The Actor With A Yawning Audience

Reporters who roamed the country back at the time of Watergate found a public outraged over that Washington scandal. There's no such public outrage - not yet anyway - over recent excesses in political fund-raising.

Sen. Fred Thompson, (R) of Tennessee, who chairs the committee probing into this matter, seems a bit baffled by this lack of an outcry from the voters. At a Monitor breakfast the other morning, he acknowledged that the presentation of evidence at the hearings thus far hasn't drawn much of a national audience.

He promises, however, that interest should pick up in September when hearings are resumed. That's when the committee will look into charges that both the president and vice president illegally solicited campaign funds from the White House.

Towering, deep-voiced Fred Thompson was an impressive figure at the Watergate hearings, where he was minority counsel. Now he has been cast in the lead role - the one held by Sen. Sam Ervin in those historic hearings of 1973-74.

This was to be Thompson's great opportunity to strut his stuff before a vast national audience. Indeed, some journalists were billing it as a springboard for a Thompson bid for the presidency. Thompson, actually, has handled himself quite well. Some might even say that it has been a boffo performance. But how can you have a truly boffo performance if hardly anyone is watching?

At one point in the breakfast session I asked the senator if he didn't think that the public was turned off, at least in part, by the highly complicated nature of the wheelings and dealings involved in the fund-raising transactions. He conceded that this, perhaps, was so.

But I think there is a more basic problem: Thompson and his fellow committee members are facing a national audience that as a result of Watergate has lost much of its faith in government. Indeed, some highly respected polls show that since that scandal there's been a decided drop-off in the amount of trust Americans say they have in Washington officials "doing what is right."

So rather than becoming concerned about the fund-raising excesses, most Americans shrug their shoulders. "Everybody's doing it," they say of wrongdoing among elected officeholders in Washington. It's more than loss of faith in those who represent them there. It's widespread cynicism.

Actually, television hasn't helped to stir up public interest in the hearings - if, in fact, it had wanted to. I surf the TV channels and find only a short segment or a summary from time to time. At first, TV carried a bit more. But nothing like the extensive, live Watergate coverage. From the outset of those hearings I was able to follow almost every word, either on TV or radio.

The TV people's excuse for not carrying more of the hearings is simply because - they contend - there's no demand for it from their viewers. Here you have to ask: Shouldn't these hearings be carried as a public service? C-SPAN has re-runs late at night. Good for C-SPAN. But that's not giving these important probes.

Whether or not Thompson turns his performance into a smash hit is yet to be seen. But he clearly did well in his breakfast performance. Afterward, journalists - there were nearly 50 on hand - remarked about how "presidential" he looked and how he would make a formidable Republican in 2000 if he gets into the race.

At the hearings Thompson sometimes can be a bit testy. One reporter at the breakfast asked him why he had become "irate" with one of his committee colleagues.

The senator smiled and said, "I don't do 'irate.'" He admitted to becoming less than amused at times. But this occasional Hollywood actor insists that "irate" is not in his repertory.

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