Like millions of Americans, I became addicted to Dick Wolf’s original Law & Order, which represented something new in network television. Unlike the usual addictions, mine to any TV series abate with the passing of seasons as plots begin to get, if not weird, then certainly more tenuous. Then, too, there are all those diluting spin-offs, the obvious and excessive milking of what started as a good idea. Very soon, I’m gone. Cast changes can impact on how long this process takes, either extending my stay or precipitating an exit. Superior storylines, compelling characters, a continuing sense of newness and emotional pull can, together or individually, make a huge difference. Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues sustained for me because it was able to maintain most of them throughout, while his NYPD Blue fell apart precipitously with the silliness of Jimmy Smits’ comatose roof top dream sequences coupled with a growing sense of déjà vu that had already set in with each “new” episode. It was that same “haven’t I seen this before” feeling which began to erode my interest in Law & Order, compounded by major cast and character changes. I, for one, was especially drawn to the compelling and quintessential New Yorker, Adam Schiff, the sharp and sometimes acerbic District Attorney. Steven Hill, a founder of the Actors Studio who (true to that heritage) could speak volumes with a raised eyebrow brought enormous talent and depth to the role even in the many episodes where his were what amounted to cameo appearances. When he left after the 1999 season, the gifted Diane Wiest, (playing Nora Lewin) stepped in, and did so admirably for two years, the kind of woman you’d expect the Big Apple to place in that office. Enter Fred Thompson’s Arthur Branch.
A Tennessee accented conservative as New York City DA? Give me a break, which is exactly what I took, sporadically at first and then permanently. Now don’t get me wrong, Fred Thompson is a decent (albeit somewhat phlegmatic) actor. I guess Dick Wolf thought his aging show needed a jolt and selecting a seemingly fish-out-of-water character seemed like a good idea. To my surprise, and his vindication, Fred Thompson has sustained in the role. Many of us first became aware of him during the Watergate hearings. Howard Baker brought young Thompson in as the GOP counsel, assumedly to do legal damage control. As the weeks went on though, he and his bosses became less defensive. It was Thompson whose surprise (to us at least) question of Alexander Butterworth evoked the disclosure of the taping system that ultimately did Richard Nixon in. His subsequent career has included more lawyering, lobbying, acting and eventually running successfully for Al Gore’s seat in the Senate. He joined the Law & Order cast while still holding that office, albeit not having run for reelection.
Another show is playing alongside Dick Wolf’s fare, the Republican presidential campaign. That one seems in disarray. Its current cast includes “America’s Mayor” (God help the nation), a zillionaire former Massachusetts governor, and a sorry echo of the Straight Talk Express. The Mayor is that fellow who claims to have spent as many hours at the trade center site (I hate the term “ground zero”) as those who spent endless shifts digging through the toxic rubble. He apparently can’t distinguish between photo ops above the wreckage and real work down below. The ex-Governor just came off a “win” in Iowa. Let me get this straight. It’s against the law to buy votes in American, but driving people to the event, feeding them and then paying their participation fee isn’t considered a purchase? Oh my mistake, it’s only a straw poll. Then there is the ex-POW. I do feel for him. He probably wakes up at night with the sweats thinking that we’re on our way to another defeat in yet another wrong-headed war – speak about déjà vu. I’m sure he considers Bush an effectual draft dodger and an incompetent leader but can’t help being his most loyal cheerleader. Enter Fred Thompson, a potential alternative to “none of the above”. Film actors (at least Californians) do so well for the Republicans: perhaps a TV actor (whose done some movies) can come to the rescue.
It is true that Thompson’s resume includes that stint in the Senate, but most Americans apparently know him best (and perhaps only) for the “public office” he “held” on Law & Order. Unlike his senate tenure, which was largely undistinguished, he did well on television. He is thus the ultimate TV candidate. That would appear to be a real plus in our electronic age, but I think Fred Thompson’s story and message may speak more about the GOP’s yesterday than its, and our, tomorrow. Parties apparently on their way to nominating the “wrong” candidate always seem to be looking a white (literally) knight. Adlai Stevenson, was promoted in a last ditch effort to stop JFK (a Catholic) and today we hear talk of Al Gore stepping in. Why do they always look to losers for to save the day? Stevenson, whose hole-in-the-sole campaign pin sits in my drawer, was twice defeated, and Gore…let’s not go to that painful spot. A party in trouble has the same yearnings, and Thompson seems to fit the bill, thanks in large measure to his work on TV.
So who is Fred Thompson and what would he bring to the Presidency? That’s what I wanted to know when I watched the retired DA interviewed this week, on TV of course. With a wars raging or threatened around the globe, with a credit crisis threatening home ownership for many Americans, with health care in intensive care one expects a candidate to tell us how he might address the things that matter most. Obviously, Thompson had his own priorities in mind – an amendment to block gay marriage and overturning Roe (bad law). Did I hear right? Exactly, “far right” which is the vacuum Fred Thompson wants to fill. He’s speaking to the "abandoned" base. Perhaps, while learning his lines for TV, he missed the last election or the many polls, which suggest that wedge issues are getting tired and beginning to smell like food kept in the fridge beyond their expiration date. The country, it seems, wants to come together and, while they may not take the plunge, even Republicans are taking a serious look at a pro-choice candidate. Hello, Fred Thompson, did you know that the architect of divisiveness is headed for a timeout with family in Texas? And actors in the White House? Michael Deaver has just checked out on us for good to join his beloved Ronny on the other side. TV or not, your time isn’t coming, it’s already past.