television crime drama “Law & Order,” is expected to officially enter the race sometime next month.
Like Reagan, Thompson believes in smaller government and fiscal conservatism.
But let’s put aside ideology for a minute and focus on the other trait that he shares with the last actor who was elected president — that is, an innate ability to communicate, to tell a story in a way that captures the public’s attention.
Both men come across as strong, authoritative figures on stage and screen. Their speaking voices are fluent and resonant, though vastly different. Reagan’s was smooth, mellow, grandfatherly. Thompson’s is deep, gruff, sometimes gravelly. Both men were blessed with the gift of gab and a flair for spinning a good yarn.
But is Thompson Reagan’s equal as a communicator?
Thompson does have the Reagan touch, said John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
“Thompson is at ease with the camera,” Geer said. “Certainly, Reagan was at ease with the camera. Second, at least from what I can see so far, Thompson, when he decides to be critical of somebody or question them, he does it in a way that has less of an edge to it than a lot of current politicians, and I think that is also Reaganesque.”
In some ways, though, Thompson seems less like “the Gipper” and more like Sheriff Andy Taylor of the old “Andy Griffith Show,” Geer said.
“He has this kind of disarming quality about him, where he tries to use folksy kinds of metaphors just like Taylor did,” Geer said. “But at the same time, Taylor was the most wily (man) in that entire city. Thompson is very smart as well, so he has this old country-boy kind of routine that I think serves him pretty well.”
Clark Judge, who worked as a speechwriter for Reagan in the White House, also sees a little of Reagan in Thompson.
“Thompson has a very solid, reassuring presence at a podium and before a camera,” Judge said. “He comes across as someone you trust a lot. … Look at him on some of his TV speeches, responses to State of the Union, that sort of thing. He’s very much someone who’s talking to you.”
One of Reagan’s greatest attributes, at least as an orator, was his ability to take written text and give it additional meaning, Judge said.
“For me, it was very, very different listening to Reagan before I started working for him and then listening to him when he was delivering text that I had actually written,” Judge said. “He would find meaning in the text and bring it out through his delivery.”
Judge said he doesn’t know whether Thompson has that talent because he’s never written for him. But, “Thompson is a very effective communicator, which is one reason he has moved up so fast (in the polls),” Judge said.
Others are less impressed by Thompson’s oratory skills.
“He’s no Reagan,” said John Kares Smith, a professor of communications at the State University of New York, an expert in presidential and political communication and a devotee of Thompson’s television show.
“Ronald Reagan had an ability and a real underestimated skill of being able to touch very deep-held American myths and beliefs,” Smith said. “When he would talk about the city on the hill, he really could resonate with our Puritan past. Fred Thompson, I don’t think he has any of those skills at all.”
Thompson “just doesn’t connect the way Reagan did,” Smith said. “Reagan had maybe three ideas, and everybody knew what they were. He knew people. He had a wonderful sense of humor. Fred Thompson is not known for his humor.”
Reagan was also the eternal optimist and, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, used his speeches to raise people’s spirits, said David Johnson, a political consultant in Atlanta who worked on Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in 1988.
“That was Reagan’s whole persona,” Johnson said. “That’s what his greatness was, very much like Jack Kennedy. Thompson, on the other hand, is more a ‘just-the-facts’ type of person. He doesn’t lift to the oratorical lengths that Reagan or Roosevelt did or even Bill Clinton did.”
As evidence, Johnson cited a speech that Thompson gave to a group of Republicans last May. Some complained that the address, Thompson’s first as a prospective presidential candidate, was disappointing.
But whether Thompson can live up to the Reagan legend may be beside the point. He doesn’t have to be a Reagan clone to win the GOP nomination, Judge said.
“The real issue,” Judge said, “is how he compares to the rest of the field.”