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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.

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!"

"Well," Thompson offers, "you never know when you might want to start a fire." Back at their beautifully appointed brick colonial (on the same street where Colin Powell lives), Thompson, dressed in an oatmeal cable-knit sweater, powder-blue dress shirt, khakis and brown Hush Puppy brogans, strides through the foyer to a living room that shows evidence of small children recently at play. Thompson deflects a compliment about a lavishly decorated Christmas tree to his wife, then points to an equally bedecked spruce in the next room—and notes that there is a third one, just around the corner (as well as two mini-trees elsewhere in the house for their children, daughter Hayden, 5, and son Sammy, 2, to decorate).

"I believe," he says to her in mock astonishment, "that I found a room without a Christmas tree the other day."

Thompson, rangy and bearish at 6-foot-6, ambles into his den. Jeri attends to lighting his gas fireplace—with help from a handyman—as Thompson settles in behind his desk to chat.

The wood-paneled room is adorned with bookcases and framed photographs, as well as a small stack of Thompson's 1975 Watergate book, At That Point in Time. There's a door to a screened-in porch, which is where Thompson escapes to smoke cigars. But not today: the 30-degree temperature is too brisk for Thompson's liking.

As he snips the end off a rich-looking Ashton with a dark wrapper, Thompson gives the cigar a quick sniff, then happily sticks it unlit in his mouth: "I'm a chewer more than a smoker," he allows.

"Like I've done with everything else, I've learned about cigars by trial and error. You make enough mistakes and you learn what you like. The only way I know how to describe it is that I like strong, robust cigars, not too mild—cigars with a strong taste. Cigars that not only smoke good but taste good when I chew them."

He pauses, then adds with a smile, "Due to the kindness and generosity of certain of my friends, I've had good ones from the best soil. And those spoil you for anything else."

A reference to forbidden Cuban cigars? "I think cigars and politics should remain separate forever more," Thompson says. "Take from that what you will." When Thompson halted his presidential campaign in January 2008, he had an e-mail list of more than 300,000 "FredHeads." Most still turn to his Web site for the Fred Thompson Political Action Committee, for his words of wisdom; with luck, they'll form the instant core of his radio audience.

Thompson's presidential campaign ended with money in the bank from the thousands who contributed: "And the moral of that story," Thompson says, "is that I should have spent it."

When Thompson spoke at the Republican National Convention in Saint Paul in September, he was greeted with hosannas by delegates who came up to him and said, "Gosh, if we'd only known that was how you felt. If only you had said that earlier."

"Which I had," Thompson says. "Just not as often or [in] as many different places as some people. It was all about having the money to get the message out."

At the dawn of the Barack Obama era, Thompson's message remains the same as it's always been. "National security is first and foremost. I'm hopeful that President Obama won't let our guard down, that he'll have an appreciation for the kind of world we live in and the need to be strong. Compared to what he said during the campaign, I think there's hope for optimism, in light of some of those he's appointed in those areas. They were better than what I thought he might do.

"I'm hopeful he doesn't use the economic crisis to carry out a plan of centralization and socialization of our economy. He seems to think, like a lot of people do, that we can spend our way to prosperity. But if he's not careful, he'll build a monumental debt we're not able to dig out from. We could wind up with short-term benefits that have terrible long-term consequences."

Shortly after the 2008 election, Thompson was a guest speaker on a National Review—sponsored Caribbean cruise that sold out. He was besieged by fans who told him they wished they'd been able to vote for him, to which he quipped, "If I'd had all these votes, I wouldn't be on this damned cruise."

Among the attacks on Thompson as a presidential candidate were questions about his work ethic and whether he lacked the real desire to do the work that a presidential campaign demands. Newsweek, at one point, ran a cover story on what it termed "the laziness issue."

"I put that in the same category as a hundred other things that are irritating and somewhat silly," Thompson says. "But if you took everything that was irritating and silly out of politics, you'd hardly recognize it as politics."

Among the irritating and silly things: commentators who crowned him, even before he announced his presidential candidacy, as the heir apparent to Ronald Reagan. Thompson dismisses the comparison; while they're both politicians who worked as actors, and while Thompson believes he hews to the same political philosophy Reagan did, Thompson would never compare himself as a political communicator to a president he considers was a master.

"His success had to do with his real belief, rather than acting," Thompson says. "Nobody accused him of being a good actor until he was in politics." Thompson sees few similarities between politics and acting. "The big difference is that, in politics, you're shooting with real bullets," he says with a smile. "Aside from the benefit of knowing a little bit about lighting and staging, I don't think one carries over to the other."

Thompson had never harbored dreams of acting when he was offered his first movie role: playing himself in Marie, the 1985 movie about a real Tennessee corruption case in which Thompson had been the prosecuting attorney, which starred Sissy Spacek and Jeff Daniels.

"I had never even been in a play—it never occurred to me to be an actor and never would have," says Thompson, who was a private-practice lawyer at the time. "I just looked at it as fun, an adventure. How often do you get to do something that's that interesting, with nothing to lose? It was challenging and yet risk-free, being able to walk into this world with other professionals and compete with them on an equal footing. I thought that would be the end of it." One of his fellow actors, however, felt otherwise. "Morgan Freeman told me during that film, 'You have a chance to do more of this if you want to,'" Thompson recalls. "I actually had a bigger part than he did in the film; that's my claim to fame. That was the last time that happened."

Still, Thompson assumed it was just a happy accident—until Roger Donaldson, who directed Marie, called him the following year to play the director of the CIA in the Kevin Costner thriller, No Way Out. A couple more roles followed—including a multi-episode stint playing an evil con man on the TV series "Wiseguy"—before Thompson decided that he should probably get an agent.

He never gave up practicing law or moved away from Nashville. But he wound up acting in 18 feature films and in numerous TV series, made-for-television movies and miniseries. He's specialized in playing authority figures, including admirals and generals, FBI agents and a White House chief of staff in films as different as Die Hard 2, Days of Thunder, The Hunt for Red October and In the Line of Fire. In his last feature film role, Albert Brooks's 2005 comedy Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, he brought his acting career full circle and played himself.

"He's like a jewel," Brooks says. "He's got authenticity and a sense of humor. He was 1,000 percent prepared—and he does Fred Thompson perfectly. When he talked, I believed that this was the way he would talk when the camera wasn't there. I didn't sense acting—and that was important to me. If you have him do what he does, nobody does it better."

On-screen, as in life, he cuts an imposing figure, reinforced by a distinctive bass voice that seems to start at his toes. To Thompson, it's all about relaxing on camera or, as he puts it, having "the knack of being natural in unnatural circumstances."

"You spend all this time getting suited out in clothes that other people have selected," Thompson explains. "Then you spend time sitting in a makeup chair, having someone fuss over you. Then they take you to the set and turn bright lights on you. There are all these cameras surrounding you and 15 people standing behind them and a boom microphone overhead for the sound. Then they shut everything down and ring bells and say, 'Action!' And you're supposed to act naturally, like you're there by yourself or with one other person. It's an interesting challenge, especially when you approach it at middle age, as I did. It's been a totally positive thing for me."

Still, it was strictly an avocation—and one that he set aside once he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1994 to fill Vice President Al Gore's unexpired Senate term. But when he announced in 2002 that he would not seek another term, he quickly got a phone call from Dick Wolf, creator of "Law & Order," offering him the chance to join the show's regular cast.

Wolf cast him as District Attorney Arthur Branch, the top legal official in the show's fictional New York crime-and-punishment universe. Thompson appeared in more than 100 episodes of the series, including installments of four other "L&O" franchises.

"Once he was cast, we basically customized the suit to fit the character," Wolf says. "We discussed whether the Southern accent should be mentioned and we decided that Arthur had migrated to New York about 35 years before, after a successful stint as a prosecutor in Tennessee, then joined a top litigation firm before joining the D.A.'s office. The character basically evolved from there." Thompson brought an inimitable gravitas to the character, one that came naturally to the actor/lawyer/politician.

"Fred is the living definition of command presence," Wolf says. "When Fred, as Arthur Branch, walked into a room, people felt like they should stand up and salute. If you look back at his previous roles, you can see I'm not the only producer who has felt that way."

For Thompson, acting is not particularly mysterious, primarily because he tends to be cast in certain kinds of roles.

"I can envision myself as a Navy admiral or an FBI agent," he says. "I just put myself in that other person's shoes. In 'Law & Order,' I was playing a prosecutor, which is precisely what I'd been. So you put yourself in the situation—and then you bear down or lighten up, as the situation calls for. "I recognize that the great actors add a dimension I'll never know because they've studied and spent years working on technique; they understand the theory behind what they're doing. But I know that, if I work within a certain range, I can do what I do and do it well."

Thompson admits to a healthy aspiration to further roles. "I'll see a movie and think, I'd love to have done that," he says. "I've always wanted to do a good Western. If I'd started acting as a young man, I would want to have emulated John Wayne."

The ultimate accolade of the acting world, of course, is the Academy Award. When asked how he feels about fellow Tennessean Al Gore (a Democrat, to boot) receiving an Oscar (for the documentary An Inconvenient Truth), Thompson allows a chuckle to rumble up and says, "I guess there's hope for all of us."

At one point in the conversation, daughter Hayden comes in to say good-bye; she and her mother are on their way to the gym. Polite, pretty and shy, Hayden provokes an unalloyed, beaming smile from her proud father.

The family is Thompson's second, a late-life surprise that Thompson feels he can appreciate in a way he couldn't when he became a married parent the first time, at 17.

"It's different in so many respects," he says of fatherhood redux. "Having young children again was not something I really planned on. You understand better what's important and what's not. I savor it now—I savor the moments I have with my young kids. It makes you a little sad that you didn't appreciate what you had earlier in life."

Thompson was an aimless 17-year-old in his hometown of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, when he married his high school sweetheart, Sarah Lindsey. Lawrenceburg was a town of nearly 15,000, about 80 miles south of Nashville. "It wasn't exactly Mayberry—but it wasn't far from it," Thompson says.

Thompson and his wife had three children; his two sons are in business in Tennessee, while his daughter died in 2002 of an accidental prescription drug overdose. He and Sarah divorced in 1985. "We were married for 25 years, so in many respects you could consider it a successful marriage, instead of a failure. I don't recommend marrying at that age for my kids or grandkids. Doing the same thing, but at a later age, is better for everyone concerned."

Yet he believes that teenage marriage may have been the key to his future. "Up to that point, I had no achievements as a student," he says. "Getting married kept me from going to college and doing what I did in high school, which was goofing off, wasting time, pursuing athletics. Marriage required me to buckle down."

He did well enough as an undergraduate at the former Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) to win a scholarship to Vanderbilt University's law school. After graduation, he landed a job as an assistant U.S. attorney, then was recruited to work on the 1972 reelection campaign of Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker, who became his mentor. After Baker won, he became the ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate committee and brought Thompson to Washington as minority counsel for the committee.

The Watergate hearings in the summer of 1973 put Thompson in the national spotlight. But he and his fellow lawyers—not to mention the lawmakers—were so busy with the hearings themselves that they had no sense of how the spectacle of the Nixon administration unraveling on national TV was riveting the rest of the country.

"As the hearings got going, we were enmeshed in them day and night," he recalls. "Occasionally we'd come up for air—and realize that everyone was watching. That was the thing I was known for for a while. But then I went back to Nashville and started my own law practice and went on about my business."

Thirty-five years later, Thompson finds that people often have only a vague memory of his involvement in Watergate. As Thompson notes, there are entire generations that have no idea what Watergate was.

Indeed, when you've done as many things as Fred Thompson has in a lifetime, it's inevitable that other people have a hard time keeping track of them all. "People will say to me, 'I didn't know you were a lawyer' or 'I didn't know you were involved in Watergate,'" he says. "As we started talking about doing the radio show, people weren't even mentioning that I had been a senator. I was the actor who had been a presidential candidate. As you get older, things tend to drop off the back end of your résumé."

As a candidate for senator and again for president, Thompson emphasized his roots: that small-town, down-home sensibility that, no matter how long he's been away from Lawrenceburg, has never left him.

"The things my mama taught me all turned out to be true," Thompson says. "If things appear to be too good to be true, they probably are. There's no such thing as a free lunch. And if you behave yourself, good things will happen to you. I could go back there right now and it would feel just as much like home as it ever has."

Marshall Fine is a journalist and film critic whose movie reviews can be found at www.marshallfine.com.

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