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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 3)

"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."

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