The Magazine

From the Courthouse
to the White House

Fred Thompson auditions for the leading role.

Apr 23, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 30 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Representative Zach Wamp, a fellow Tennesseean who is running an effort to "Draft Fred," tells me he expects 60 congressional Republicans to show up early next week at a meet-and-greet with Thompson. Mark Corallo, who has volunteered to answer press inquiries for Thompson, has been getting dozens of calls each day--not only from reporters, but from Republicans around the country who have seen his name in the newspaper and tracked him down at his private consulting firm to sign up for a Thompson campaign. Politicians are reaching out to Bill Frist to offer their support. Says Frist: "I have governors who have called me, fundraisers I've known from my days as majority leader who are ready to go."

All of this, for a candidate who has not yet announced for anything.

Last week, I went to Thompson's home in the verdant Washington suburb of McLean, Virginia, to talk to him about his prospective presidential run. We spoke for more than four hours about his life in Tennessee, his family, his acting career, his foray into politics, and his future.

I was 30 minutes late. Thompson, who was on the phone with Howard Baker, his political mentor, didn't seem to care. He hung up, extended his large hand, offered a friendly greeting, and led me to his office. We were alone. Thompson's work space looks just like what the home office of a successful politician or CEO should look like--though a little messier: a large desk, dark wood, leather furniture, lots of books and magazines and newspapers, a flat-screen TV, and box upon box of cigars--Montecristos from Havana.

The presence of the cigars and the absence of a press chaperone were clues that Thompson is taking a different approach to his potential candidacy. A campaign flack would have insisted on hiding the cigars--Senator, how did you get those Cuban cigars? Isn't there a trade embargo?--and might have dampened Thompson's natural candor. On subjects ranging from Social Security to abortion, the CIA and to Iran, there would be lots of candor over the next several hours.

And by the end of the conversation, two unexpected realities had emerged. If he joins the race for the Republican nomination, and if he campaigns the same way he spoke to me last week, Fred Thompson, a mild-mannered, slow-talking southern gentleman, will run as the politically aggressive conservative that George W. Bush hasn't been for four years. And the actor in the race could well be the most authentic personality in the field.

Thompson seems to recognize that he wins the guy-I'd-want-to-get-a-beer-with primary the moment he announces. He comes across as a regular guy--"folksy" will be the political cliché that attaches to his candidacy--and punctuates explanations of his positions with the kind of off-the-cuff homespun witticisms that Dan Rather spent a career trying to come up with.

We sat facing each other in leather armchairs, and after some small talk I asked him what life was like growing up in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. He began talking, and about 30 minutes later it was already 1994 and he was about to be elected to the U.S. Senate. I'd tried to interrupt with questions here and there, but he had a story he was determined to tell.

It's a good story. Thompson was born in Alabama and lived for most of his young life in Middle Tennessee. His father sold used cars and his mother took care of the house. Neither one graduated from high school, although Thompson's father earned his high school equivalency certificate later in life. His family ate dinner every night at 6:00 P.M. "It was like clockwork," he says. Thompson was not a great student in high school. At one point, he says, several of his teachers worked together to strip him of the title given to him by a vote of his peers--Most Athletic--because his grades were substandard. His father was something of a jokester, but also when necessary a disciplinarian.

"I grew up not having anything to live up to from an economic or professional standpoint, but having a lot to live up to from a growing-up and becoming-a-man standpoint," says Thompson.

That example would be important at a young age. Thompson married his high school sweetheart at 17, and together they enrolled at Memphis State University, where he studied philosophy and political science. Thompson worked several jobs to put himself through college and support a growing family.

"I sold clothing," he says. "I sold shoes. I sold baby shoes. I sold ladies shoes. I worked in a factory."

His wife's uncle and grandfather were both lawyers, and Thompson says he wanted to live up to the professional standards of her family. The law school at Vanderbilt University had seemed an unattainable goal for an underachieving high school student from a family without means. But it was a goal nonetheless. Thompson got serious academically as an undergraduate, and won admission.