|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
Freshly minted GOP White House hopeful Fred Thompson puzzled Iowans yesterday by insisting an Al Qaeda smoking ban was one reason freedom-loving Iraqis bolted to the U.S. side.
"They said, 'You gotta quit smoking,'" Thompson explained to a questioner asking about progress in Iraq during a town hall-style meeting.
Thompson said the smoking ban and terror tactics Al Qaeda used to oppress women and intimidate local leaders pushed tribes in western Anbar Province to support U.S. troops.
But Thompson's tale of a smokers' revolt baffled some in the audience of about 150 who came to decide whether the former Tennessee senator is ready for prime time.
"I don't know what that was about," said Jim Moran, 72, who had driven from nearby McCook Lake, S.D.
Iowans, several of whom told the Daily News they were intrigued by Thompson's down-home charm, got their first extended chance to press for details of his broad theme of "common-sense conservatism."
On abortion, Thompson said he would appoint judges in favor of overturning Roe vs. Wade but had reservations about a constitutional amendment banning it.
He also said he'd finish a wall along the Mexican border to stop illegal immigration: "We get to decide who comes into our home."
Thompson said "things are turning around" in Iraq and that troop reductions should not be linked to some "arbitrary time line."
His cue to stop talking came from 4-year-old daughter Hayden, who came on stage with a bow in her hair to tug on Thompson's pants leg - drawing "oohs" from the audience.
The ol' Southern lawyer Freddie Dalton Thompson stands before two stuffed chickens and a fake white picket fence, where a plastic grapevine pretends to grow at the end of a phony Main Street. He's here to tell a crowd of a couple hundred that he is the real thing, a small-town boy who never had much ambition, who never grew up wanting to be president, who still doesn't know where he stands on many issues -- but ain't America a wonderful country.
"My story is just another American story," says the former senator, his baritone Tennessee drawl rounding the edges of his words. "Growing up in a town that wasn't quite this big. My folks came in off the farm. Didn't get a chance to go to high school or any further education. Had to go to work. Became the most wonderful parents anybody could have. Because they really saw in me a little more than I saw in myself sometimes."
Thompson goes on like this for about 20 minutes, keeping the crowd's interest, even though they are squeezed in like matchsticks at one end of Music Man Square, an indoor museum built to celebrate the musical of the same name. "I've seen America from every vantage point. I've seen it from the factory floor on the graveyard shift," he says. "I've been able to dine in foreign capitals with foreign leaders all over the world."
His speech patterns are hypnotic and calming. He paces back and forth, looking at shoes as often as faces. Nothing is forced, emotional or too complex. He explains his decision to abandon a lucrative acting career for the world's most difficult job, presidential candidate, as if he woke up one morning and decided to put down the whiskey bottle for his family. "I could sit back and read somebody else's script and maybe clip coupons once in a while," he says. "Or I could step up."
He chose the latter, however hesitantly, leading to his Republican campaign announcement on "The Tonight Show" last Wednesday, followed by a chartered bus tour of Iowa's browning cornfields -- three days, six events, about as many folksy aphorisms as there are catfish in a Mississippi mud pond.
Add Thompson's 6-foot, 5-inch frame to the mix, and his advantage is clear. He is new to the game, and unlike all these politicians who try so hard, he is just like you. He even says so on the stump. "Let's get right to the chase," he told a crowd in Sioux City on Friday. "The main question that you have a right to know from me is why I'm running for president. And the answer is pretty simple. I'm just like you are."
"It really doesn't matter what issue is at hand as long as he has the fundamentals and the principles to make the right decision," one Republican voter, a maintenance man named Chris Enos, told me after Thompson spoke in Cedar Rapids on Saturday. "He's everybody's dad. He's everybody's grandpa. He just is a likable person."
After Thompson finished up in Mason City, I fell into conversation with Dean Davidson, a Republican business consultant from Minneapolis, who had stopped by during a visit to Iowa to see some family. "I get so tired of the people who say they know the answers to everything," he told me, explaining the Thompson appeal. "When he talks about working on the factory floor, dirt under your fingernails, and how his parents taught him to achieve something, that's me." After an event in Des Moines, a third voter, Jim Deeds, explained the magic this way. "He's the real deal," he said. "He's not Ronald Reagan, but he's a close second."