I talked with Fred Thompson at a party for ABC Radio in Los Angeles Friday night. I introduced myself as the host of The Young Turks on Air America Radio. Even though I made it clear in the beginning of the conversation that I might not come from the same side of the political spectrum as he does these days, he was very receptive and candid in our conversation.
When I asked him about a movement to draft him into the presidential race, I got a surprising answer. He said he was open to it.
I was sure that I would get the standard non-denial denial. But instead of dismissing the rumors, Thompson said he was considering it. I was surprised at how open he was to the idea. I was also surprised that he didn't bother with the usual pretences of not being interested. The former senator from Tennessee was quite frank about contemplating the possibility of running.
I asked him if he knew who was behind the movement to draft him into the race. He said it was a "pretty broad" sentiment. Then we discussed why he left the Senate.
Thompson reiterated his usual line about leaving Washington and going back to Hollywood to get away from the fakes and phonies. He said the real reason he left was because it was hard to be "a conscientious person" and stay in politics. Too little was accomplished, the real problems of the country were hardly ever addressed and everyone looked out for themselves.
He made a point of talking about pork barreling spending and the budget. Thompson said that Republicans "lost the advantage" in budgetary issues because they also over spent and did not do anything to get the budget under control. He said, "We went to drain the swamp and became the alligators."
He singled out Tom Coburn and John McCain as two senators he thought were principled on budgetary issues. When I mentioned Democratic Senator Kent Conrad as another budget hawk, he acknowledged that but said Senator Conrad was just as insistent as anyone else in bringing pork back to his home state.
Senator Thompson said it was too hard to change the system when the accomplishments were so minor and the setbacks were so large. To be clear, I didn't bring up the budget issue, he did. It seemed to be his primary source of frustration with his time in the Senate.
When I asked him about dissatisfaction among the conservative base about the top three Republican candidates (McCain, Giuliani and Romney), he countered that there was something in everyone's record that conservatives would have a problem with, including his own.
In the end, I have to admit that I was impressed by Thompson. Sometimes when you meet someone you get a sense of whether they are real or fake. And sometimes you are taken in by an amiable, charming person you might not otherwise agree with.
It's hard for me to tell which category I fall into in this instance, but I came away with the impression that Senator Thompson was not your average politician. He really was frustrated with the way the system is set against change. He was very open about his thoughts, his weaknesses and his ideas on real issues.
I am sure that if he ran I would find many areas of significant disagreement with him, but as a person in a room talking with someone he had never met before, he was friendly, honest and very likeable. Even more important than all of that, he was - at least for this conversation - eminently reasonable.
He sounded like the kind of Republican I used to be. I'm sure that's why I found him so reasonable. It would be interesting if he ran a campaign the way he just talked to me one on one. But as he acknowledges, the system in Washington is hard to change. Ultimately it would be very hard for him not to pander and tell voters what they want to hear. After all, if he told the conservative base that he did not agree with them on some core issues, they would be out drafting yet another new candidate.