Candidates at Play

October 14, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE — Nashville, Tennessee. -- Avicious attack on the president of the United States ran over and over on television here. This is the script:

''Of course we're all angry at Washington. So is Jim Cooper, but he's done more than talk. . . . Across town, the Washington power structure was so frightened by the Cooper plan they never allowed a vote on it. . . . But he stood like a rock. And a president retreated. . . . It was the Cooper plan that made the White House committees and PR caravans look bad.''

Wow! Go get 'em, Jim Cooper! Those committees and PR caravans -- that was Bill and Hillary Clinton themselves, in person.

Then Mr. Cooper, a Democrat, voted against Mr. Clinton on the crime bill. I could hardly wait to see what the president (and Hillary, too) was going to do to Mr. Cooper, who is a 40-year-old congressman from a Tennessee town called Shelbyville. You know what the president did? I'll tell you. He sent down Vice President Gore, who happens to be from Tennessee, and the vice president raised $250,000 for Mr. Cooper. That'll teach him to mess with the president of the United States!

Mr. Cooper is a country boy who went to the Groton School, Harvard Law and Oxford, one of those Rhodes Scholars. And his father was governor of Tennessee. When he was 4 years old, Jim Cooper passed out cards saying, ''Vote for my poppa, please.'' His poppa ran in a Democratic Senate primary against Mr. Gore's daddy, Sen. Albert Gore Sr.

It is hard to believe that a great Democrat like Congressman Cooper, who is now running for the Senate seat vacated by Albert Gore Jr. when Bill Clinton picked him to be vice president, could be in danger of losing. But he is. The Republican candidate, Fred Thompson, the actor -- remember he was the White House chief of staff (make-believe) in the movie ''In the Line of Fire'' -- has an actual photograph of Mr. Cooper with President Clinton, in short pants, jogging.

But wait. All is not lost. Mr. Cooper has an actual photograph of Mr. Thompson's car, a big, black Lincoln Continental, described by Larry Daughtrey, the political columnist of The Tennessean, as long enough to stretch Opryland's ballroom. This is important because Mr. Thompson, who is also a Nashville lawyer, has been campaigning in a red 1990 Chevrolet pickup truck with 189,000 miles on it and was heard saying he doubted Mr. Cooper had ever ridden in a pickup truck.

Maybe Mr. Cooper hadn't, but it turned out that it wasn't Mr. Thompson's truck. He leased it for the campaign. ''Hey Fred, where did you park the Lincoln?'' is the legend on T-shirts worn by Cooper volunteers. This is a big issue in the Volunteer State, where it has been revealed that Sen. James Sasser, another Democrat rumored to have met President Clinton, owns an old Jaguar, and Bill Frist, the Republican candidate for governor, has been seen in a Volvo. Luckily, Mr. Cooper drives a Ford Taurus. (So do I. Good car.)

Mr. Thompson, whom you may also remember as minority counsel during the Watergate hearings, does his television commercials in red flannel shirts, saying things like this: ''When they get to Washington is when we find out what they really believe.'' Of Mr. Cooper personally, he says: ''There's nothing more desperate than a professional politician faced with the prospect of having to get a real job for the first time in his life.''

But no one can say Big Fred doesn't know the way to the capital of the Republic, where he lived for many years. Federal records found by the Cooper campaign have revealed that Mr. Thompson has brought home $207,803 in lobbying fees from Washington during the past 18 months. It turns out he could have afforded to buy the pickup outright.

Another year, another election. Messrs. Cooper, Thompson and Sasser are some of the more impressive candidates around this year. You should see the bad ones, on display, for instance, in California and Virginia. Is this a great country or what?

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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