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Dick Polman — It’s not enough to act like a president

Playwright Arthur Miller would have been fascinated by the rapid ascendancy of the GOP’s purported celluloid savior, Fred Thompson, R-Hollywood.

I thought of Miller, who died in 2005, while pondering Thompson’s nascent presidential candidacy, which seems partly based on the proposition that he can collapse the permeable wall that separates stagecraft from statecraft.

Miller gave the 2001 Jefferson Lecture at the Kennedy Performing Arts Center, a lecture that later appeared as a slim volume titled On Politics and the Art of Acting. He would have nodded knowingly at Thompson’s plans to transfer his folksy, avuncular TV/movie persona to the political arena. Imagery is paramount in this culture, so perhaps it follows that a guy who plays aw-shucks, down-home authority figures is thus well-suited to take custody of our nuclear weaponry.

Miller wrote: "One of the oddest things about millions of lives now is that ordinary individuals, as never before in human history, are so surrounded — one might say, besieged — by acting. Twenty-four hThoours a day, everything seen on the tube is either acted or conducted by actors in the shape of news anchormen and -women, including their hairdos."

Our transactions with Thompson have extended over several decades. He’s the archetypal American just-folks country boy, whether he’s a faux Navy admiral, CIA director, White House aide, district attorney, FBI agent, senator or commander in chief.

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Miller understood the art of political role-playing: "The Stanislavsky method was an attempt to systematize the actor’s search for authenticity as he works to portray a character different from his own. Politicians do something similar all the time; by assuming personalities not genuinely theirs — let’s say, six-pack, lunch-box types — they hope to connect with ordinary Americans."

The cable TV shoutmeisters are swooning. On Hardball the other night, Chris Matthews was free-associating about Ole Fred: "Do you think there’s a sex appeal for this guy? He looks sort of seasoned and in charge of himself. ... Can you smell the English Leather on this guy, the Aqua Velva, the sort of mature man’s shaving cream, or whatever, you know, after he shaved?" One of his guests, Ana Marie Cox, founder of Wonkette, offered this tidbit of political analysis: "I do like the way he drinks his whiskey on ‘Law and Order."’

Thompson has worked this trick before. Back in 1994, he decided to stop acting and run for real. But his bid to become a senator from Tennessee was a flop — until he made a crucial decision. He shed his expensive Washington threads and put on flannels and blue jeans. He hid his luxury sedan and rented a Chevy pickup. He made sure everybody saw him driving that pickup. He soared in the polls and won handily.

Many GOP conservatives, desperate for a candidate they can call their own, have decided that Thompson, a native Tennessean, is "a southern-fried version of Ronald Reagan." We all know the legend of the Great Communicator, and conservatives know that the camera loves Thompson as well. But more important, they have convinced themselves he is the natural heir to the Reagan agenda. They point out that he voted the conservative line 85 percent of the time during his Senate career, and that he’s currently picking fights with Michael Moore and sounding hawkish on Iraq.

But on substance, Thompson is no Reagan. Reagan was the titular leader of a movement long before he took the presidency. Thompson spent eight years in the Senate and barely left a mark; as conservative political writer Donald Lambro noted recently: "He led no great crusades, nor did he win any medals for leadership." When Thompson was asked recently to name a Senate achievement, he came up empty.

And he notably deviates from the conservative agenda. He has given wobbly answers on abortion, indicating in the past that the decision "should be left with the woman and not the government." He also attacked John McCain’s campaign-finance law, which curbs the spending of political money. Conservatives despise that law. Conservatives also despise trial lawyers, and they want Congress to limit the money awarded in lawsuits. But Thompson sticks up for his trial-lawyer brothers and sisters, arguing that their awards should not be capped in Washington.

No, it is only in the realm of the thespian-politician that Thompson is truly Reaganesque. Miller, in his book, lays out the formula. A candidate needs to convey a "laid-back cool," a "relaxed sincerity," and act as if he is taking the electorate "for a quiet Sunday row around the lake."

But is that enough to win? Thompson might seem like the most affable guy to have a beer with, but over the last six years, all too tragically, we have learned what can happen when we choose on that basis.

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I sense that 2008 is a substance election, and that thespian gifts will not be sufficient. Thompson said the other night on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" that "I want to do some things that only a president can do," but he has yet to say what they are, or to articulate any sort of vision. Reagan would have known, that night, what to say.

In Arthur Miller’s words: "We call a work of art trivial when it illuminates little beyond its own devices, and the same goes for political leaders who bespeak some narrow interest rather than those of the national or universal good. The fault is not in the use of the theatrical arts, but in their purpose."

Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His e-mail address is dpolman@phillynews.com.

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