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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Once a lawyer, he had a brief stint with the U.S. attorney's office, then went into private practice--"hung out my shingle," he says--and volunteered to work for Howard Baker's reelection campaign for Senate in 1972. Shortly after Baker returned to Washington he asked Thompson to join him for what he thought would be a short-term project. A special committee had been established to look into the Committee to Reelect President Richard M. Nixon, and Baker, the panel's top Republican, asked Thompson to serve as minority counsel. Thompson could often be seen at Baker's side as the investigation grew from a routine oversight hearing into the proceedings that would cause a president to resign. Thompson, who wrote a book about his experiences called At That Point in Time: The Inside Story of the Senate Watergate Committee, asked the question that led to the revelation of the White House taping systems. "Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the President?" And Thompson is often credited with feeding Baker the line that would become one of the most famous of an era: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

Thompson says he passed up several offers with big Washington law firms to return to Nashville, where he entered a private practice with two law school classmates. He took the case of Marie Ragghianti, the head of Tennessee's Parole and Pardons Board. Ragghianti had grown concerned about what she saw as a pattern of suspicious pardons ordered from the office of Governor Ray Blanton. Her suspicions were later confirmed and Blanton was forced from office in a cash-for-clemency scandal that continued until his last day.

Peter Maas, author of Serpico, turned Marie Ragghianti's story into a book creatively titled Marie and published in 1983. Director Roger Donaldson bought the movie rights and came to Nashville to interview the major players. After meeting Thompson, Donaldson asked him if he'd like to play himself in the movie. Thompson agreed.

Over the next two decades, Thompson would appear in dozens of films and television shows as a character actor, often one who personifies government strength. It is a role that seems to fit. "Literally, I don't think Fred ever acts," says Tom Ingram, a longtime friend from Tennessee who now serves as chief of staff to Senator Lamar Alexander. "He played himself in Marie, and he's been playing himself ever since."

When Donaldson needed someone to play the role of CIA director in his next film, No Way Out, he turned to Thompson. A string of movies followed: The Hunt for Red October, Days of Thunder, Die Hard 2, Curly Sue, Cape Fear, In the Line of Fire. And there were cameo appearances on TV's Matlock and later Sex and the City.

Thompson never moved to Hollywood, choosing to stay in Tennessee, where he continued to practice law and remained involved in Republican politics. When Al Gore was elected vice president, Tennessee's Democratic governor, Ned McWherter, appointed one of his top advisers to serve until the 1994 elections, when a replacement would be elected to fill the final two years of Gore's term. Thompson's name came up early, and eventually, in July 1993, he filed papers for an exploratory committee.

Thompson knew from the beginning that it would be a difficult race. His opponent was Jim Cooper, a popular conservative Democrat who had developed a national reputation as a legislative expert on health care, widely considered one of the country's most important issues. Thompson started the race well behind Cooper. He told the Memphis Commercial-Appeal that he was a moderate Republican. The reporter who interviewed Thompson described him as "pro-choice," but noted that he supported restrictions on abortion at the state level and opposed federal funding. (A 1994 story in National Review also described Thompson as pro-choice.)

In a poll taken in February 1994, 36 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for Cooper, while just 17 percent supported Thompson. The Hotline, a Washington-based digest on campaigns and elections, reported the poll results under the headline: "They Know Thompson's Face, But Not His Name." It would prove to be an accurate diagnosis of Thompson's difficulties.

"For a year, I didn't scratch," Thompson says, looking back.

At the low point, Thompson met at a Cracker Barrel with Ingram. Thompson told his friend that he wasn't having any fun campaigning and was pessimistic about his chances to win. He was considering dropping out. Thompson had had it with the rubber-chicken Republican dinners and the rigors of campaigning across the state. "Fred was beleaguered by the traditional way of running for office," Ingram remembers. "He was expressing his misery over things."

Ingram had a question for Thompson: What would you do if you ran the way you wanted to run? Thompson thought for a minute, then said he'd shed as much of the campaign apparatus as possible and drive around the state in a pick-up truck. Ingram suggested he do just that, and Thompson thought it a good recommendation. Thompson would soon be known for his red pick-up truck. Cooper's campaign complained that it was a Hollywood-style gimmick designed to make Thompson look down to earth, and it surely was that. "But it was more than a device," Ingram insists. "It made Fred comfortable as a candidate. He felt liberated to just be himself."

Thompson ran on a strong small-government--even antigovernment--message. "America's government is bringing America down, and the only thing that can change that is a return to the basics," he said. "We will get back to basics and make the sacrifices and once again amaze the world at how, in America, ordinary people can do very extraordinary things." Thompson emphasized issues that would appeal to disaffected voters--making laws apply to the members of Congress who pass them; congressional pay raises; entitlement reform.

It was a message that began to resonate. Two months before the election, a poll by national Republicans put the race dead even. And as Thompson increased his advertising--allowing voters to put his famous face together with his name--he took the lead, and it grew. "Some people knew me and knew my face, but I started out 20 points behind" he says. "I just had to work at it until I raised enough money to go on television and then I went up pretty fast." Cooper asked for and was given free air-time for his ads after stations played movies starring Thompson. But it was too late.

Thompson won 61 percent of the vote, Cooper just 39 percent. Part of the explanation was that Thompson was swept along in the historic Republican tide of 1994. But Cooper would later say that he'd underestimated the political importance of Thompson's film career. "He was in so many movies," Cooper told the Nashville Tennesseean in 2002. "I should have been more worried than I was because that is a powerful way to present yourself to the public."

Thompson's new colleagues in Washington immediately tried to capitalize on his ability to communicate. Bob Dole, recently elevated to Senate majority leader, picked Thompson to present the televised Republican response to a national address by President Bill Clinton.

On Christmas Day, 1994, Thompson was a guest on ABC's This Week. Sam Donaldson opened the interview by telling viewers that while they might not know the name Fred Thompson, they might recognize his face. "I want to just show people how accomplished you are, because if they have been sitting at home saying, 'You know, I know this guy, I know this guy,' there's a reason," he said, before playing clips of the actor.

Thompson was at his most self-deprecating. "When they needed some middle-aged guy who'd work cheap, they'd call me for a little part and I'd go out there two or three weeks and knock one out," he explained to Donaldson.

Donaldson asked Thompson why he was chosen to give the GOP response to Clinton. "I want to keep boring in on this question of--perhaps you were chosen because the Republican leaders said, 'Fred Thompson is not just another pretty face.' I mean, Fred Thompson--"

"That's for sure."

Then Donaldson asked Thompson about presidential politics. "Who are the Republicans going to put up to run for the presidency in two years?"

"I think that it's going to be wide open," Thompson replied. "I think that there's at least a half a dozen people out there. There might be someone that hasn't been mentioned."

"Let me give you a name," Donaldson pressed. "Let me give you a name: Fred Thompson. Senator Fred Thompson."

Thompson found the suggestion amusing. "There's one thing, I think, for certain that I've observed around here over the period of time that I've been here, and watching all this for years, and that is when people come to town, somewhere along the line, if they do anything at all, if they're shown to be able to put one foot in front of the other, they're mentioned for the national ticket. So now you've mentioned me, and I appreciate it, so we can move on to more serious topics."

Thompson had not yet been sworn in.

In eight years in the Senate, Thompson developed a reputation for an independent streak, yet he compiled a voting record more conservative than one might expect of one who had described himself as a moderate in his first campaign. Over the course of his time in Congress he earned a lifetime rating by the American Conservative Union of 86 percent. He was not quite as conservative (using 2002 numbers) as Rick Santorum (87), Strom Thurmond (91), Trent Lott (93), or Jesse Helms (99), but more conservative than Arlen Specter (42), Olympia Snowe (52), John Warner (82), and John McCain (84).

His voting record suggests a strong belief in federalism. Thompson was frequently a lonely voice opposing the federalization of what in his view were state issues. His unwillingness to compromise on that principle even put him on the losing end of a 99-to-1 vote on the so-called Good Samaritan law, legislation that protected individuals from being sued if their good faith efforts to help someone in distress were unsuccessful. He thought it should have been left to the states.

Thompson also served as chairman of the Senate Government Relations Committee, which he used to investigate fundraising irregularities in the 1996 presidential election cycle. Republicans had high hopes that Thompson's inquiry would add to the political difficulties of the Clinton White House stemming from its malfeasance on campaign financing.

After the hearings ended, Fox News Channel's Brit Hume described Thompson as "flying high before his hearings . . . and shot down once they started and all the way through them."

Thompson says "the congressional investigative function is not a prosecutorial function" and acknowledges that the hearings produced "mixed result in many respects." He believes the criticism stems from the fact that "few people went to jail."

As Thompson considered his future, he began telling friends that he was not certain he wanted to seek reelection in 2002. He changed his mind after the attacks of September 11. Thompson, who served at the time on the Senate Intelligence Committee, announced in late September that he would run again. "Now is not the time for me to leave," he said. "This is the way now, it's perfectly clear, for me to contribute the most." He spent the next several weeks traveling to churches throughout Tennessee talking about the attacks and the coming U.S. response to them.

At a hearing of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee on October 4, 2001, Thompson sounded a skeptical note about the prospect of reorganizing the federal homeland security bureaucracy. "The government, basically, cannot manage large projects very well," he said. "Maybe we can learn from our past experience with other government agencies and other crises and things of that nature and not make the same mistakes as we go about trying to rearrange these boxes and decide who reports to who and who has what authority. And maybe we'll take the lessons that we've learned from our other management problems in particular."

Then in late January 2002, his daughter Elizabeth Panici died suddenly following a heart attack. She was only 38. Thompson's friends say he was devastated. A month later he announced that he had changed his mind--he would not seek reelection. "I simply do not have the heart for another six-year term."

At a press conference after his announcement, he lashed out at the media for their intrusive coverage of his private life. "Every public official has to understand that he or she is a public official and that's the price you pay. For the most part, that's appropriate," he said. "That's the price your whole family pays. There are lines to be drawn. I think it's extremely unfortunate and uncalled for for the local newspaper to discuss the details of this. Her death obviously played in my decision, but the details of all of that, what news value does that have? Why did she have to pay that price? Why does her little five-year-old boy have to pay that price because her daddy chose to try to serve his state and his country? It's over the line and more like the National Enquirer-type stuff than anything else."

In his final months in the Senate, Thompson concentrated his efforts on legislation that would create the Department of Homeland Security. He fought efforts by Democrats to subject the new workforce to union and collective bargaining rules that apply to federal employees more broadly. The bill passed two weeks after the 2002 midterm elections, on a vote of 90-9.

"This is the most significant thing I've been involved in and certainly the most significant thing I've had my name on because it involves the main function of government, and that is protecting its citizens."

More than four years later, munching on a turkey sandwich and sour cream and onion potato chips at his dining room table, he displays an unusual willingness to second-guess his own decision. After Thompson criticized the growth of bureaucracy under the new director of national intelligence, I asked him why the new bureaucracy under Department of Homeland Security is any different.

"Well, to tell you the truth, in retrospect, we may conclude that it wasn't any different. But it got to the point where almost anything would have been an improvement," he says. "A lot of those agencies were in and of themselves dysfunctional, so bringing them together was not going to make everybody greater. . . . But you've got to start somewhere and you can't wait until everything is just right until you start coordinating. So we were kind of jumping aboard a moving train."

It was an admirably honest appraisal of what he once pointed to as the crowning achievement of his career in Congress. As we spoke, I was struck by the fact that Thompson didn't seem to be calibrating his answers for a presidential run. On issue after contentious issue, I got the sense from both his manner and the answers he gave me that he was just speaking extemporaneously. Many of his answers would drive a poll-watching political consultant nuts.

My suspicions were confirmed when Thompson asked at one point if he could have a transcript of our interview. "I found myself talking on some subjects that I haven't really thought that much about," he explained. "Oh, so this is what I think, huh?"

* Thompson says he came to respect George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign because of his plan to reform Social Security. Congressional Republicans considered the plan a political liability, and it went nowhere. Thompson says that although it was only tinkering on the margins of real reform, it was a good start. He won't share his own plan--"I'll roll that out at the appropriate time"--but the general principle he articulates sounds like a political risk.

"It's based upon the proposition that granddad and grandmom will be willing to sacrifice a little bit if they feel like it helps their grandkids avoid financial disaster, and that their sacrifice is not going to be wasted down some government rathole," he explains. "Under most plans, most good plans, you know current retirees probably would not be affected that much at all. . . . We've been operating under the assumption in this country that it's the third rail and that if you talk about it, those people who are most concerned about retirement programs will kill you. I don't think that's true."

* He believes that elements of the CIA were out to get Scooter Libby and his boss, Vice President Dick Cheney. Libby, though not the original leaker of the identity of CIA employee Valerie Plame, was convicted of lying and obstructing justice. "It makes me mad as the devil just to think about it," Thompson says. He had never met Libby when he volunteered to serve on the advisory board of the Scooter Libby Legal Defense Trust. Is Libby innocent? Thompson answers with one word. "Yes."

Do you think there will be negative political fallout from defending the convicted former chief of staff to an unpopular vice president?

"I have no idea. I have a hard time seeing it. If I'm wrong about the temperature of the American people on this, then I'm wrong about a lot of things about the American people. And we might as well find out."

* I asked him about his vote for the Iraq war and the Bush administration's failure to explain to the American public the real story of the prewar intelligence on Iraq. I ask Thompson how it is possible that a majority of the country believes the Bush administration lied about Iraqi WMD, when the U.S. intelligence community and the world consensus was that Saddam Hussein had these weapons.

"Part of it had to do with what has become almost a knee-jerk suspicion on the part of a lot of people with regards to anybody in authority," he says. And then he directly faults the Bush administration. "A part of it has been the administration's inability to sufficiently communicate the reality of the situation. It's not just the president. . . . You have to have an organized, pervasive ability to get your message across and rebut erroneous misstatements of the history. It is amazing to me how something like this could be perceived so erroneously by so many people. Because we all
 know what the facts are. We've all seen the statements and the comments of Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton, and the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, and the list goes on and on and on."

Thompson slips into sarcasm. "It is amazing to me how a man that they say is so dumb fooled so many real smart people. But that's what they're saying about Bush. Bush
 canoodled the entire Democratic establishment. Absurd on its face, and yet some people want to believe that sort of thing."

Then he goes on to give a better defense of the White House than anything that has come out of the White House communications shop in four years.

The irony here is that intelligence services had consistently over the years understated the capabilities of enemies and potential enemies. Now, here there was unanimity among the intelligence services, some of whom are supposed to be better than ours. . . . People don't understand intelligence. They don't understand. It's seldom clear. It's often caveated. It's sometimes flat-out wrong. Different people often have different ideas. That's what a president is faced with. And some today would say that politically a president has got to have unanimity before he can make a choice. And then they say that if he has that unanimity, the president has to make that choice--at the same time talking about how deficient our capabilities are. But if those deficient capabilities produced a recommendation, the president of the United States and leader of the free world has to take that recommendation. That has been so faulty in the past. It's absurd. Presidents in the future, as always, have to make a determination based on a lot of things, and intelligence is one of them. And the president not only has the right to evaluate the intelligence that he's receiving, he has a duty to do that. He listens to the British. I mean, if history was any judge, I don't know about now, but if the Brits tell me that there's an [Iraqi] deal with Niger and our guys don't know whether there was or not, I tend to rely on the Brits. I mean, those are the calls the president's got to make, and the question is really: Which way do you want the president to lean? Caution--that it's probably not so? When bad news is delivered, he gets mixed messages, he gets various intelligence reports of various kinds. Did you want him all balled up in all of that, you know, trying to apply some kind of a scientific equation to it for fear that somebody in an intelligence committee is going to wave it around at a hearing later on or something like that? Is that what it's come to? If so, the world is going to be a lot more dangerous than it otherwise already is. You've got to exercise the authority and the responsibilities that you've been given. I mean, in this debate over intelligence and what it is and what it ought to be and how it's used and all of that, you know,

[it] needs to be dealt with and laid out in a way that people can understand it. . . . The next report says somebody's got weapons of mass destruction, you know what're we going to do with that? You know, just because history--a cat won't sit on a hot stove twice, but he won't sit on a cold stove either.

* He is equally blunt about Iran. Thompson says that the actions of the Iranian regime--harboring senior al Qaeda leaders, funding and training Iraqi insurgents, supplying terrorists in Iraq with devices that are killing American soldiers--are acts of war. He stops short of calling for a military response, but seems to suggest that he would be saying something different if circumstances were different.

"Unfortunately, today it can't be considered in isolation, so you have to take into consideration our capabilities and our priorities worldwide right now. And unfortunately we're stretched too thin." Nonetheless, he says, the long-term objective in Iran is the same one that led to the Iraq war. "I think the bottom line with Iran is that nothing is going to change unless there is a regime change."

* In the days since Thompson allowed that he was thinking about running for president, his views on abortion have come under scrutiny. Thompson finds the news reports from his first run for Senate perplexing.

"I have read these accounts and tried to think back 13 years ago as to what may have given rise to them. Although I don't remember it, I must have said something to someone as I was getting my campaign started that led to a story. Apparently, another story was based upon that story, and then another was based upon that, concluding I was pro-choice."

But, he adds: "I was interviewed and rated pro-life by the National Right to Life folks in 1994, and I had a 100 percent voting record on abortion issues while in the Senate."

Darla St. Martin, associate executive director of National Right to Life, supports Thompson on those claims. She traveled to Tennessee in 1994 to meet with him. "I interviewed him and on all of the questions I asked him, he opposed abortion," she told the American Spectator's Philip Klein.

Thompson says he thinks Roe v. Wade is bad law and should be overturned, but he says he does not support a Human Life Amendment.

One of the few times Thompson was unwilling to share his thoughts came when I asked him if he thought Rudy Giuliani was too liberal to win the Republican nomination and if Hillary Clinton could make a good president. The only question he would answer about his potential rivals concerned John McCain.

Thompson was one of four senators to support McCain in 2000 and served as the national co-chairman of his campaign. So I asked him why he's not supporting McCain again.

"You know the old joke about--what about me? As self-centered as that sounds, and it is, that ought to be the way it is." He adds: "Besides, you can't predict what's going to happen anyway, with any of them. Anybody could implode. Anybody could take off."

Before his appearance on Fox News Sunday, Thompson called McCain to let him know that he would announce that he was seriously considering a presidential bid. The conversation was friendly. "If we do this," he says, "we'll remain friends and we'll be friends after this."

There is considerable talk among the other Republican campaigns that the Thompson boomlet is driven by little more than celebrity. Maybe. But history suggests that Thompson may actually be underpolling right now. As was the case when he ran for office in Tennessee, he has a very recognizable face but his national name identity is actually quite low.

Gallup conducted a survey in late March asking respondents an open-ended question: "What comes to your mind when you think about former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson?" Sixty-seven percent of Republicans responded that they had no opinion of Thompson or were not familiar with him. And yet he shows up in the top three choices of potential Republican nominees in most of the polling that includes his name. As voters come to associate that name with a familiar and well-liked face, and if they get to see the personable Thompson on TV, Thompson strategists assume those polling numbers can only go up.

When Thompson met with Bill Frist at the Mayflower Hotel, they had important business to discuss. More than two years ago, Thompson had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. It is "indolent" lymphoma, a slow-growing form of the disease that is not usually symptomatic. If you're going to have one of the 33 varieties of lymphoma, Thompson says, this is the one you want. "It's easy to diagnose, easy to treat and easy to live with," Frist, a physician, confirms. But it sounds scary, the kind of thing that might spook potential primary voters if it were disclosed by an announced candidate.

"We thought we had to get it out early," says Frist, "in the sense that he's going to be announcing."

If Frist's acknowledgment that Thompson was going to run may have been a slip, Thompson's own words also suggest he's running. He says he understands "how hard it is, how difficult it is, how embarrassing it is, how intrusive it is." And he knows that as a candidate he could be subject to harsh attacks.

"That's the least of it anymore," he says. "It's not pleasant, but it's not that important anymore because you're straight with your family, you have a level of understanding and knowledge about your family, and they with you, and with the man upstairs, and that's that. You know, ain't really much past that. And it kind of frees you up in a way."

Yes, it does.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.