Sunday, November 4, 2007

Law & Order: Blindsided Candidate

Fred Thompson’s new series is well underway, but this one doesn’t depend on the outcome of the negotiations with Hollywood writers, set to strike at the stroke of midnight over their share of profits from DVD sales. The latecomer to the presidential campaign has had to address a series of issues raised in a story in The Washington Post, focusing on Philip Martin, a Thompson campaign adviser and close friend, who has had a personal past distinctly at odds with Republican sensibilities, and, uh, the law.

Since June, Martin, a businessman and one of the four co-chairmen of Thompson’s floundering campaign, has been ferrying the candidate to campaign appearances around the country in his twin-engine Cessna 560 Citation, saving the campaign an estimated $100,000 in costs, fully in accordance with Federal Election Commission rules then in place, but costing the campaign in another way.

The Post reported that Martin pleaded guilty to selling 11 pounds of marijuana to an undercover Florida police detective in 1979, but the court withheld judgment pending completion of probation. In 1983, Martin was charged with violating probation and multiple counts of bookmaking, cocaine trafficking and conspiracy, again in Florida. He pleaded no contest to the cocaine-trafficking and conspiracy charges, and got probation.

Chung-chung!

Damage control has begun. Karen Hanretty, Thompson's deputy communications director, told The Post on Saturday that "Senator Thompson was unaware of the information until this afternoon. Phil Martin has been a friend of the senator since the mid-1990s and remains so today."

Thompson communications director Todd Harris chimed in, adding that Martin was apparently exempted from the campaign's usual process of vetting key advisers because "he's a longtime friend."

"There's not a campaign in the world that has the ability to research every one of its supporters going back more than 20 years," Harris said.

Thompson continued damage control in his own behalf. “I know Phil is a good man. He is my friend. He is going to remain my friend,” Thompson said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “He didn’t go to jail, he got probation, he’s paid his debt to society and turned himself around and become a good, productive, successful citizen.”

Four questions come immediately to mind:

If Martin was such a “longtime friend,” how could Thompson not have known about such shady dealings? Let’s take the candidate at his word. If Thompson truly didn’t know about it, why was friendship alone enough to opt Martin out of the vetting process? Since Thompson knows about it now, what happens to Martin’s role in the campaign going forward? And what does it say about Martin’s basic character that he would have this monstrous shadow in his past and not tell the candidate about it?

At an impromptu Sunday news conference, Thompson elaborated somewhat, saying Martin “thought it was over and done with and forgotten about, I’m sure. But of course nothing is ever over and done with and forgotten in this business.”

We don’t know what’s worse: Thompson’s apparent lack of knowledge about such a close adviser, or his apparent naivete about the half-life of potentially embarrassing past events in the lives of public people.

Without question, Thompson's loyalty to an old and trusted friend speaks well of his own personal character – the irrefutable evidence of a real stand-up guy.

But this latest episode is just one more … thing to deal with in a campaign that’s been struggling to get out of first gear from almost the beginning. It’s just so unseemly, so base and tawdry, and the kind of ugly mud that threatens to slow the traction of the Thompson campaign bus even more. No matter how it all plays out, it just looks bad.

Thompson seems to understand this. "I'm going to have to take a look at it," he told "Meet the Press." "I'm going to have to talk to Phil and make sure I understand the nature of the situation and figure out what the right thing is. I'm not going to throw my friend under the bus for something he did 25 years ago if he's okay now. On the other hand, I'm running for president; I've got, you know, to do the right thing."

The right thing should have started well before now. Thompson needs to seriously address this issue and get it behind him. From before the official start of his campaign, which was in test-marketing mode for months, Thompson’s bid for the presidency has been plagued as much by internal issues with his staff and advisers as by challengers from other hopefuls for the top job. His campaign bus requires a serious Mr. Goodwrench now. Without one, his bid for the presidency may be, well, over and done with and forgotten about already – and we haven’t even hit the primaries yet.
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Update: One-time recreational pharmaceutical entrepreneur Philip Martin resigned from the Thompson campaign on Nov. 5. Like no one saw that coming. "I have decided to resign my position as chair of 'First Day Founders' of 'The Friends of Fred Thompson,'" Martin said in a statement. "The focus of this campaign should be on Fred Thompson's positions on the issues and his outstanding leadership ability, not on mistakes I made some 24 years ago. I deeply regret any embarrassment this has caused."

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