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A lobbyist for president?

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BOB MOON: The Associated Press reported this week on something that didn’t happen. No kidding. The story started off this way: “Fred Thompson did not enter the 2008 presidential race.”

It was a report about Thompson’s appearance on The Tonight Show earlier this week. Thompson is the actor who became a U.S. senator and then returned to acting on TV’s “Law and Order.”

He did drop some strong hints to Jay Leno that he will be joining the already crowded field of presidential wanna-be’s.

Commentator Jeff Birnbaum says as voters evaluate Thompson’s message, they should keep his work experience in mind.

JEFF BIRNBAUM: By all accounts, Fred Thompson will soon be running for president, portraying himself as a Washington outsider on the campaign trail. Don’t believe him.

Over the past three years he showed up every two weeks or so at a lobbying law firm in Washington to plot ways to persuade Congress to help a British company. His main assignment: to use his connections to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to extract information about goings-on inside Congress, and use that information to benefit Equitas Limited, his multibillion-dollar client. In exchange for this insider wisdom, he was paid a cool $760,000.

Thompson, in short, was an access man. His job was to contact his old colleagues on Capitol Hill to learn the latest about bills Equitas cared about. Thompson was most frequently responsible for finding out what Frist was planning to do. And that did not require heavy lifting. Thompson represented Tennessee in the Senate for eight years alongside Frist.

Equitas held billions of dollars to pay off claims from people sickened by asbestos. Its goal: to persuade Congress to limit how much it had to pay into a trust fund to cover those liabilities.

Thompson already knew the ropes. He has lobbied since the 1970s. Before he was elected to the Senate in 1994, his lobbying clients included Westinghouse Electric, U.S. Cablesystems, and the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund. His opponent for the Senate, Congressman Jim Cooper, once labeled Thompson a “Gucci-wearing, Lincoln-driving, Perrier-drinking, Grey Poupon-spreading millionaire Washington special-interest lobbyist.” But Cooper got clobbered, anyway.

Will history repeat itself at the presidential level? Who knows? A lobbyist has never gone on to become a president. But if Thompson does, at least he’ll know from the inside how Washington really works.

MOON: Jeff Birnbaum is a columnist for the Washington Post.

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