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The Gentleman from Tennessee

Senator Fred Thompson reinvents himself as a radio talk-show host following his unsuccessful presidential campaign.
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Fred Thompson, March/April 2009

At a point in life when many men are looking for the exit door to retirement, Fred Dalton Thompson—former assistant U.S. attorney, former Watergate prosecutor, former U.S. senator, former presidential candidate and part-time TV and movie actor—is ready to dive into a new career.

Two years after leaving "Law & Order" to run for president, a year after abandoning that candidacy without winning a single primary, Thompson has a new job: as a full-time radio personality, taking over the syndicated talk-show time slot that Bill O'Reilly is leaving behind.

"Yeah," Thompson jokes, in deep, mellowly distinctive tones, "I've had a hard time keeping a job."

Thompson's Tennessee drawl is a far cry—in terms of volume or velocity—from O'Reilly's Long Island rat-a-tat. Thompson's measured approach may remind listeners more of Paul Harvey, the long-running radio host whom Thompson has substituted for in the past.

"Nobody can step in and have the same thing going for them that Bill had," Thompson says. "He's not the competition. He's elevated himself to another level. For me, this is another new venture—another new adventure."

Ken Rietz, retired chief operating officer of the Burson-Marsteller PR firm who is both a veteran Republican political consultant and longtime friend of Thompson, says, "Fred has an incredible radio voice and he's not afraid to talk about what he thinks. What he'll add to the mix is intelligent conservatism. He's been in government. He's been elected to the Senate. He's been the minority counsel for the Watergate committee. His life experience will mean a lot." When he sat for this interview, Thompson was still a couple months out from the March 2 launch date for the radio show: "We've just done the deal, so we haven't really started working on the format yet," he says. "But we're not trying to reinvent the wheel."

One thing radio will offer is the chance to break out of the sound-bite mentality that must become second nature for politicians. As someone else's guest—whether it was on a radio show or "Meet the Press"—Thompson had to tailor his remarks to the time allotted. While his daily slot is finite, the show gives Thompson the better part of 10 hours of airtime a week to fill as he sees fit. "Whether it's a congressional committee hearing or a Sunday talk show or most any other thing, it can be very limiting from a time standpoint," Thompson says.

"[Hosting your own show] gives you the opportunity to expand on your views—or shoot your mouth off, as the case may be. This allows you to take serious time to discuss serious issues. It will be an opportunity to expand on my views and have some fun."

His views are well known: traditional conservatism that emphasizes cutting taxes and government spending (particularly for entitlement programs) while strengthening national defense. Thompson had hoped to spend 2008 expounding on those views—using the presidential race as his soapbox.

But his candidacy was short-lived. Despite months of speculation, Thompson waited until near Labor Day 2007 to make his candidacy official. That proved to be too late, even though his announcement came 14 months before the 2008 election.


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