Let me be clear. I like former U.S. senator (1994-2003) and current professional actor Fred Thompson, R-Tenn. A loyal conservative, he wore no man's collar in public office, took on corrupt political fund-raising where he found it and was one of only four U.S. senators who endorsed John McCain for president in 2000.
The fact that one of the more estimable public servants of the last four decades, former Thompson mentor and Senate Republican leader Howard Baker, is backing him is a major reference. Almost as important a recommendation was the questioning of Thompson's religious orthodoxy by arbitrary arbiter and political boss Dr. James Dobson: "I don't think he's a Christian."
According to Dr. Dobson's spokeswoman, Fred Thompson has not been sufficiently vocal in broadcasting his religious beliefs. (He was baptized in the Church of Christ.) Maybe someone would be good enough to introduce Dr. Dobson to St. Francis of Assisi, who gave up his wealth to serve.
When a young protege was disappointed because Francis did not preach a formal sermon during their visit to the town, Francis told him that they had preached by their behavior and by how they treated all with whom they came in contact. It was Assisi who taught, "Teach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words."
But the appeal of candidate Fred Thompson to Republican voters, unexcited about their current crop of candidates and melancholy about their party's prospects for winning the White House next year, goes far beyond his Senate record and Hollywood glamour. After hinting he might make enter the GOP race, Thompson was tested by the Gallup Poll in its national survey conducted the last week of March. He finished third — with 12 percent — behind former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani (whose share of the vote fell with Thompson as an option from 44 percent in early March to 31 percent) and John McCain with 22 percent.
In the American Research Group's latest poll of Republicans in Iowa — where Thompson has spent neither money nor time — the Tennessean won 12 percent, putting him ahead of both former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and behind only Giuliani and McCain, who tied with 29 percent.
Republican voters are looking to be "rescued." They know that an unpopular president, George W. Bush, who took the country into an unpopular and disastrous war of occupation of Iraq, is the face of the Republican Party.
Perceptive observers understand, too, that solving the major crises confronting Americans — the catastrophe of the health care system, serious climate change, an urgent need to develop immediately alternative energy sources and to conserve, the epidemic of vanishing private pension systems, to name a few — all require imaginative and strong action by an energized federal government.
Most voters now understand that the problems of the nation are not susceptible to solution by the painless, ouchless conservative remedies of tax cuts and reduced government regulation.
Republicans in 2007 are where Democrats were, following the 1968 presidential race. The country then had lost confidence in the Democrats' White House leadership. While losing four of the five presidential elections between 1968 and 1992, Democratic nominees averaged fewer than 98 electoral votes every four years — with 270 the minimum number required to win.
Because they are composed of human beings, political parties go to great lengths to avoid the pain of rejection. As Democrats did in the '70s and '80s, Republicans now resist admitting that a majority has found them and their ideas irrelevant, impractical or just incompetent.
In those years in the wilderness, Democrats would seek the cure to their unpopularity by finding somebody new and different who ideally wasn't "tainted" by long association with the party. Remember some Democrats' efforts to draft Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca? How about the remarkable appeal in 1984 of former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, an interesting but widely unknown candidate? Former Marine combat pilot and astronaut John H. Glenn seemed for some to have the "right stuff" to rescue the party of Jefferson and Jackson.
Fred Thompson, an able and appealing public servant, is the Lee Iacocca of 2008. Republicans today, like Democrats then, know they need somebody different to rescue them from where they have put themselves.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.