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Idle Worship

When Fred Thompson finally joined the presidential field last month, Newsweek greeted him with a cover story that bored into the essential question about the man: Is he too lazy to win? The answer seems to be yes, and, for evidence, the article cited Thompson's reluctance at the Minnesota State Fair to meet the sculptor of the Butter Princess, a 90-pound female bust carved from pure butter. He apparently wanted a strawberry milkshake instead and had to be coaxed into greeting the dairy sculptor. It was, Newsweek decreed, "a small but telling moment," a reminder of doubts about Thompson's willingness "to work hard enough" to become president.

Shortly after, The New York Times dinged him for a campaign visit to Florida that featured "no more than three campaign stops a day." The Times deemed this "a relatively leisurely schedule."

Only three events a day? Unenthused about the butter princess? Someone stop this man from getting near nuclear weapons! At least, that's the curious implication when people talk about Fred Thompson: that Thompson's laziness makes him unsuited to be president. It's an image that threatens to ruin his campaign before it has a chance. "Saturday Night Live" has turned him into a joke ("I'm not sayin' I don't want to be your president, because I kinda do") and influential conservatives doubt his mettle. Thompson "has no passion, no zeal, and no apparent 'want-to,'" Focus on the Family founder James Dobson said recently.

But this is deeply unfair. Not the notion that Thompson is lazy; he clearly is. (The quotation he chose for his high school senior portrait reads, "The lazier a man is, the more he plans to do tomorrow.") What's unfair is the idea that laziness disqualifies him from the presidency. In a society that has grown to fetishize work, laziness has gotten a bad rap. Moreover, a little laziness may be just what we want from our next president.

Maybe it's not surprising that people are lining up to make fun of Thompson's work ethic. After all, it's a defining fact of our economy that Americans are toiling harder than ever. The average American man today works 100 more hours per year than he did in the 1970s, according to the economist Robert Frank. And, as a recent tnr editorial noted, paid vacation time is dwindling fast ("Getaway," August 6). Full-time workers in the U.S. enjoy an average of just twelve vacation days per year (the Brits get at least 20; the French 30). Some workers get none at all.

Unfortunately for Thompson, nowhere has workaholism taken deeper hold than in the political press corps. Not long ago, the profession's chieftains were hard-drinking late-night poker-playing bon vivants (think Jack Germond or R.W. Apple). But that generation has been succeeded by a newer breed composed of type-A reporters who work nonstop--writing stories, blogging, hitting the msnbc chat shows. The Puritan work ethic of these journalists is hardly compatible with long nights at the hotel bar or the pleasures of extended downtime. "They tend to drink white wine or beer rather than Irish whiskey," Germond wrote in his 1999 memoir, "and they carry cell phones so they can talk to their offices more than the once or twice a day I considered adequate. They go out running early in the morning, and a lot of them eat salad from room service, believe it or not." There's no proving it, but it may be that "the moralistic snot-nosed reporters of today," as a veteran newspaperman puts it, simply look down on Fred Thompson's lackadaisical style.

Knowing this, most candidates dare not allow themselves to be branded as anything but fanatical workers. Indeed, they even find ways of driving themselves to needless exhaustion simply to advertise their tirelessness. Shortly before the 2004 Iowa caucuses, for instance, John Kerry embarked on a nonstop 24-hour bus tour. Kerry advisers touted this, according to The Boston Globe, as "a grueling schedule that would reflect Kerry's own taste for hard work." But Kerry's tour involved little interaction with voters, the Globe noted. It was a "campaign gimmick" staged for the benefit of trailing TV cameras. In other words, Kerry drove around in a bus for 24 hours to show people he's the kind of guy who will drive around in a bus for 24 hours. An important qualification for a Lynyrd Skynyrd roadie, perhaps, but not a president.

Thompson's perfect foil is Mitt Romney, whose unrelenting work ethic suggests a well-coiffed cyborg with a circuitry-packed cranium. According to the Associated Press, Romney frequently hits the campaign trail by 7 a.m. and doesn't stop until 10 p.m. On a good day, Romney might cram in seven appearances. Lest you miss the point, one Romney TV ad features him on an intense jog, drenched in sweat, while a narrator recites his record of accomplishment. Romney has been rewarded with flattering press coverage of his corporate-executive regimen, and we are meant to believe this is the sort of workaholic who should be running the country.

But who says fanatical drive is essential in a great leader? Winston Churchill frequently stayed in bed until 11 a.m., worked in his pajamas, and enjoyed long afternoon siestas. (Some doctors argue that taking mid-afternoon naps--a practice guaranteed to draw instant mockery from friends and coworkers-- leads to better work performance.) Nor is hard work necessarily a virtue. Take our most industrious recent presidents. Richard Nixon worked diligently-- frequently in the name of persecuting his enemies--while Jimmy Carter moistened his brow laboring over such matters as scheduling for the White House tennis court and precision hostage rescues.

The gold standard for presidential laziness was surely set by Ronald Reagan. According to his biographer, Lou Cannon, Reagan often didn't start his days until 9:30 a.m., finished them shortly after 5 p.m., and usually took Wednesday and Friday afternoons off. When Reagan once complained during his 1980 campaign that his schedule began too early, Cannon writes, an adviser told him to get used to it, because, once in the White House, Reagan would have a national security aide arriving at 7:30 every morning to brief him. "Well," Reagan replied, "he's going to have a helluva long wait." Cannon concludes that Reagan "may have been the one president in the history of the republic who saw his election as a chance to get some rest." You may not admire Reagan's record. But the primary voters Thompson is wooing certainly do, making the Gipper's example an ideal comeback next time someone calls Fred lazy.

Doesn't George W. Bush--with his inseparable feather pillow and long hours with espn--prove the perils of laziness? Not at all. As his recent biographer, Robert Draper, told me, Bush may be inattentive to detail, but he is not in fact lazy. To the contrary, Bush is a fitness freak, a punctuality obsessive, and an early riser. (In 2004, The New York Times reported that Bush wakes up at 5 a.m. and reaches the Oval Office by 7 a.m., an hour before his daily national security briefing.) "There's a visceral restlessness to him, a desire not only to be punctual but to start early and finish early, that results in him almost racing through his days," Draper says. Bush's problem isn't that he shunned work, but rather that he took it on without being prepared. Starting a war, after all, is not the act of a lazy man. It involves far more long meetings and complicated speeches than simply letting a troublesome problem fester. If Fred Thompson is as lazy as reputed (and if he's anything like me), he'd have stuck a Post-it note to his wall back in 2002 reading saddam? and then never quite gotten around to invading. Which, in retrospect, may not have been such a bad thing.

Michael Crowley