Inching toward an anticipated announcement he will run for president in 2008, former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson spoke Saturday to an elite group of right-wing, behind-the-scenes political powerbrokers.
Thompson reportedly told a gathering of the Council for National Policy the 2005 confirmation of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts shows Republicans can win against federal judges who misuse the Constitution for their own political ends.
According to a text of his comments at National Review Online–CNP gatherings are closed to the press–Thompson also said the perjury conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney’s former Chief of Staff Scooter Libby demonstrates how “injustices can occur” when public officials lack the courage to go against public clamor and do the right thing.
Reportedly introduced by Southern Baptist Convention Ethics & Religious Liberty head Richard Land, Thompson applauded the CNP–a conservative membership group founded in 1981 as a marriage of convenience for politically attuned religious and fiscal conservatives–for defending “first principles” found in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
Those principles “include a recognition of God and the fact there are certain rights that come from Him and not the government,” Thompson said.
Thompson listed Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision establishing a woman’s right to abortion and church-state issues as examples of a federal judiciary he said has moved beyond deciding cases into setting social policy.
“Many federal judges seem intent on eliminating God from the public schools and the public square in ways that would astound our founding fathers,” Thompson said. “We never know when a five-to-four Supreme Court decision will uphold them.”
“They ignore the fact that the founders were protecting the church from the state and not the other way around,” he continued. “Instead of having the basic rules of society changed in the way clearly set forth in the Constitution by two-thirds votes of both Houses and by three-fourths of the states, the entire process is reversed by the stroke of a pen and supporters of the rule of law have the burden placed upon them, which is usually insurmountable.”
Better known by many Americans as an actor on television’s “Law & Order” and several movies than as a politician, Saturday’s event in Tyson’s Corner, Va., was viewed as a critical audition for Thompson, who served eight years as a senator from Tennessee after winning a special election in 1994 for the remaining two years of Vice President Al Gore’s term and re-election to a full term in 1996.
Earlier off-the-cuff remarks by Thompson testing the waters in Orange County, Calif., drew a lackluster response. Aides dubbed last weekend’s speech–a tighter and sharper message penned by the candidate himself–“Stump Speech 2.0.”
Adding to the drama was Saturday’s stage. Tim LaHaye, then an evangelical preacher and head of the Moral Majority who went on to co-author the “Left Behind” novel series predicting and depicting the Apocalypse, founded the Council for National Policy in 1981.
Funded by anti-tax, small-government conservatives like brewer Joseph Coors, the CNP is a secretive club for religious and fiscal conservative kingpins. The theory is that one faction mobilizes the grassroots activism, while the other puts up the money.
As governor of Texas, George W. Bush met with the group in 1999 to seek its approval of his primary campaign for president.
The CNP helped circulate the infamous “Clinton Chronicles” videotapes that linked the president to a host of crimes in Arkansas, and was no doubt at least in part behind then first-lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s maligned reference to NBC News’ Katie Couric that her husband was a victim of a “vast, right-wing conspiracy.”
The CNP hand-picks members, meets three times a year behind closed doors and forbids members from talking to the press. While criticized for its secrecy, current leaders say it has nothing to do with politics but is intended only to create an atmosphere where members can feel comfortable to speak openly without worrying about their words being filtered through the press.
The group previously heard from Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California. As of a February gathering in Amelia Island, Fla., according to the New York Times, many members were dismayed that a clear standard-bearer for 2008 had yet to emerge.
Many dislike Sen. John McCain, who is trying to make amends for earlier calling Christian Right leaders agents of intolerance. They are troubled by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, because he is pro-choice, supports civil unions for gays and is in his third marriage. Another frontrunner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is suspect because his views have changed on issues like abortion, stem-cell research and gay rights and because he is a Mormon.
An anonymous blogger on Spectator.org said Thompson was well received Saturday. He got a standing ovation and an enthusiastic reception when he took the podium.
During the speech, the blogger said, murmurings of “Amen” were heard repeatedly, and a speech lacking a lot of clear applause lines was interrupted at least five or six times when people burst into applause.
Some in the crowd apparently didn’t know what to make of Thompson’s support for Libby, Cheney’s former chief of staff, who is appealing his perjury conviction while awaiting sentencing.
Thompson is one of 27 prominent Republicans and Bush administration supporters on the advisory committee for the Libby Legal Defense Trust, a group seeking to raise $5 million for Libby’s defense.
Thompson has called Libby’s conviction a “miscarriage of justice” and said if he were president, he would pardon Libby.
In Saturday’s speech, Thompson said the Justice Department investigation into whether Libby had a role in leaking the identity of CIA employee Valerie Plame was politically motivated and that no laws were broken. He said he didn’t know Libby when the controversy began, but he knew what was happening was wrong.
Thompson said he contacted Libby to see if there was anything he could do to help, and the two became friends.
Prominent Southern Baptists are no strangers to the CNP. Various membership lists include names like Paige Patterson, Religious Roundtable founder Ed McAteer, Jerry Falwell and Vision America founder Rick Scarborough.
“Conservative resurgence” co-founder Paul Pressler abruptly ended an interview when Bill Moyers pressed him about his involvement with the CNP for his 1987 PBS documentary “God and Politics.”
Baptized into the Church of Christ as a child, Thompson has no clear church identification today Once divorced, Thompson, 64, has two children, ages 4 and 1, with his second wife. He met her in 1996, 11 years after his divorce from his first wife, and they married in 2002.
Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics said the Christian Right’s reported warm reception of Thompson is “puzzling, given his lack of authentic churchmanship.”
But, Parham said, “The Christian Right has often blessed politicians and talk-radio hosts with values far different from the pro-family values they preach.”
“Thompson’s anti-separation of church and state and anti-judicial system are troublesome,” Parham said. “Thompson’s anti-accountability activism related to Libby is flat wrong headed. It’s as if he endorses the Bush administration’s leading the nation into war on the wings of a lie.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.