Thursday, July 12, 2007

Fred remembers, "Oh yeah, I was a lobbyist"

These are dark days for conservative Republicans, as they continue to search in vain for an ’08 presidential candidate with purist anti-abortion credentials. Many have latched onto Fred Thompson as a potential savior, and indeed the actor/lobbyist/politician has been trying his best to bond with the purists in the hopes of acing their litmus test.

But, as you may have heard by now, Thompson has run into a bit of a problem in recent days: His past caught up with him. It turned out that, back in 1991, a Washington abortion-rights group hired him to do some lobbying for the abortion-rights cause. The National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association wanted to get rid of the abortion “gag rule,” which banned abortion counseling at federally-financed clinics, and it thought that the well-connected Thompson might be able to help out. So, according to the minutes of an association board meeting, he was hired.

Let’s look at the shifting responses from the Thompson camp, as it seeks to wriggle out of this inconvenient episode. Its first impulse was to stonewall, to deny the story outright (a spokesman insisted, “Fred Thompson did not lobby for this group, period”), while also leaving the door ever so slightly ajar, by claiming that the prospective candidate was afflicted with amnesia (“Thompson says he has no recollection of it”).

The amnesia defense seemed a tad specious, since it meant that Thompson had absolutely no recollection of having dinner with association president Judith DeSarno at Washington’s Galileo restaurant, or having lunch with DeSarno at Washington’s Monocle restaurant, or of conversing with DeSarno by phone about his lobbying progress (all of which DeSarno says she remembered). This defense also put him at odds with four other people who remembered Thompson’s lobbying work.

Nonetheless, this was the initial Thompson defense: It never happened/ I have no memory that it happened. In other words, part stonewall, part amnesia. And that’s apparently what Sean Hannity expected to hear two days ago, when the Fox News host quizzed Thompson on his show. Actually, it was hardly a “quiz.” Hannity’s predictably obsequious query about the lobbying story was akin to asking Thompson, “Can I please be allowed to wash your car if I bring my own soap and sponge?”

Hannity: “They have attacked you, they have attacked your family, and now, they come out in the Los Angeles Times with a piece that says you lobbied for abortion rights. You say that’s absolutely not true.”

But, in response, Thompson did something interesting. He didn’t go with the stonewall/amnesia spin. Instead, he introduced a whole new defense: “In the first place, you need to separate a lawyer who is advocating a position from the position itself.”

Hannity, naturally, was too busy bowing and scraping to recognize that Thompson had shifted his ground, and exposed himself to some obvious follow-up questions: “Are you now saying, Mr. Thompson, that your memory has suddenly improved – and that you may indeed have lobbied for the abortion-rights group, as ‘a lawyer advocating a position?’ And, if so, should conservatives be concerned that you were so willing to compromise conservative convictions by hiring yourself out to the other side?” But those are the questions that real journalists, with professional instincts, are trained to ask.

Thompson, having gotten off easy with Hannity, is sticking with his new defense. In a posting yesterday on Powerline, a conservative blog, he wrote that it’s totally appropriate for lawyers to hire themselves out to all kinds of clients: “The practice of law is a business as well as a profession. It’s the way you support your family. And if a client has a legal and ethical right to take a position, then you may appropriately represent him as long as he does not lie or otherwise conduct himself improperly while you are representing him. In almost 30 years of practicing law I must have had hundreds of clients and thousands of conversations about legal matters. Like any good lawyer, I would always try to give my best, objective, and professional opinion on any legal question presented to me.”

He’ll get off easy on Powerline as well, because blog author John Hinderaker made the same argument a few days earlier. Defending Thompson in the wake of the abortion-rights lobbying story, he wrote that “a lobbyist, like lawyers in general, represents clients. To assume that a lawyer always agrees with the clients he represents is not only juvenile, it tends to undercut the premises on which our legal system in based.”

No argument here. This is what lawyers and lobbyists do; their professional code gives them plenty of cover. But what’s fascinating is that – politically – Thompson is now employing a defense that undercuts his carefully crafted image as a down-home southern boy, an image he introduced during his Senate campaign, when he rode around Tennessee in a rented pickup truck, clad in backwoods clothes.

He’s been trying to sell himself to GOP primary voters as a conviction conservative – and now his best defense is that, even if he did lobby for an abortion-rights group, it was merely because he, like all Washington lawyer-lobbyists, parked his convictions in the interests of "business." (And when was the last time that a Republican candidate sought to defend the legal profession? The typical GOP approach is to demagogue all lawyers as “ambulance chasers.”)

Some prominent conservatives aren't pleased with the idea of backing a candidate who suddenly takes pride in being a Washington mercenary. Richard Viguerie, one of the pioneers of the Reagan-era conservative movement, is unhappy about the abortion-rights lobbying episode (“that kind of behavior is inconsistent with principled conservatism”), and, more broadly, he concludes that “Fred Thompson plays a tough guy in the movies and on television, but in real life he is a marshmallow.”

But will Fred’s new fans give him a pass anyway? Quite possibly. Just listen to the Hannity broadcast, which featured an obsequious live audience. Here’s Thompson speaking again, punctuated by audience reaction. After defending his lawyer-lobby work, he said: “I’m not going to get down in the weeds with everything they dredge up over the next six months (Yayyy!). But in terms of being a target, all I can say is, they know who to be afraid of.” (Yayyy!)

Conservatives desperate for a savior are prepared to overlook all kinds of inconvenient facts, including their man’s attempts to defend himself as a Washington gun for hire. As Paul Simon once sang, “Still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.”