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The Gentleman from Tennessee

Senator Fred Thompson reinvents himself as a radio talk-show host following his unsuccessful presidential campaign.

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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."

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