Thompson in role of Wesley Clark

We now offer Fred Thompson as Exhibit B to Wesley Clark's Exhibit A. This is to establish that late celebrity entrants in presidential races tend to turn out to be mostly mystique, destined to the sad remnants of desperate flights of fantasy.

Partisans become so understandably dissatisfied with their known quantities -- their Romneys, Kerrys, Edwardses and Giulianis -- that they start reading fiction and embracing it as real.

No offense to Clark intended. He was, after all, an accomplished Army general while Thompson is but a former lobbyist and mid-grade supporting television actor.

It's the greater point they share.

Democrats loved the grand idea of their own general. Their four-star one, commanding hero of NATO's air war in Kosovo, excited them for a few minutes on Sept. 16, 2003. That was as Clark announced for president. But it was before he actually did any running.

Republicans have been in love with the grand idea of another actor delivering eloquent lines, making tender love to the camera and commanding the screen. In Thompson's case, fantasy began to play out and flawed reality set in even before he got as far his announcement.

Our presidents will most likely come from people with the gall to run, not from central casting. They'll come from people able and willing to perform vigorously and well in the relevant arena, meaning the campaign one.

Eisenhower was the last to be drafted out of sheer passivity. Reagan ran for the presidency hard and long. Bill Clinton had been running since infancy. Karl Rove had been creating George W. Bush for a long time.

You remember what happened to Clark. Within a few hours of announcing, he was on a plane getting interviewed by reporters about the war in Iraq, his high-credential opposition to which provided his very political essence.

This was the question: If he had been in the Senate, would he have voted for the resolution authorizing the war? There were two good answers. One was "no." The other was that he had not been in the Senate, not privy to the intricacies of the debate or dynamic, and simply couldn't and shouldn't speculate on a pointless hypothetical. The point, he could have said, was that he was sure enough against the war now.

But he said that he probably would have voted for the resolution. Pressed by reporters sensing that he had just cut his brand new political legs out from under himself, Clark ended up saying this: "Mary."

That was his press aide, Mary Jacoby. The general was crying out for a civilian press operative to help him say what he thought about war.

Clark's other problem was that he did not convey warmth or easily make an interpersonal connection.

And now we have Fred Thompson:

-- He recruited nearly a dozen campaign staffers who would end up being ousted after having their lives uprooted, but before the campaign actually even got launched.

-- He went to the Iowa State Fair wearing designer shoes, riding a golf cart and retreating to the VIP tent. From the report on Fox News, Thompson seemed either under the weather or positively indifferent.

-- He offended that same official GOP news network by declining to participate in its debate last week, and to appear instead on Jay Leno. He ran a commercial on Fox during that debate touting his formal announcement the next day. It was a talking-head spot remarkable for the banality of Thompson's comments and the off-putting bobbing of his head. He may be better as a character than as himself.

All of that is to suggest our next president will come from those who were running before last week and because they wanted to run.

John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@