A View from the North

June 25, 2007


by Charles Bierbauer 

“Is this the same guy I voted for as governor?” a Massachusetts banker asked as we discussed Mitt Romney’s presidential prospects. The rap on Romney is that he has flipped on many policies from the time, not all that long ago, when he served as governor of Massachusetts.

I was in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts to talk to the Massachusetts Bankers Association, mostly CEOs, about politics and foreign policy. Not surprisingly, in the formal dialogue and casual conversations Romney’s name came up frequently. I was asking most of the questions of people who’ve seen him in action.

Romney gets reasonable credit for getting things done as a Republican working in a traditional Democratic state. There is something to be said for divided government and the art of compromise, in contrast, say, to single party control and lack of compromise.

I heard reservations, though, about Romney and his abilities on the long campaign trail outside Massachusetts. One man, suggesting shyness, called him a “Houdini” who appears on stage, then disappears without enduring the flesh-pressing routine of campaigns. Of course, there is the question of whether voters who place a high value in faith, especially in the South, will accept Romney’s faith in Mormonism.

Faith remains a tricky political matter to negotiate. Romney is not the only candidate with that problem.

“Obama. What is he, Muslim?” one woman asked. Obama described his Christian beliefs in a lengthy speech just a year ago. Obama noted his father “was born Muslim but as an adult became an atheist.”

This is a good time to be asking these questions as we all sort out the players on the two parties’ stages. We pretty well ran the roster the other evening. Among the things the bankers wanted to know:

Has John McCain peaked? If he has not, he’d best be catching his breath and starting some wind sprints.

Can Hillary win the nomination? Can Hillary win the election? Two different questions with possibly two different answers, “yes” and “perhaps, not.”

What would she do with Bill? Haven’t we all asked that question?

Is Fred Thompson the Republicans’ answer to “none of the above” in current polls? Actually, in current polls unannounced candidate Thompson is running close to the leaders. But what happens when scrutiny catches up to the initial notion that Thompson may be a candidate who can break away from the plodding field?

Can a pro-choice Republican—Rudy Giuliani–win in South Carolina? Will the loss of his state chairman hurt Giuliani’s campaign? Word of Thomas Ravenel’s indictment on federal drug charges had quickly reached the Berkshires. Giuliani’s campaign has already moved on. Ravenel’s political career has likely been snuffed.

Why is Chris Dodd, from nearby Connecticut, running for president? Good question.

Will Al Gore run? Probably not, but the buzz is good for book sales and video rentals.

No one asked about John Edwards, Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, Mike Huckabee, Tommy Thompson, Jim Gilmore or Dennis Kucinich.

But there were questions about Michael Bloomberg who had just left the Republican Party and declared himself an independent. Bloomberg’s shift had also caught the attention of three couples lunching at the table next to me.

“He turned out to be a terrific mayor.”

“Being mayor is different from being president.”

Up north, folks are musing over the prospect of a three-way race in which all three candidates—Mayor Bloomberg, former Mayor Giuliani and Senator Clinton—are from New York. Well, some still consider Clinton a carpetbagger from the Midwest by way of Arkansas and Washington.

Here’s where Bill comes in. His experience with third-party candidate Ross Perot in the 1992 campaign could be especially valuable to his wife if she has to deal with a Bloomberg candidacy.

But we’re getting ahead of the game. At the bankers’ conference we turned our attention to foreign policy, immigration, Russia’s President Putin and the war in Iraq.

“Whoever wins in 2008 is going to have to restore our image abroad,” one banker said.

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Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns for CNN from 1984 through 2000. He is now dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina. His views and analysis are his own, and not those of the university. He is senior contributing editor to SCHotline.




June 11, 2007


by Charles Bierbauer

I knew an actor in the White House, Ronald Reagan. As biographer Lou Cannon described it, being president was “the role of a lifetime” for Reagan. All else aside, Reagan genuinely looked, sounded and acted the part.

The notion of an actor running for president, as a result, is more plausible now than it was when Reagan was elected in 1980. Enter Fred Thompson, stage right, of course.

If you think about it, you have to be something of an actor to be good at being president. Consider George Washington in full uniform posing for that Gilbert Stuart portrait. Abraham Lincoln in that supreme moment at the Gettysburg cemetery. Teddy Roosevelt in best “Rough Rider” form. Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his fireside chats. That was radio acting, no insignificant challenge. Television rendered sweater-clad Jimmy Carter’s firesides an ineffectual parody of FDR.

In 1980, Carter was upstaged by Reagan, the actor/governor/ideologue who had swept aside his Republican challengers. “I paid for this microphone,” Reagan declaimed in one New Hampshire primary debate, as if to say the rest of you are amateurs on this stage.

“I just go where they tell me, “Reagan reflected on his Oval Office performance. His image meisters saw it differently. As an actor, he knew how to “hit his marks,” visually, verbally and symbolically. If he did not think of himself as “the great communicator,” his admirers and even much of the media accorded him that.

On Saturday mornings, Reagan would deliver a five-minute radio address, highlighting a theme of the week. With an actor’s pride, he would take a long drink of hot water—Frank Sinatra taught him it loosened the pipes—and finish
his script on the dot.

Other actors have won elected office: Senator George Murphy, Congressmen Sonny Bono, Ben “Cooter” Jones, Fred “Gopher” Grandy, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. We won’t debate their acting skills here. Al Gore may
not be an actor, but he’s got an Oscar.

Actors, producers and directors may have a disproportionate voice in American politics these days, perhaps because they have a disproportionate share of wealth. But we would not deny them their First Amendment voice. As with all who speak up in the political arena, we may choose to heed or ignore.

The proliferation of media in our society has created a blurring of the lines between fact and fiction. Garrison Keillor introduced his “Prairie Home Companion” guest this weekend as “former President Martin Sheen.” Actor Sheen occupied the televised “West Wing” as President Josiah Bartlett. The real Josiah Bartlett was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and, in the 1790s, “president” of New Hampshire, a title later changed to governor.

Which brings us back to Fred Thompson. Tennessee twice elected him to serve in the U.S. Senate, which puts him on a par with about half the presidential field. Thompson’s screen resume is more wide ranging—a general, an admiral, a senator, CIA director, White House chief of staff, and a couple of presidents—one fictional, another a portrayal of Ulysses S. Grant. There are also more than 100 “Law and Order” episodes as District Attorney Arthur Branch.

Thompson’s acting resume is at least Reaganesque. Neither ever won an Oscar or an Emmy.

Many analysts are recalling the words of Hollywood producer Jack Warner when told Reagan was running for president. “No, no, no,” Warner said. “Jimmy Stewart for president. Ronald Reagan for best friend.”

Stewart, as the story goes, was not available. Reagan was. Thompson, as the story seems to be unfolding, is both available and eager.

Many Republicans, having watched their ten declared candidates debate on several occasions, seem to be like Becket’s characters Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot. Becket’s play is both comic and tragic, centering on the
unseen and enigmatic Godot. The promise at the end of each day that Godot does not show is “but surely tomorrow.”

Vladimir and Estragon are paralyzed by inactivity awaiting that tomorrow. The Republican candidates are hardly inactive, but the dynamic of the Republican campaign is going nowhere while all are waiting for Fred.


Charles Bierbauer was CNN’s senior White House correspondent during the Reagan administration. He is currently dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here
are his own and not those of the university. Dean Bierbauer is also the senior contributing editor and consultant to http://www.schotline.com.