Fred Thompson and the value of 'easy does it'

Many politicians are workaholics. Smart leaders take time off to reflect.

Pundits and Democrats are making the same mistake with Fred Thompson that they did with Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower: underestimating him because he's not a workaholic. Mr. Reagan liked to joke that "They say hard work never killed anyone, but I figure, why take the chance?" Reagan also once observed of himself, "I've really been burning the midday oil." The same could be said of Mr. Thompson. To detractors, this is clear evidence of his limitations. It isn't.

Any wise manager knows that long hours are not synonymous with added productivity. It could be the other way around. Working too hard usually indicates that an executive is disorganized, can't manage time, and has problems delegating authority. That person stays up late and brings work home on weekends because he has to. But working overtime is hardly the same as working effectively. Typically, it's just the opposite.

One of Al Gore's weaknesses during the 2000 campaign was that he worked such long hours and had his fingers in so many pies that he seemed to lose sight of his overarching message. Mr. Gore was not good at delegating. He was more in the Jimmy Carter tradition. As president, Carter was notorious for being so loath to delegate authority that he brooded over schedules for the White House tennis courts.

For some reason this tendency seems to afflict Democrats more than Republicans. Democrats routinely confuse hyperactivity with achievement. This began when John Kennedy made such a fetish of contrasting his "vigor" with Ike's apparent indolence.

Since then, so many Democrats have tried to model themselves on JFK that perpetual motion has become a party trait. Bill Clinton – who hero-worshiped JFK – was an effective president in many ways, but would have been more effective if he'd learned some fundamentals of time management: don't procrastinate, stay up late obsessing, or worry problems to death with endless discussion. The latter more than anything is what scuttled the health plan he and Hillary noodled to oblivion.

Perhaps because so many of them come from the ranks of management, more Republican politicians seem to have learned that the essence of leadership involves delegation of authority, a schedule that isn't jampacked, and one that includes regular time off. Does Thompson take breaks and knock off at 5 p.m.? If so, he's got plenty of company among the electorate.

Amid the spate of bad reviews for Thompson's laid-back campaign performance, a few reporters have noticed how much more his laconic manner appeals to heartland voters than it does to coastal reporters. According to Michael Scherer of Salon.com, Thompson's obvious appeal to Iowans confuses members of the national press, "an ambitious crowd that distrusts those who brag of meandering through life."

While traveling with the candidate in Iowa, Tom Bevan of RealClearPolitics found that voters he interviewed enjoyed the folksy chats Thompson had with them following his stiff podium presentations. None expressed disappointment with Thompson's less-than-dynamic manner. Unlike some other Republican candidates, Bevan concluded, the phlegmatic personality of this actor-politician "plays exceeding well in Iowa."

Like Thompson, a striking number of history's most noted figures had relaxed working habits. Anwar Sadat – the first Arab leader with enough vision to seek peace with Israel – was a noted nonworkaholic who regularly napped for three hours a day.

Even at the peak of World War II, Winston Churchill routinely took siestas and enjoyed long, leisurely baths. (Biographer William Manchester marveled at how many crises found him soaking in a bathtub.) Throughout his life he made time to attend horse races, hunt boar, paint pictures, and travel abroad. His family always had first call on Churchill's time.

The essence of leadership is keeping the big picture in view, and not squandering one's resources. Regular time off to reflect is part of this process. Which brings us back to Thompson. There are plenty of reasons to question this man's capacity to be president. The fact that he limits his schedule and doesn't scurry about is not one of them. That tendency could say something for Thompson, not against him.

Ralph Keyes's book "Retrotalk" will be published next year.

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