With his own brand of folksy charm, Fred Thompson finally declared on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” that he is running for president.
Greeted by thunderous applause, it was by no means unexpected, after the media and political community waited for months for some kind of announcement. He defended his decision to wait until after Labor Day to enter the contest for the GOP nomination, noting that it is traditionally when candidates have launched their presidential pursuits.
He then added, in an apparent dig at the early entrants into the race, “If you can’t get your message out in a few months, you’re probably never going to get it out.”
While much media focused on the fact that he was launching his campaign from the friendly environs of a talk show set, it is not so unconventional. John McCain announced on “Late Show with David Letterman” in April that he was running for president, and Arnold Schwarzenegger jumped into the race for California’s 2003 gubernatorial recall election on the Leno.
What was notable, however, was that Thompson chose Leno over attending the latest GOP presidential debate in New Hampshire, where candidates made a few soft jabs at his decision to skip the forum. John McCain said, “Maybe we’re up past his bedtime.”
Thompson, however, said that he would “have an opportunity to debate a lot” in upcoming forums.
His “Tonight Show” appearance was a follow up to a June guest spot on Leno’s show in which Thompson said he was “testing the waters.” At the time, many expected Thompson to get in the race shortly after Independence Day. But he didn’t, and many wondered what was taking so long.
“You have been in the water a while now,” Leno said. “Are you beginning to get wrinkly?”
“These wrinkles don’t come from the water,” Thompson quipped.
He also took issue with suggestions that he would be a lazy campaigner, noting that he had run two successful Senate races in Tennessee where he ended up 20 points ahead.
“I must like campaigning enough to get the job done,” he said.
Thompson defended the decision to go to war in Iraq, noting that Saddam Hussein otherwise would still be in power in a nuclear arms race with Iran and that his sones would “still be putting people in shredders.” He warned that to pull out now would show that the U.S. didn’t have the resolve to fight terrorism around the globe.
“I don’t think we can afford to go into a situation and not show resolve,” he said.
Leno, however, pressed Thompson on what he meant by saying that the U.S. needs to stay in Iraq until troops “get the job done.” The newly declared candidate again stressed the need to show resolve and to drive al Queda from the country, even given the casualties in the country.
“It is the choice of two bad choices, not a good and a bad,” he said.
He signalled that his campaign would emphasize the global war on terror and national security.
“This is a battle against freedom and tyranny worldwide,” he said. “The good guys need to be on one side.”
With many conservatives unhappy about the choice of candidates so far, Thompson is being viewed as a candidate with hefty credentials in the vein of Ronald Reagan.
Nevertheless, radio talk host Rush Limbaugh was critical of Thompson’s decision to announce on Leno.
He said, “The one thing about it that bothers me — and I’m not rooted in fuddy-duddiness here, although it may sound like it to some of you but — is I think the office of the presidency has a certain stature, and I don’t like to see it linked or tied to pop culture. Pop culture is by definition one of the low common denominators of our society.
If a president won’t go on The Tonight Show as president, he shouldn’t go on as a candidate. I guess it’s one of the things I’ve always noticed. Presidential candidates will go do all kinds of things that once they become president, they’d say, “I’m not going to go see the Butter Princess at the Iowa State Fair! What do you mean?”
There also were doubts coming from New Hampshire party officials, stung by Thompson’s decision to skip the first GOP debate there.
“There is a genuine interest in Senator Thompson here, as real curiosity aboiut him,” the state’s Republican chairman Fergus Cullen told the AP. “But that curiosity is giving way to skepticism and maybe even cynicism about him in part because of how he’s handling his grand entrance. For him to then go on Jay Leno the same night and be trading jokes while other candidates are having a substantive discussion on issues is not going to be missed by New Hampshire voters.”
He was right. There were jokes. Leno said during his monologue, “Newsweek’s cover story is on Fred Thompson’s presidential campaign. You learn a lot about him — for example, he got married when he was 17, which caused a huge scandal in his small Tennessee hometown. Apparently he chose to marry outside the family.”
Thompson quipped later, “We’ll let that Tennessee joke slide…until after the election.”
In his announcement video, Thompson mentions his “most unlikely part-time movie career.” He emphasizes national security, lower taxes and federalism along with other “conservative principles.”