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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

(continued from page 1)

For 2008, the increasingly accelerated campaign timetable meant that the strongest candidates jumped in eight months before the first primary. Barack Obama announced his presidential candidacy in early February 2007, John McCain in late April.

"In retrospect, I seem to have underestimated the nuts and bolts of the practical challenge a presidential campaign presents," Thompson says. Rietz, a consultant on Thompson's campaign whose Republican résumé dates back to the 1972 Nixon-McGovern race, says, "A lot of it is about the ability to raise money early and keep it coming in. To put together a nationwide campaign, you need funds. That's the single most important thing I'd have done differently: start earlier."

Thompson concurs: "I didn't have time to raise money, organize and put together a fund-raising structure that would put me in the mix with the other major contenders in terms of the long haul. I found myself playing catch-up, while, at the same time, having this level of expectation and build-up in the media that was impossible to live up to. If you don't have that structure—and the ability to do the things that money can buy, in terms of the media wars and the care and feeding of the press—it undercuts your credibility."

If there are any lingering regrets, they have to do with the toll the campaign took on his wife, Jeri, who worked for the Republican National Committee before they were married. Specifically, both Thompsons are still smarting from attacks blaming Jeri for trying to micromanage Thompson's campaign staff in ways that caused upheaval and turnover.

"Unfortunately, that's a part of presidential politics today," Thompson says. "If you've got millions of dollars to spend, you've got to spend it on something. A lot of negativity came early on, when there was speculation about whether I would run, but I hadn't announced yet. When the media has a vacuum, it has to have filler, and the opposition is all too willing to give it to them. That's why some in the mainstream media are held in such high regard."

Jeri Thompson says, "Nothing I ever face will put me in such a funk—because it affected Fred and the team. Looking back, it's all sort of irrelevant. A blip of nothingness in terms of the rest of our lives."

The couple, married six years, have a relaxed, joshing relationship that the campaign only strengthened. Over lunch at a restaurant near their home in McLean, Virginia (a Washington, D.C., suburb that is inside the Beltway, it should be noted), the 42-year-old Jeri is a peppy whirlwind of conversation and opinions, while the 66-year-old Thompson is more laconic, choosing his spots to slip in a sly one-liner. Which he does, when Jeri is asked about Thompson's shortcomings as a husband.

She smiles and, without hesitation, says, "There's not a lot of help around the house. It doesn't really occur to him."

Thompson, seemingly absorbed in his salad, doesn't miss a beat. Looking up, he says, deadpan, "I resent that," pauses, then offers the zinger. "It does occur to me. Don't confuse the lack of awareness with the lack of willingness to do something about it."

Jeri laughs delightedly, then offers another foible: "His voracious reading habit is obvious by what he leaves behind—four-foot stacks of newspapers, magazines and journals—everywhere!"

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