Candidate for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination
by Beth Rowen
Fred Thompson has worked alongside both Washington and Hollywood’s elite, but he never achieved A-list status with either group. In the Senate, he avoided both the limelight and the grueling schedule endured by many other colleagues. Onscreen, he often portrayed authority figures but in supporting roles. Is Thompson ready to become leading man, on a set where there are no second takes?
His lackluster performance on the stump and in his first debate seems to indicate that Thompson has yet to find his stride. In fact, at October’s Republican debate in Michigan—his first—he extolled the “rosy’ economy. Someone on his staff apparently neglected to tell him that Michigan’s unemployment rate, 7.4%, is the highest in the country.
Long Deliberation Process
Before throwing his hat into presidential politics, Thompson was perhaps best known as District Attorney Arthur Branch on television’s Law & Order. He joined the show in 2002, during the last months of his second term in the Senate. He left the show in May 2007, in all likelihood to prepare for a run for the Republican presidential nomination.
Thompson publicly flirted with the idea of running for the Republican presidential nomination for months before finally declaring his intention on the Jay Leno Show in September, skipping the New Hampshire debate to do so.
Comparison to Reagan
Comparisons to Ronald Reagan, another B-list actor turned politician, are inevitable. Thompson, like Reagan did, uses his folksy charm, confidence, and communication skills to appeal to the masses. And he shares Reagan’s conservative views on lowering taxes, small government, and moral issues.
Thompson, the son of a used-car salesman, was born in 1942 in Sheffield, Alabama, and raised in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. At 6’6”, Thompson stood out on the athletic field, but not in the classroom. An academic underachiever, he was often labeled the class clown. He married Sarah Lindsey in 1959 at age 17, when she became pregnant. The couple had three children. Their daughter, Betsy, died in 2002 of an accidental prescription drug overdose. The marriage ended in divorce in 1986.
Thompson put himself through Memphis State College and earned a scholarship to Vanderbilt Law School, graduating in 1967. He worked as a U.S. attorney from 1969 to 1972 and then worked on the successful reelection campaign of Tennessee Senator Howard Baker.
Role in Watergate Hearings
Thompson and Baker formed a close friendship that led to Thompson’s appointment as minority counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee. Thompson bolstered his reputation when his questioning of former Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield revealed Nixon’s secret wiretapping system.
Path to Acting
Thompson then spent time as a lawyer and lobbyist in Washington and Nashville. He made a lucrative career lobbying clients such as Westinghouse, deposed Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and the Tennessee Savings and Loan League.
In 1977, Thompson defended whistleblower Marie Ragghianti, who exposed a bribe scheme that involved Tennessee governor Ray Blanton. Director Roger Donaldson asked Thompson to play himself in the film adaptation of the story. And so began Thompson’s acting career. He went on to appear in several films, No Way Out, In the Line of Fire, and Days of Thunder.
Another Career Change
Thompson ventured back into national politics in 1994, when he was elected to fill Tennessee’s Senate seat that was vacated when Al Gore became vice president. (Gore was elected vice president in 1992, but his seat was not contested until 1994.) Thompson reinvented himself during the campaign, turning in his Lincoln Continental and tailored suits for a red pickup truck and jeans.
He began his first full term as a Senator after breezing to reelection in 1996. Indeed, he won more votes than any other politician in Tennessee history. Thompson served as the chairman of the Committee on Governmental Affairs from 1997 to 2001, and also sat on the Finance and Intelligence committees.
After an active bachelorhood, Thompson married Republican consultant Jeri Kehn in 2002. They have two children. In 2004, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which is now in remission.
Thompson faces an arduous schedule and countless auditions before critical audiences in his pursuit of the presidency. Time will tell if he’s ready to assume the ultimate leading role.
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