In a stunning move that caught no one by surprise, Fred Thompson announced that ... he's ... running ... for ... president.
Time to step up to the plate, he said.
And everybody hit their snooze buttons.
That Thompson is running for the highest office was a foregone anti-climax after months of testing, consulting, pondering, considering and, most important, letting the other candidates spend their money and exhaust Americans' interest with endless debates in which little new is said or learned.
The debates have become so boilerplate, in fact, that Thompson himself became one of the topics at Wednesday's forum in New Hampshire. Where was Fred?
Fred was chatting it up with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" set, where he made his formal announcement. The other Republican candidates, doubtless weary from the previous 200 debates, took turns taking shots at Thompson.
Rudy Giuliani got off the best line, saying that he likes Thompson and thinks he's done a "pretty good job of playing my part on 'Law & Order.' I personally prefer the real thing."
The unflappable Thompson was in character when Leno asked him what he thought of the criticism. "It's a lot more difficult to get on 'The Tonight Show' than it is to get into a presidential debate," he deadpanned.
Despite criticism that Thompson played the Hollywood card by going on Leno's show, he was able to make some serious points about Iraq (stay until the country is stable), and complete his thoughts in paragraphs without interruption.
On important matters, Thompson is as serious as the DA he plays on television. And just as direct, as when he described Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "a fellow who is not put together well upstairs running the country." As president, Thompson might have to be more diplomatic, but such frank talk is refreshing when most public figures are measuring their words with espresso spoons.
Thompson prompted applause when he answered Leno's question about why the U.S. isn't more popular with other countries. "What are we doing wrong?" Leno asked.
Powerful countries tend to attract envy and resentment, Thompson began. That's the price of being the biggest, strongest nation in the world. A 6-foot-6 man like Thompson might know something about that. But then he shifted focus from what we've done wrong to what we've done right:
"Our people have shed more blood for the liberty and freedom of other peoples ... than all the other countries put together. (Applause.) And I don't feel any need to apologize for the United States of America."
There's still much to know about this latest addition to the White House race, but as first impressions go, Thompson has at least two things going for him: He's utterly lacking in hubris or so it seems and he can communicate. If presidents are elected in reaction to the previous officeholder, that's a strong hand.
It is also impossible to picture Thompson as a cheerleader.
Whether he can get nominated is another question, but he already holds the No. 2 slot in the polls behind Giuliani. On the Internet, Thompson's Web site (ImWithFred) had the most unique visitors in July among the Republican candidates, according to a new Nielsen report. Barack Obama leads all the candidates in Web traffic.
Whatever happens next, Thompson at least gave commentators something new to talk about. Was it a mistake to go on Leno instead of the debate, they wondered? And, did he sign on too late, they speculated? Is he a team player?
Thompson must have chuckled all the way to Iowa. Too late for what? Most Americans still don't know who's running and don't share the punditry's obsession with quantifying who's up and who's down every 24-hour cycle. If they're watching television, they're more likely watching Leno, who averaged 5.9 million viewers in 2006, instead of the presidential debates, which tend to draw between 1 million and 2 million viewers, according to Variety.
By setting himself apart from the gaggle and having a one-on-one chat with 6 million Americans, Thompson messed up the political ecosystem. In a single well-timed appearance, he made up for a late start and got exposure and buzz. And it didn't cost him a dime.