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Memphis Flyer Fred for Veep?

Thompson may be out right now, but wait till Bush gets into the cutting room.

By Jackson Baker

MAY 22, 2000:  That motion-picture job may start looking better than ever to Fred Thompson, Tennessee's senior senator, as he, along with everyone else on the Washington circuit, digests the latest inside-the-Beltway punditry concerning George W. Bush's possible vice-presidential running mates.

Morton Kondracke, the old McLaughlin Report regular, is in the box taking his swings in a column this week, and what he sprays out is a short list of favorites that includes two Tennesseans -- Bill Frist, the state's junior senator, and -- ready? -- former Gov. and persistent presidential wannabe Lamar Alexander. Pointedly, Kondracke's list excludes Thompson, the onetime dark-horse favorite for the presidency -- an omission that may significantly retard his chances. You don't necessarily have to do anything to get considered for the vice-presidency -- pace Lamar -- but you do have to get talked up to stay alive.

Frist's name keeps showing up on various people's veep lists because the senator himself -- or his people -- started using it that way. Moreover, as Frist faces a less than prime list of Democrats from whom his ultimate senatorial opponent will be drawn, he will clearly be able to continue the high-profile campaign swings across the country that he's already begun on behalf of Bush and Republican congressional/senatorial candidates.

If that kind of IOU-building worked in days of yore for the less-than-cuddly Richard Nixon, it should certainly do some good for the personable -- and ambitious -- Frist.

Kondracke expresses a caveat concerning the senator, though, and here it is: "Sen. Bill Frist (Tenn.), while attractive and capable of making Gore's home state vulnerable, has family ties to the unpopular health maintenance organization industry that Democrats might attack." Indeed they might.

Of Alexander, the once highly visible Willy Loman of the primary-state back roads, Kondracke says: "The name of former Education secretary and Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander has emerged, though he's been out of sight since ending his presidential candidacy in February."

Of Thompson? Nothing, although you don't have to have an elephant's memory to recall that Ole Fred, a part-time movie star, was barely in town after his first election when he was signed up to make the national Republican response to a Clintonian State-of-the-Union address. (Frist has most recently enjoyed that honor.)

Thompson's credentials as a campaign finance investigator as well as his public identification with former Bush rival John McCain might be plus factors, but they could conceivably work the other way as well.

"No fire in the belly" is the phrase that you keep hearing about Thompson, though that could be a mis-description. In those strong, silent types (the kind of role the lanky, taciturn Tennessean was always getting in those movies), the fires are banked lower than usual, but there's no mistaking that they're in the bank.

Thompson's most recent publicity has concerned the possibility of his taking over from old Lyndon Johnson crony Jack Valenti as head of the Motion Picture Alliance, the picture industry's chief lobby, or his running for governor of Tennessee in two years (a race in which he would be the automatic 300-pound gorilla), or the amorous yearning he seems to be stirring among some of Washington's most eligible females.

The New York Post, of all venues, reported recently that the Tennessee senator had of late become something of a sex object for "Capitol Hill hotties," one of whom complained about "all these other women" who wouldn't leave the senator alone. "I can't get up to get a cocktail at a party without coming back and finding some girl sitting at my chair," the woman was quoted as saying.

Margaret Carlson, the writer for Time and host for CNN, is described this way: "She calls his apartment all the time. It's the joke all over Washington that Margaret has this huge crush on him. And Fred is clearly not interested." (To which the gallant Thompson responded: "I generally don't comment on these matters, but as it relates to the statements made about my friend Margaret Carlson, I should be so lucky.")

If there's a name you could pluck out of the air that paragraphs like the previous ones might remind you of, it could be Bill Clinton, the former longtime Arkansas governor who enjoys palling around with Hollywood types and has been known to stir a yearning or two himself -- sometimes in rather striking proximity to the Oval Office.

Yet don't write Fred off yet as a vice-presidential prospect just because the Mort Kondrackes of the world do. He is, after all, the guy who got into the movies in the first place because, after he played himself in a movie about Tennessee whistler-blower Marie Ragghianti, one Tinseltown producer after another kept saying, "That's him. That's the guy," when they went looking for an authority figure with understated but quietly smoldering star quality.

Our hunch (and we get asked all the time) is that Thompson isn't going to make a move toward accepting any new Hollywood offers or even committing to a gubernatorial race until he's sure Bush has completed his casting calls and has sat in some contemplative space for a while running all the veep candidates' specs through his mind like so many rushes and dailies.

At that point, we think -- and we suspect Thompson thinks as well -- the Texas governor may conclude, like so many before him, "That's him. That's the guy."

Don't write Fred Thompson out of the script just yet.

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