Skip to comments.Who is Fred Thompson? Career in limelight
Posted on 08/19/2007 5:28:12 PM PDT by SmithL
Fred Dalton Thompson, who is expected to announce in early September he is a candidate for president of the United States, was already a family man when he arrived in Memphis in 1962.
That may explain why his listing in the Memphis State University yearbook, class of 1964, offers no clubs, no sports, no "most likely to succeed." Thompson's mention, slotted between Raymond Lyle Thomas and Martha Ann Thompson, gives his hometown of Memphis and simply states he graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences.
"He had to work hard and I don't guess he socialized much," said Jan Clifton, 65, who lived next door to the Thompsons on Evergreen Street in Lawrenceburg. "Without any family over there (in Memphis), they had their hands full."
Thompson was born in Sheffield, Ala., in 1942 but his family moved over the state line to Lawrenceburg soon after his birth.
According to a sampling of his Memphis State classmates, Thompson was too busy raising a family and selling shoes and men's suits at the old Lowenstein's department store to make much of an impression.
"Like trains passing in the night," is how classmate Richard Mashburn puts it.
Thompson made more of a name for himself, to put it decorously, in high school.
Barely a month after turning 17, Fred Thompson hastily married his 18-year-old beauty-queen sweetheart Sarah Lindsey, then went on to finish his senior year at Lawrenceburg High while working at a factory that made church pews. The days of seeing how many kids they could stuff in a car to go to the drive-in and campfires out at David Crockett State Park were over. A baby boy, Fred Jr., known as Tony, was born seven months later.
Garner Ezell, 74, coached Thompson in football at Lawrenceburg, where the lumbering 6-5 tackle was in the habit of asking team trainers to fetch him soft drinks from the nearby grocery store during practices. Ezell attended the same Church of Christ Thompson's family did.
"Fred has always been a smart person," Ezell recalled. "Sometimes he didn't use his ability, but thank goodness he started. I think he'll make an outstanding president."
Thompson and his wife started college at what is now the University of North Alabama, in Florence. He was on an athletic scholarship but injured a knee. Their second child, daughter Betsy, was born during this period.
James "Chunky" Moore, 65, runs the men's clothing store in Lawrenceburg and was in Thompson's 1960 high school graduating class. Moore stayed at then-Florence State College -- whose most famous graduate may be George "Goober" Lindsey of the "Andy Griffith Show" -- when Thompson and his wife moved to Memphis. When Thompson came back to Lawrenceburg as a lawyer, he'd buy his suits at Moore's.
"He was a 46 or a 48, extra long," Moore recalled.
After Memphis State, Thompson had a choice between scholarships at Vanderbilt and Tulane for law school. He chose Vanderbilt, where a third child, Daniel, was born in his first year. After graduating from law school in 1967, he returned to Lawrenceburg and went into practice with his wife's uncle.
One day in 1969, arriving late to a Lawrence County Republican Party function, he stood in the back of the packed room with Tom Crews, now 71 and a retired English and history teacher. Thompson asked whether Lawrence County had a Young Republicans Club. He and Crews were appointed to start one.
It wasn't long before Richard Nixon's Justice Department offered him a job as an assistant U.S. attorney in Nashville. Memphis lawyer Lewis Donelson met him during that period and remains a close friend and advisor.
"With Fred, what you see is what you get," Donelson said recently. "He's very much himself. He knows what he believes in. He's straightforward and ... he'll be a good communicator."
Donelson said, too, that Thompson is a man "who has his own ideas" and convictions and won't necessarily toe the party line. He proved that when he backed John McCain -- not the highly favored George W. Bush -- in 2000, making him appear to be "a little bit of a maverick" among GOP partisans.
In 1970, Thompson was active in Bill Brock's successful campaign against incumbent U.S. Sen. Albert Gore Sr. Two years later, he had an even higher profile position in Sen. Howard Baker's re-election effort. (Years later, the Baker and Donelson law firms merged.)
Baker was the ranking Republican member of the Senate Watergate Committee the following year and offered the trusted Thompson the post of chief counsel to the panel's Republicans. The hearings, beginning in May 1973, were televised nationally that summer, and Thompson, with his Southern drawl, become famous in the sensitive role of investigating his own party's president. It was Thompson's July questioning of witness Alexander Butterfield, a top Nixon aide, that revealed the existence of the secret White House tapes that would lead to Nixon's downfall.
After the hearings and Nixon's resignation, Thompson became a lawyer-lobbyist in Washington and Nashville, with clients such as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Central States Pension Fund and major Fortune 500 companies. He successfully lobbied for Westinghouse for spending on an experimental nuclear reactor on the Clinch River that cost the public more than $1 billion before it was mothballed in 1983.
And he wrote a memoir of his Watergate work, "At That Point In Time," which came out in 1975.
A star is born
In 1977, a fired Tennessee state employee who had been working undercover with the FBI in an investigation of the illegal sale of state inmate pardons under the administration of then-Gov. Ray Blanton needed a good Republican lawyer to sue the state to get her job back.
Marie Ragghianti, who had been chairman of the parole board, hired Thompson and eventually won her case. Blanton went to prison. The story of her battle with Blanton became a popular book, "Marie: A True Story," by Peter Maas, and an even more popular 1985 movie, "Marie," in which Ragghianti was played by Sissy Spacek. Thompson got his first movie role in "Marie," playing himself.
Ragghianti, a lifelong Democrat, has endorsed Thompson for president.
Thompson and his first wife divorced the same year "Marie," the movie, came out and Thompson became a fixture in Washington power circles. He made several more movies, in important but nonleading roles: "No Way Out" in 1987, with Kevin Costner; "Days of Thunder" in 1990, with Tom Cruise; "The Hunt for Red October," also in 1990, with Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin; and "In the Line of Fire," in 1993, with Clint Eastwood and Renee Russo; and "Baby's Day Out" in 1994.
In the age of YouTube, some of his out-of-context character-acting vitriol may prove embarrassing, including one starring role as Knox Pooley, a white supremacist, anti-Semitic character on television's "Wise Guys," in 1988.
Man about town
In Washington, Thompson dated a lot and was often seen out on the town, sometimes with country music sensation Lorrie Morgan, whom he dated steadily, and at other times with GOP fund-raiser and socialite Georgette Mosbacher. He reportedly was asked about his romantic dalliances when he met with GOP congressmen at the Republican Club on Capitol Hill in April, and evidently passed muster.
"I was single for a long time and, yep, I chased a lot of women. And a lot of women chased me -- and those that chased me tended to catch me," Thompson told the group, according to published reports.
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., who attended that meeting, told another story about Thompson's personal life. Wamp said Thompson told the assembled Republicans that when his daughter Betsy died in 2002, "the woman who had loved him for a long time -- and he didn't really realize it -- told him, and he realized he was in love with her."
Said Wamp: "It was the sweetest moment of him opening up and being transparent. Anybody who didn't know him before, they know him now in a special way."
That year he married GOP political operative Jeri Kehn, who is 24 years his junior. The couple has a 4-year-old daughter, Hayden, and a 10-month-old son, Samuel.
A political makeover
When Sen. Al Gore Jr. was elected vice president in 1992 -- only two years into his six-year term -- it opened up Gore's Senate seat for a special election in 1994. (Then-Gov. Ned McWherter appointed his top aide, Harlan Mathews, to the seat for the two years until the special election. Mathews did not run to keep the seat.)
Thompson declared his candidacy for the 1994 election. After his campaign sputtered through most of the primary election campaign, he underwent an immediate image makeover. The Washington lawyer-lobbyist with a taste for fine clothes and fine food emerged after the August primary as a pickup-driving, blue jean-wearing man of the people, and won. His Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, made an issue of the changeover, calling him a "Grey Poupon-spreading millionaire ... special-interest lobbyist."
But 1994 proved to be a huge Republican year, both nationally and in Tennessee. All three of the state's top elected officials -- governor and both U.S. Senate seats -- were held by Democrats prior to the election but were seized by the GOP. And Thompson won by the largest margin of the three, defeating Cooper 60 percent to 39 percent.
In the Senate, Thompson concentrated on investigations as chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee. He has been chided by the Democratic National Committee for a thin legislative record but he has countered that he helped prevent a lot of bad laws from being passed.
Thompson ran again in 1996 and handily beat J. Houston Gordon, the Covington lawyer who once represented Lt. William Calley in the wake of the Mei Lei Massacre in Vietnam. Like the 1994 race, Thompson avoided the hot-button social issues but, when pressed, appeared to be moderate in his views. For example, he said he would not support laws that would outlaw early-term abortions. Yet in the Senate, he received a 100 percent rating from National Right to Life.
He took some maverick stands in the Senate, favoring limits on campaign cash that became the McCain-Feingold reforms, and investigating both parties' fund-raising operations, running afoul of the GOP leadership.
After telling supporters in the days after of 9/11 that he would seek another term in 2002 because "now is not the time for me to leave," he abruptly announced he would not run six months later. Thompson often expressed frustration with the slow pace of the Senate, and he said he was deeply affected by Betsy's death.
Law &Order man
After leaving office, Thompson took on a role he may be best known for -- Dist. Atty. Arthur Branch on the long-running television show "Law & Order." Thompson has played the brusque, liberal and pragmatic DA in the various permutations of the program: "SVU," "Criminal Intent" and "Trial by Jury."
He has voiced one president -- Andrew Jackson in "Rachel and Andrew Jackson: A Love Story" -- and played another -- President Ulysses S. Grant in "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee." In all, according to the entertainment-industry Web site imdb.com, Thompson has credits for characters in 39 movies or TV programs, plus nine other credits for playing himself.
Lobbying for dollars
In addition to his renewed acting career, Thompson returned to lobbying. Among his more lucrative clients was the British reinsurance company Equitas, which was seeking to limit its liability under a proposed settlement of asbestos litigation and trying to kill legislation that would have opened the company to significant exposure. Thompson successfully lobbied then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, also first elected to the Senate from Tennessee in 1994.
Before his Senate career, Thompson was one of many lobbyists who lobbied for de-regulating the savings and loan industry, which later helped spark that industry's meltdown and a public bailout. He had also worked for the leftist Catholic priest and Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide, who was widely criticized for his endorsement of gruesome execution practices.
In addition to his lobbying, Thompson helped shepherd the nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts and helped operate the I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby defense fund. When President Bush commuted Libby's prison sentence, Thompson applauded the action.
Both of Thompson's sons also are lobbyists.
Despite several serious runs by Tennesseans for the presidency over the last half-century, it has been 138 years since a Tennessean held the White House. It's been even longer -- since the presidency of Andrew Jackson, one of a trio of Nashville real-estate speculators who founded Memphis -- that a contender with genuine Memphis roots has sought the nation's highest office.
In that effort, Thompson has surrounded himself with top-of-the-line talent in both fund-raising and public relations. His official spokesman, Mark Corallo, a former Republican National Committee opposition research director, was former U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's chief spokesman.
The noncampaign has already undergone a major shakeup, and there's speculation that Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political advisor, who last week announced his resignation, may be heading for the Thompson camp.
Those who have known him longest say Thompson's people skills -- an ability to talk equally effectively with urbane millionaires and down-home country folk -- are his best assets.
"He doesn't need to be president for Fred's sake," said former neighbor Clifton. "He thinks he can help this country. ... When he speaks, he's going to have something to say."
Washington correspondent Bartholomew Sullivan can be reached at (202) 408-2726. Nashville bureau chief Richard Locker contributed.
Fred Dalton Thompson
Born: Aug. 19, 1942, in Sheffield, Ala. Family soon moved to Lawrenceburg, Tenn.
Education: Memphis State University, B.A., 1964; Vanderbilt University Law School, J.D., 1967
Religion: Church of Christ
Wife: Jeri Kehn Thompson
Children: Fred Jr., Daniel, Hayden and Samuel. Betsy died in 2002.
U.S. Senate: 1994-2003
Lawyer-lobbyist: 1975-1993, 2003-present
First movie actor role: 1985
Mighty good rundown, overall...
Thank you, Senator Clinton.
I was going to say: In before the gratuitous “jerk” post, but too late.
Ping The Fred-Heads!!!!
Fred will slay the Hildabeast.
IBTZ...Here, Kitty Kitty Kitty..
A very pleasant read.
I would expect Bartholomew Sullivan to write a hit piece on Thompson. I think the Memphis Commercial realizes that it is not going to improve its circulation by hit and runs on Fred Thompson.
WARNING: If you want to join, be aware that this ping list is EXTREMELY active.
Hmmmm. A one word opus?
So, if you’re serious, let’s see your pedigree. What are your accomplishments?
Me thinks thou art thy loser.
All of 3 months on FR, eh?
Aren’t you special...
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