Finally! 

After stretching the patience of even his most fervent supporters to the breaking point, former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson announced last week that he will finally and formally announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination this week.

Typically for a candidate who has always wanted to do things his own idiosyncratic way — which is to say, according to a relatively relaxed pace and with some unexpected innovations — Thompson's announcement will come this Thursday via video on his Web site (ImWithFred.com), following which he plans to embark on a five-day swing through several early-voting primary states.

In a statement released with the announcement, Thompson said: "I believe that there are millions of Americans who know that our security and prosperity are at risk if we don't address the challenges of our time; the global threat of terrorism; taxes and spending that will bankrupt future generations; and a government that can't seem to get the most basic responsibilities right for its citizens.

"The response that we've received makes me confident that we have an opportunity to change politics in Washington and across the country, and take on these challenges the way every generation of Americans has faced the challenges of their time — with unity, hard work and a belief that we will come out on the winning side."

Simultaneously, NBC, the network which carries Law & Order, the long-running crime-detection show on which Thompson has figured for the last few years as the unflappable district attorney Arthur Branch, defied some expectations by making its own announcement — namely, that it would not stop showing reruns of the show, regardless of whether Thompson figured in the installments chosen for broadcast.

Ah well: So much for our own pet theory that the thespian-pol's procrastination had been based on contractual obligations to the program or to individuals associated with it and that his protracted wait for announcing had to do with the conclusion of summer reruns from last season.

So maybe he is lazy and slow to get started, as detractors and even some allies have always maintained. He certainly seemed to be in that mold during his first major race — against Democrat Jim Cooper for the Senate in 1994. Starting slow that year, he finally hit upon the device of a symbolic red pickup, which, in simulated good-ole-boy style, allowed him to make his political pit stops in the several corners of Tennessee.

In any case, he peaked about the time GOP guru and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" formula did, and Thompson surged ahead of Cooper in a late move that may in fact have been ahead of the national curve that year.

And that's the counter-argument for the Fred-is-lazy crowd: He seems to know what he's doing and, despite the Beltway consensus that Thompson will toe some pre-ordained conservative line, that ain't how he did it in the Senate.

Thompson quite frequently took positions at odds with his party leadership — notably during his politically even-handed investigation of campaign-finance irregularities — and it was entirely appropriate for him to become campaign chairman for the 2000 presidential campaign of (then) maverick colleague John McCain.

Has Thompson, like McCain, redesigned himself this year with more conventional Republican views? Maybe, but I still remember the extended interview he gave me in 1994, when he deviated from his party's norms of the time and delivered an extended and closely reasoned philippic against what he called the "criminalization" of politics.

This was at a time, remember, when the Whitewater investigation of Democratic president Bill Clinton was already being pushed by congressional Republicans toward the political equivalent of a star chamber and a hanging judge.

Though even Thompson would move somewhat toward his party's punitive agenda when the Monica Lewinsky affair flared up, he pointedly voted for only one of the two impeachment resolutions in the Senate — and that one in the most pro forma manner possible.

All of that is one good reason why the label factory — which turns out appellations like "conservative" or "moderate" or "liberal" — won't serve to describe this new presidential hopeful. What the camera picks up in him is something much more ineffable.

Or maybe I'm just reacting to the fact that he graduated from the University of Memphis backaways. Shhhhh! — on the same day as me.

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