Jonah Goldberg
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Here are just a few little-known facts about Fred Thompson: - Every night before going to sleep, Osama bin Laden checks under his bed for Fred Thompson.

- Though Fred Thompson left the Senate in 2003, Harry Reid still hasn't stopped wetting his pants.

- Fred Thompson once ended a filibuster by ripping out a Senator's heart and showing it to him before he died.

- Only two things can kill Superman: Kryptonite and Fred Thompson.

- Fred Thompson once stood on our south border and glared at Mexico. There was no illegal immigration for a month.

- Fred Thompson vows not only to win in Iraq but also to forcefully free Vietnam from Communism, thus giving America a perfect win/loss record for wars again.

- Fred Thompson can open clamshell packaging without the slightest trouble.

These are just a few of the "Fred Thompson Facts" posted on the conservative humor site IMAO (www.imao.us) in March.

As the old proverb goes, there's truth in jest. Obviously, I don't mean to say that it's possible for anyone to open clamshell packaging easily. I nearly lost a thumb recently while trying to extricate a cowgirl doll for my daughter from its plastic cocoon.

But there's no denying that Fred Thompson has one of the most profound personality cults we've seen in politics for a long time. While traveling around the country in recent months, I've been amazed at how many rank-and-file Republicans see Thompson as a secular savior, as if Thompson were designed by GOP-friendly alien scientists as some sort of Super Candidate.

For some skeptical observers, this has resulted in comparisons to retired General Wes Clark, the Democrats' onetime man on a white horse. "Fred Thompson is to the Republicans in '08 as Wes Clark was to the Democrats in '04," writes Jason Zengerle of The New Republic. "In other words, the highpoint of his campaign will be the day he gets in the race, because once he's a serious candidate - and not just the fevered daydream of a dissatisfied base - voters will realize he's not all that."

On the surface, there's merit to the comparison. Wes Clark, as I wrote in '04, was the "Johnny Bravo" candidate. That's a reference to the "Brady Bunch" episode where Greg Brady is picked to be a rock star, not because of his musical talent but because he fit into the glitzy costume that rock promoters had already created. Clark, with his admirable military record and perceived "toughness" in foreign policy, seemed like the ideal candidate to beat Bush in '04.

Similarly, Thompson seems to be what Republicans are yearning for. But there's a key distinction. Wes Clark was a candidate for Democrats who wanted to beat Bush. Thompson's appeal is based partly on a desire for victory, but there's also a desire to get beyond Bush.

First and foremost, Thompson's articulateness can't be underestimated. He shares with Ronald Reagan - another actor-politician - an ability to communicate ideas in folksy, almost conversational ways without losing important nuance or meaning.

Most Republicans won't admit it, but Bush's trouble articulating his views - compounded by a terrible communications operation (save for standout Press Secretary Tony Snow) - is a major irritation on the right. There's a reason that IMAO's No. 1 "Fred Thompson Fact" is "Fred Thompson has on multiple occasions pronounced 'nuclear' correctly."

Bush's sloppy speaking style only serves to bolster the perception of his incompetence. That's why the least discussed but most important theme in the Republican primaries is competence. McCain, Giuliani and Romney are all running as the competence candidates (as would Gingrich, if he jumped in).

And Fred Thompson just seems so darn competent. Whether he's the ideal president or just plays one on TV remains to be seen. He's certainly typecast himself as the cocksure, wise, hands-on type in almost every movie role he's had and as the district attorney on "Law & Order."

There are other important differences between Clark and Thompson. As a candidate, Clark was a dud. He couldn't explain the necessary flip-flops and contortions required to fit his record with the demands of the Democratic Party's base, and the more he talked, the less likable and presidential he seemed. Thompson's record isn't a perfect fit for the GOP base either, but Thompson, unlike Clark, is a very capable politician who won his senate seat by the largest margin in Tennessee history. And the more he talks, the more likable and presidential he appears.

Thompson's approval ratings may never be higher than on the day before he announces. We don't know the man very well, but we know the character. And as long as he stays in character, it's unlikely his ratings will drop anytime soon.

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Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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