Right Said Fred

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AUGUST 6, 2007

Right Said Fred

The Republicans have decided that Fred Thompson is their man. I'm
not
sure how they arrived at this decision. Maybe they held a
meeting at some
secret mountaintop castle. Or perhaps there's some
kind of GOP pheromone
wafting through the air that most of us
can't detect. (The latter theory might
explain Chris Matthews's
otherwise baffling on-air musing about Thompson: "Can
you smell
the English leather on this guy, the Aqua Velva, the sort of
mature
man's shaving cream, or whatever, you know, after he
shaved? Do you smell that
sort of--a little bit of cigar smoke?")
Whatever it is, I'm convinced the
decision has been made.
The best evidence for this is the equanimity with which
conservatives have
accepted the news that Thompson once worked as
an abortion-rights lobbyist.
Milder revelations about Rudy
Giuliani and Mitt Romney were met with howls of
outrage. The news
that Thompson actively lobbied to weaken abortion
restrictions, on
the other hand, has been met with a shrug.

This free pass from conservatives is all the more remarkable given
that it
has had to hold firm through a series of unpersuasive
explanations by
Thompson's quasi-campaign. Phase One was straight
denial. When the Los Angeles
Times broke the abortion-lobbying
story, Thompson's spokesman insisted, "Fred
Thompson did not lobby
for this group, period," and added, "There's no
documents to prove
it, there's no billing records, and Thompson says he has no
recollection of it, says it didn't happen."

The next day, Thompson proceeded to Phase Two: Redneck Zen
QuasiDenial. "I'd
just say the flies get bigger in the
summertime," he declared. "I guess the
flies are buzzing."
Remarkably, this response seemed to work. Giuliani and
Romney are
probably kicking themselves that they didn't think to rebut
straightforward factual allegations about their abortion records
with some
inscrutable pastoral aphorism. (Or does this only work
for Southerners?)

A couple of days later, Thompson moved to Phase Three: spin.
Thompson began
gently explaining to his supporters that
representing unsavory clients is just
a normal part of being a
lawyer. Thompson did not admit that he actually had
represented a
pro-choice group, but the inference was hard to miss. And, sure
enough, twelve days later, The New York Times produced the billing
records his
spokesman had insisted did not exist.

This remains Thompson's current position. He's not denying he
lobbied; he's
just saying that, if he did, it doesn't mean he
believed in what he was
lobbying for. In a column he wrote for
Powerline, one of the most widely read
conservative blogs,
Thompson waxed idealistic about the legal profession.
"Every
person, unpopular or not, is entitled to representation," he
wrote,
citing John Roberts: "That principle that you don't
identify the lawyer with
the particular views of the client, or
the views that the lawyer advances on
behalf of the client, is
critical to the fair administration of justice."

It's true that this is a well-known legal principle, though lawyers
often
stretch it too far. (Yes, every defendant needs a lawyer,
but no, the proper
functioning of the legal system doesn't require
Alan Dershowitz to fly across
the country to defend O.J. Simpson.)
But, even if we accept the maximal version
of this principle, it's
no defense of Thompson's work. The National Family
Planning and
Reproductive Health Association (nfprha) didn't hire him as a
lawyer, it hired him as a lobbyist, and, while there's a
constitutional right
to the former, it doesn't extend (thank
goodness) to the latter. Thompson's job
wasn't to defend family
planners charged with breaking the law that prohibits
federally
funded clinics from offering abortion counseling. His job was to
persuade the Bush administration to change the law. His value had
nothing to do
with his legal skills and everything to do with his
being the rare prominent
Republican willing to represent a
pro-choice group.

Indeed, it's a testament to just how poorly lobbyists are viewed
that
Thompson presenting himself as a lawyer is actually an
improvement. Cast in
just the right light--Thompson cites the
legal careers of John Adams and
Abraham Lincoln --it can almost
look noble. Good ole Fred, humble country
lawyer. Think Atticus
Finch, not Jack Abramoff.

Thompson also has to pretend he was just a lawyer for the nfprha
because,
once you recognize that he worked as a lobbyist, his
defense falls apart. Maybe
a lawyer can ignore the actions or
views of a client, but a lobbyist certainly
shouldn't. Lobbying is
a form of political activism. It pays well, which gives
it a
certain mercenary cast--"The practice of law is a business as well
as a
profession. It's the way you support your family," Thompson
has written. But
other forms of political activism pay well, too.
If Thompson had accepted a
lucrative job as a consultant to the
Clinton campaign or chairman of the
Democratic National Committee,
would conservatives assume he was just
representing his client?

Incredibly, Thompson's elementary conflation of lawyering and
lobbying has
satisfied nearly the entire conservative base. To the
extent that conservatives
are indignant, it's at the liberal media
for reporting the story. "They seem to
think that the story will
somehow discredit Thompson among conservatives,"
fumed Powerline's
John Hinderaker, "presumably because conservatives are too
dumb to
understand how law firms and the legal process work." Well, you said
it,
not me.

Maybe the best explanation for conservatives' willingness to
overlook
Thompson's apostasy is that they're just tired of hearing
about how every
leading Republican contender either supports
abortion rights or did in the not-
too-distant past. "This is
becoming so old," complained Tony Perkins of the
Family Research
Council. "They find somebody who has staked out a pro-life
position, and the first thing they say is that he's supported a
pro-abortion
group."

Of course, it's becoming so old only because all the leading GOP
contenders
have supported pro-abortion groups. But, where
conservative ire was once
directed at the apostates themselves,
now it's directed at the liberal media.
Six months ago,
conservatives scoffed at Mitt Romney's strained explanations,
but
now they swallow Thompson's giant whoppers without complaint. I
guess the
lies get bigger in the summertime.

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