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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 5)

"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.

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