Confusing TV With Reality: NYT TV Writer Thinks Thompson is His TV Character

June 2nd, 2007 7:24 AM

Proving that few people in the entertainment industry can tell the difference between reality and fantasy and in a perfect example of why people who write about entertainment should stay away from the topic of politics, The New York Times today has let lose one of the silliest, most confused political "editorials" yet published about Senator Fred Thompson's possible run for the White House. Fitting the he's-only-an-actor mode of considering his potential candidacy, TV writer Alessandra Stanley compounds a prosaic dismissal of the man with a complete inability to keep straight in her head which Fred Thompson she is talking about; the REAL Senator from Tennessee or the character he plays on a popular TV show.

Let's just say that sagacity and trenchant analysis is not in the offing in Stanley's "In Casting for President, Will Actor Rate a Callback?", where this TV writer jarringly fades from real life Thompson to the character he plays on TV's "Law and Order" repeatedly confusing the "lives" of the two then making assessments based thereupon that seem to come out of thin air... or the rarefied air in Stanley's mind, in any case.

Naturally, it all starts with a shot at Ronald Reagan as Stanley recounts the oft repeated Jack Warner comment when Reagan announced his run for Governor of California in 1966. “Jimmy Stewart for governor,” he said. “Ronald Reagan for best friend.”

After brief bios of the real Senator and his TV character, Stanley begins an attempt at political analysis that lands with a thud.

"Maybe it’s only fair that Mr. Thompson rides on the coattails of a fictional prosecutor...", she says of a possible Thompson candidacy. What she bases this on is anyone's guess for Senator Thompson has made no such effort to equate his candidacy to his TV role and few supporters have clamored to vote for "DA Arthur Branch" to date.

Stanley next shows that she seriously misunderstands what it is that makes the initial, high money contributors to any candidate decide to flock to that candidate's banner.

Mr. Thompson’s fame as an actor -- and the popularity of the character he has played since he left the Senate in 2002 -- could compensate for his late entry into the money-raising race. But he won’t necessarily persuade voters that he should be in the Oval Office.

Now, it might be true that small donations might come from people who just like Thompson because of the TV character he plays, but high money contributors want and expect far more from a candidate than just a part-time TV gig. Ronald Reagan spent 20 years gearing up his run for the presidency, for instance, and spent many, many years garnering a contributor base all of whom gave to his campaign because of his ideas and abilities, not because they liked watching TVs "Wagon Train".

Amazingly, Stanley goes on to doubt that Americans will vote for Thompson because he had the temerity to leave the TV show on which he played a part in preparation to start his campaign for the Oval Office. She scoffs that Americans won't vote for him because Thompson has left the show when it is "struggling to survive." Here Stanley seems to be claiming that Thompson is some sort of traitor to the flailing TV show by leaving it at a time when the producers might need him and that this move might make people doubt his character.

Americans want their presidents to be loyal and steadfast. This week, Mr. Thompson said he asked Mr. Wolf to release him from his “Law & Order” contract — at a time when the 17-year-old series is struggling to survive. (Earlier this month, NBC came close to canceling it.)

Stanley imagines that Thompson is showing this lack of "loyalty" because he has left the show and that this will affect how people view him as a candidate. How Stanley imagines Americans will equate the TV show's troubles with a Thompson departure is anyone's guess. Few people follow the ins and outs of the behind the scenes machinations of the TV industry and those who do would blame the show's producers, writers and directors instead of Fred Thompson.

Her next sentence is telling, showing she cannot tell Thompson from the character Arthur Branch.

Women may harbor doubts about his character’s character. Arthur has a weakness for the young, tall, gorgeous prosecutors in his office and for mentoring them through their cases.

Huh? Are women too stupid to tell the difference between a TV character and a real man, Mz. Stanley?

She must think so.

Stanley next equates Thompson's character to former Reagan man Howard Baker's without much success. Stanley characterizes both Thompson and Baker as low-level bureaucrats and staff members. Perhaps the real reason she does so, though, is because, as Stanley recounts, Baker launched a failed bid for the presidency in 1980 and it seems that she wishes the same for Thompson. Her reasoning for likening the two is quixotic at best.

She also doubts Thompson's suitability to take the "leading man" role of the Presidency because he has had "supporting roles" on TV and in the movies as if those roles on film fully explain all we need to know about the man to rate his capacity to be president. Obviously Stanley thinks that we should rate our candidates by the roles a Hollywood casting director doles out to them.

Mr. Thompson may see himself as a commander in chief, but Hollywood has preferred to cast him as a senior White House aide or adviser. He played a White House chief of staff in the 1993 film “In the Line of Fire,” and the director of central intelligence in the 1987 thriller “No Way Out.” He wasn’t picked to play a president until 2005, in the HBO film “Last Best Chance,” which was more of a public-service film made with support from the Nuclear Threat Initiative and other foundations.

Wait.... didn't HBO just cast Fred Thompson as President Grant in the TV film "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" as well?

Anyway, if it's possible, Stanley's analysis gets even more confused as she indiscriminately interweaves Thompson's real life with that of the character he plays on "Law and Order." The crowning piece of absurdity in her piece is the last two paragraphs.

Once candidates declare, their pasts are scoured for personal, often embarrassing details. Mr. Thompson has not only his own bachelor days in Washington; voters may also hold him accountable for Arthur’s past.

That stately, Southern gentleman has a few peccadilloes of his own. On one episode, he confided to Jack that he once dressed up in a clown suit to serenade a girl who loved opera with snatches from Pagliacci. “She laughed, then she slammed the door in my face,” Arthur says ruefully. “My point is, guys do goofy things for girls whether they want them to or not.”

So, because a TV character tells a story where he once dressed up as a clown to impress a lady we are to somehow hold that against a real man running for office?

Shouldn't it be remembered that the man who won the Cold War, the man who helped spur the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and the man responsible for the longest peace time economic boom in American history once played second fiddle to a monkey in a movie? Did THAT little bit of celluloid casting eliminate Ronald Reagan from being one of the most celebrated and able American presidents in our history?

Obviously film roles do not give us a full assessment of a man, not that Alessandra Stanley would know. For that matter, not that she would know much about politics, either.

I encourage Alessandra Stanley to stick to TV and the fantasy land it creates. Reality does not suit her at all. I'd also urge The New York Times to have better sense than to allow someone of Stanley's caliber to write so far out of her depth.

It really was cringeworthy and embarrassing to read.