Tuned In

Is Fred Thompson a Real Celebrity?

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NBC Universal Photo: Virginia Sherwood

In a sign of more-serious plans on his part, or boredom on the part of the political press, I’m not sure which, speculation is building that former Senator / Law & Order star Fred Thompson will enter the Republican 2008 primary race. I’ll leave the analysis of Thompson’s chances to the pundits, and his stances on the issues until he actually decides he’s running for anything, but so far the thing that interests me most about the coverage is lines like this:

Should he choose to run, Mr. Thompson and his supporters would face the challenge of converting his celebrity profile and Senate experience into a bona fide presidential campaign.

You tell me: Is Fred Thompson an actual celebrity? I mean certainly he’s known. He’s recognized. But is he a bona fide celebrity, as Arnold Schwarzenegger was before he ran for governor of California? In sheer Hollywood terms, he’s not even of the level of celebrity that Ronald Reagan held before he became governor of California. Law & Order is a popular show, of course–decreasingly popular, but still–and people have seen his movies, but he doesn’t exactly move magazine covers. He’s more what Fametracker.com refers to as a “Hey, It’s That Guy”: an actor recognizable for establishing a niche, in his case, the president / authority figure in TV and movies. [Update: In fact, he was a Hey, It's That Guy.]

Granted, it’s a decent niche to have if you’re running for president. But I wonder if, in fact, Thompson’s strategic strength comes in part from the fact that he’s not too famous an actor. Tuned In’s Swampland colleague Ana Marie Cox used to use the term “famous for Washington” in her Wonkette days, and that seems to be about what Thompson is. (There is, of course, a corollary: “serious/intellectual for Hollywood.”)

Being too much of a celebrity might make him seem less serious, in the eyes of politicians, the press or the public. I’m not sure how well Schwarzenegger or Reagan, for instance, would have done launching into politics in another state. (It’s often your Fred Grandy / Sonny Bono level of celebrity who does well in politics, and most of the exceptions, say Clint Eastwood, are in the Golden State.) But Thompson’s current level of fame gets him free publicity, at least in part in the form of articles about how much free publicity his fame will get him. There’s a question, for instance, of whether his L&O reruns will have to be pulled because of equal-time regulations. Which will leave only about 5,000,000 hours of old Law & Orders to be rerun.

Here concludes my foray into punditry for the day. Coming up on time.com blogs: Jay Carney on why Pam should finally get together with Jim.