Before watching former Sen. Fred Thompson's much-hyped and fairly anti-climactic appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, there were only four questions that we hoped Tim Russert would pull from his now famous (or is it infamous?) bag of tricks. What is defining the campaign and why-just read the latest "Off the Bus" report--does it fail to gain traction? Why does Thompson refuse to appear before black audiences? How does Thompson explain his shifting positions on choice and gays? And, most importantly, how does the self-styled, "conservative" and "family values" Fred Thompson explain being a frequent flyer on the private jet owned by a convicted drug dealer who is now one of his top fundraisers?
The last one should have been child's play for Tim Russert, who, only last week, coordinated a fairly transparent hit job as "moderator" of MSNBC's Democratic debate at Drexel University. (Chris Dodd was also unimpressed and has a few suggestions of his own.) Sadly, that was not the case on MTP because a child--perhaps a sick one, denied health insurance by Thompson and his country club friends--could have asked more probing questions.
Some background on Philip Martin, described as one of Fred Thompson's BFF's and "close adviser who has a criminal record for drug dealing." (We're going to keep using "Fred Thompson" and "drug dealer" in the same sentence, for the Google, m'kay?) The A1 story of the Sunday Washington Post, "Thompson Adviser Has Criminal Past," is quite colorful. Martin's rap sheet dates back to the late seventies and early eighties and includes "alleged sports-betting activity, a cocaine deal he arranged with an undercover sheriff's deputy and carried out through a middleman, and the sale of 11 pounds of marijuana to an undercover detective for $3,400."
Given that history, it is very convenient that Martin, now described as a "businessman," owns a private plane. Those must come in very hand for, well, "business."
In the bottom of the second segment--after a fairly strong performance outlining his position on Iran, then stumbling through Iraq, and, more stumbling when asked to explain his flip-flop on abortion--Russert finally got around to Fred Thompson's drug dealing, high-flying financier.
Thompson instantly launched into defensive mode. "Nobody's made any accusations that he's done anything illegal with regard to campaign," he maintained. Then, the classic Republican rationalization perfected by Henry Hyde and George W. Bush, for "youthful indiscretions." Read the transcript because this one is a beauty: "When, when, when Phil was in his 20s, 24 years ago or something like that, these things came about...He didn't go to jail, he got probation, he's paid his debt to society and turned himself around and become a good, productive, successful citizen."
Let's review the facts: A (white) white collar criminal with a drug dealing past. "No jail, just probation." Now, he's a respectable, upstanding member of the Tennessee Republican establishment. Raising hundreds of thousands for a presidential candidate and offering his private jet as a personal taxi service. Fred Thompson on television, promising a thorough investigation. Add a cameo by Jerry Orbach or Sam Waterston and you have Law & Order, ripped from the headlines.
But does it sound familiar? It should. Just days ago, Thompson, the same Republican presidential candidate who headed the Senate investigation into illegal foreign fund raising in Bill Clinton's 1996 presidential campaign, beat the war drums on--you guessed it--Sen. Hillary Clinton's fundraising problems with Norman Hsu and the other bundlers. "I'm not going to jump to any conclusions or make any accusations until all the facts are in," Thompson is quoted in the right-leaning New York Sun. "But when I see people who are in the newspapers bundling large sums of money from mysterious sources, I must say it brings back some very unfond memories for me."
Russert followed up with a comment on Thompson's noticeable weight loss. Tim Russert really does ask all the hard questions. Not.
Ultimately, Fred Thompson admitted this drug dealing campaign advisor might become an issue. "I'm running for president, I--I've got, you know, to, to do the right thing, you know, and problems occur, and I'll just have to figure it out."
While Fred Thompson "figures out" the propriety of a (former) drug dealing campaign financier, how about this for a new campaign slogan: "I'm not a presidential candidate but I play one on TV."