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Fred Thompson:
A Presidential Primer

Do the movies make the man?

8:13 AM, Mar 22, 2007 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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IF FRED THOMPSON were to become our next president, what would he be like? Where would he stand on the issues? Although the former Tennessee senator has yet to declare, support for a Thompson candidacy is steadily growing. The Draft Fred Thompson President '08 website ( is already up and running. Former Senate majority leader Bill Frist has said he would endorse Thompson were he to run. But what do really know about the man?

Sure, Thompson has much political experience, including as an assistant U.S. attorney, minority counsel during Watergate and special counsel to both the Senate foreign relations and intelligence committees. In 1996, Thompson won election to the Senate with 61 percent of the vote and remained highly popular throughout his term. He supported a ban on partial birth abortion, opposed a prescription drug benefit, and voted for education savings accounts. Although he decided against a reelection bid, Thompson has remained active in politics, recently helping shepherd Supreme Court nominees through the grueling confirmation process.

But a career in politics can only reveal so much. Film and television, on the other hand, provide us deeper insight into the individual, his thoughts and inclinations. And because Fred Thompson has been in the acting business since 1987, appearing on both the big and small screens, there is much we can learn about what a President Thompson might be like: his views on foreign and domestic issues, the presidency, and what to do if terrorists take over Dulles International Airport.

No Way Out (1987) :In this Kevin Costner-Gene Hackman political thriller, Thompson plays CIA director Marshall. His Central Intelligence colleague Kevin O'Brien explains that a murder suspect was likely having an affair with the victim:

Kevin O'Brien: Get ready for this. We think she's either David Brice's or Scott Pritchard's mistress . . . .

CIA Director Marshall: Well, spilt milk. And you can forget about Pritchard. He's homosexual.

Kevin O'Brien: I'll be damned.

CIA Director Marshall: So will he, if you believe the Old Testament.

Eternal damnation for homosexuals? Thompson could be a real hard-liner when it comes to gay rights, which might work to his advantage in the primaries but prove tricky in the general election.

The Hunt for Red October (1990): In this Cold War classic, Thompson plays Admiral Josh Painter, commander of an aircraft carrier involved in the search for a Soviet submarine that may be trying to defect. Painter questions CIA analyst Jack Ryan about the Kremlin's next move:

Adm. Painter: What's his plan?

Jack Ryan: His plan?

Adm. Painter: Russians don't take a dump, son, without a plan.

Though a bit scatological, Thompson displays the keen insight of a Sovietologist, fully aware of how Russians think and act--and without having to look into anyone's soul. (Incidentally, during an editorial lunch at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Senator Thompson said he considered The Hunt for Red October to be his favorite film to have worked on--even more than Curly Sue.)

Days of Thunder (1990): NASCAR dads will love Thompson as the burly racetrack owner Big John in this Tom Cruise vehicle. In this one scene, Big John lets loose on Cruise's character, Cole Trickle, and another driver for their on-road antics:

Big John: If you two wanna turn yourselves into a greasy spot out on a country road somewhere, go right ahead. I don't give a shit and I don't think anybody else does, but you two monkeys are not going to do it on my racetrack. You ever heard of a "Japanese Inspection"? Japanese Inspection, you see, when the Japs take in a load of lettuce they're not sure they wanna let in the country, why they'll just let it sit there on the dock 'til they get good and ready to look at. But then of course, it's all gone rotten . . . ain't nothing left to inspect. You see, lettuce is a perishable item . . . like you two monkeys. You trade paint one more time, you so much as touch, I'm gonna Black Flag the two of you, and tear apart your racecars for three-hundred laps. Then, if you pass inspection and you put your cars back together, I might let you back into the race. Now, just to show there's no hard feelings we're all gonna go to dinner together.

Much is happening here, but the two important themes are Thompson's acting as a uniter (not divider) and his knowledge of Japanese trade issues.

Die Hard 2 (1990): In the sequel to the action-thriller Die Hard, Thompson costars as Trudeau, chief air traffic controller at Dulles Airport. When Bruce Willis, as John McClane, tries to convince Trudeau that someone's about to take over the airport and drastic action needs to be taken, Trudeau exercises caution:

Trudeau: Hey. Something serious happens every night, only it doesn't make the newspapers. Ever see those guys on TV, juggling knives and chain saws? That's what we're doing with those planes up there, only we do it one handed 'cause the other hand's playing 3-card monte with the planes on the ground . . . .

What we see here is Thompson in crisis mode. He is acutely aware of the stress air traffic controllers experience on a daily basis, what with all the planes, knives, chainsaws, and card games going on.

In the Line of Fire (1993): What better way to prepare for the White House than by playing the part of Harry Sargent, the president's chief of staff. Sargent may not be the most likeable guy, especially when confronting Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) about a possible assassination attempt, but he still has the best of intentions, as can be seen in this exchange:

Sargent: Isn't it possible this guy has pushed some buttons in you? Maybe you're overreacting a little.

Horrigan: I'm just trying to protect your boss, damn it.

Sargent: So am I. We're trailing . . . points in the latest polls. He could be out of a job in six weeks. He's got to be seen.

Horrigan: Even if it kills him?

Sargent: Next order of business?

Thompson knows how vital it is for a president not to be cowering behind his security agents. He knows what it takes to win.

Law & Order and Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2002-2007): Perhaps most revealing is the role Thompson plays on the Law & Order series as New York district attorney Arthur Branch:

D.A. Arthur Branch: It's not enough to do good . . . You gotta be seen doing good.

Or then again:

D.A. Arthur Branch: Sometimes the good you do won't do you any good.

Thompson is also an optimist:

D.A. Branch: Well, I guess it beats dousing yourself in rum and lighting up a Cohiba.

Most important, however, is Thompson's sense of duty:

EADA Jack McCoy: You can rewrite the law when you're appointed to the Supreme Court.

D.A. Arthur Branch: God willing.

But be forewarned: Critics will no doubt search for less impressive, possibly even damaging lines of dialogue to stifle his campaign. Over the past 20 years, Fred Thompson has said and done a lot. He may have sounded insensitive in Necessary Roughness or obtuse in Feds. And God only knows what Thompson had to say in Aces: Iron Eagle III or those two fateful episodes of Matlock.

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.