- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 1, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn — Fred Thompson, the best supporting actor in the U.S. Senate, isn't for term limits just in the abstract; he's stepping down after two terms. It's hard to blame him. As he put it early on in his tenure: "After two years in Washington, I miss the sincerity and genuineness of Hollywood."

So he's going back to making films. Soon you'll be able to see him on "Law & Order." Today the senator from Tennessee is addressing the editorial writers, convened here in all too solemn assembly.

After a day and a half of seminars, mutual critiques, assorted bloviations and general tedium, Senator-for-now Thompson is as welcome as plain talk. He proceeds to make one point after another about the war on terror. It's like listening to a succession of clear notes:

• This country did not enter a new era September 11, but a new realization of the world in which we had been living for some time.

• Americans will never enjoy total security. We can do all the things we're supposed to do, and we still won't be entirely safe.

• We're back in our Sept. 10 mode in many ways. We have yet to come to terms with how the possession of weapons of mass destruction by fanatical regimes has changed our position in the world.

• We are now trying to merge 22 separate federal agencies, from the Immigration and Naturalization Service to the Coast Guard, into one Homeland Security agency encompassing some 170,000 people. The chances of a merger succeeding in the private sector have been put at only 30 percent to 40 percent. And this is the public sector, with its waste-and-fraud-and-abuse. On average, it takes the federal government five months to hire somebody, 18 months to fire anybody for poor performance. The chance of a government employee's being sacked for incompetence has been put at three-hundredths of 1 percent. We face a crisis of competence in government, losing people we need to keep and keeping people we need to lose.

• After the shock of September 11, 2001, faded, we reverted to the usual partisanship. "We'll go out on the steps of the Capitol and sing 'God Bless America,' then go back in and do the same old thing." (Or, to quote that great political philosopher, Moms Mabley: "You keep on doin' what you been doin', and you gonna keep on gettin' what you got.")

• From time to time we and our longtime allies are bound to get crosswise. In Germany, "Brother Schroeder has found that the way to get re-elected is to kick Uncle Sam, while the French are being the French." (But when have the Europeans ever appreciated the dangers of apathy and appeasement? See European history this past century.)

• "The Arab countries in the region want Saddam either dead or happy. They don't want him aggravated, and we've been just aggravating him for years."

• "We're not going to be able to conduct the coming war in Iraq at 30,000 feet."

• It's estimated that the coming war in Iraq will cost between $38 billion and $48 billion. The only thing we can be sure of is that the estimates will be wrong. By how much or in what direction we don't know. (The senator didn't say how much it might cost to do nothing while Saddam Hussein puts together his bomb. How much would a chemical, nuclear or biological September 11 run? Avoiding it is cheap at the price.)

One of the more combative editorial writers asks the senator if it would be accurate to say he wants the government to be more repressive, more expensive, more secretive, and that even then we won't be completely safe. To which he replies: "No, no, no and yes."

Agree or disagree, it's refreshing to hear a man speak plain. The only occasion on which he takes refuge in the good ol' Argument From Authority is when he's challenged on his vote in favor of the Bush tax cuts. "I agree with Chairman Greenspan," he responds, more than once. Which cuts off all argument. It's like invoking the Deity. Although at this point in American history, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan's name may carry more weight.

But to point out one of Fred Thompson's rare rhetorical dodges is only to pick a little lint off his broad shoulders. He dwarfs his questioners, and not just physically. His performance before this crowd is enough to make one wish he were staying in the Senate for another term, rather than moving on to another form of acting.

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