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Beware the folksy Fred factor
Beware the folksy Fred factor
That Southern charm may soften the appearance of the actor-senator's hardened conservative views

by Chris Crain - SGN Contributing Writer It was the moment in the presidential campaign I'd been dreading for months. The popular conservative from my home state, fellow Tennessean Fred Thompson, has entered the Republican primary.

The pundits and "insiders" have dismissed the actor and former senator even before he declared his candidacy last week on late-night TV last week. Some claim he's a Hollywood lightweight, but I've heard that before (Ronald Reagan). Some dismiss him as a Southern simpleton, but I've heard that before (George W. Bush). And I've even heard some claim he has a wealth of sexual skeletons in his closet, but we've all heard that before (Bill Clinton).

I have worried so long about Fred Thompson's candidacy because he comes off as an authentic Southerner, despite the late-career acting gigs. And that folksy accent, combined with a consistently conservative voting record, is a potent combination.

Thompson is no simpleton either. He was a respected (even feared) Nashville lawyer before he became famous, as I discovered 20 years ago as a cub reporter when he testily dismissed my attempt at an interview after a court hearing that had gone poorly for him.

He showed off those smarts and his homespun charm in his first week of campaigning, when he carefully thread the needle on social issues, including the minefield of abortion and Gay marriage.

Don't underestimate the power of that "aww shucks" charm. Americans have proven themselves particularly prone to seduction by it, from Jimmy Carter to Clinton to the current White House occupant. The accent is so potent because it alone can settle the nerves of many Southerners, Midwesterners and social conservatives generally that the candidate is, at some level, "one of them."

He knows how to thread the needle on Gay issues, too. On an early campaign stop in Sioux City, Iowa, a gray-haired gentleman said, "My question is what society's position should be on deviancy, including homosexuality?"

Thompson didn't miss a beat, giving conservatives the right positions without off-putting moderates.

"I'm not going to pass judgment on several million of my fellow citizens. Anybody that knows me knows how I feel about the importance of a family & of traditional marriage," he said. "It's the thing I want for my children. But it goes back to the unity we were talking about. As president of the United States one should not go out of their way to castigate or pass judgment publicly on a large segment of people."

In truth, a President Thompson would be an unmitigated disaster on Gay issues. He's on record as opposed to even basic protections like employment non-discrimination and hate crime laws. He did refuse to vote for a marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution on federalist grounds, but he showed off those Matlock-like lawyerly wiles this week with an alternative proposal that is even scarier because it's more likely to be adopted.

Thompson has proposed an alternative amendment, constitutionalizing the part of the Defense of Marriage Act that allows one state to refuse legal recognition of marriage licenses issued by another state to same-sex couples.

For good measure, his proposal would also prohibit the courts from requiring a state to marry Gay couples until a law to that effect has been passed by the state legislature. As if there were any doubt, Thompson made clear to a "reporter" from Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network that his real aim was to make it as unlikely as possible for Gay marriage to be permitted anywhere without violating the principle that the issue is one for the states to decide.

"The other approach has been tried in Congress," Thompson reminded CBN viewers. "Let's fashion something that will cure the problem, that will stop the problem in its tracks while still saying if some state wants to come along through their legislature and do something different, let them answer to their own people. And I got feeling they won't be in the legislature that much longer." In case you didn't catch that, we're "the problem" in that scenario.

Thompson ignores the evidence on the politics of Gay marriage. Pro-marriage legislators in Massachusetts have done much better at the polls than opponents. He's flat wrong that no legislature has enacted Gay marriage legislation, since California has twice, including last week. But the measure was vetoed the first time and likely will again by Governor Schwarzenegger.

In New York the situation is reversed, as Gov. Elliott Spitzer is pro-marriage and even got the measure through half the legislature in June. In New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine said this week marriage is almost inevitable, albeit after the '08 elections. In the District of Columbia, the mayor and a majority of the city council are already on record favoring Gay marriage, but have been given temporary political cover for dodging the issue by an old-school Gay activist group terrified.

The point is that Gay marriage is inevitable in other states, whether by popular means or by legal challenge, including prominent suits pending in Iowa, Maryland and California. If Fred Thompson can "aww shucks" his way to the White House and gets his constitutionalized DOMA, we'll be saddled for generation with a patchwork of states where Gays can marry, and then lose all legal protection when they cross the wrong state lines.

Chris Crain is former editor of the Washington Blade, Southern Voice, and Gay publications in three other cities. He can be reached via his blog at www.citizencrain.com.

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