JULY 23, 2007
Thwack! An elaborately beaded elephant handbag lands solidly on Fred Thompson's upper arm. "Law and Order on the Border!" the bag's owner, a short, sassy, middle-aged brunette, crows at the presumed presidential candidate. "There's your campaign slogan right there!" Vibrating with pride at her cleverness in linking Thompson's get-tough immigration stance with the title of the NBC series on which he until recently starred, the Republican dame grins broadly and repeats the line with even greater gusto: "Law and Order on the Border!" The former Tennessee senator, characteristically imposing in dark blue pinstripes, responds with a smile of indulgence and weary amusement as he ambles through the herd of fans trailing him across the lower level of the Greater Richmond Convention Center, where he has just headlined the Virginia Republican Party's 2007 Commonwealth Gala.
Thanks to poor acoustics, some in the audience were unable to understand Thompson's address, but this in no way dampened their ardor. "Can you hear him?" one of a gaggle of older ladies at the table in front of me demanded of her girlfriends as he launched into his stump speech. "I can't hear him! I can't hear him--but I love him!"
Now, as the actor and erstwhile politician rambles toward the back exit, autograph-seekers thrust programs and pens into his large hands. Digital cameras flash and giggling soccer moms in too-tight cocktail frocks wrap their arms around Thompson's trunk-like waist as their husbands struggle to snap cell phone pictures. Through it all, the phlegmatic senator nods, presses the flesh, mumbles an occasional response to inquiries about his presidential plans--"we're exploring away"; "the waters feel pretty warm to me"--and scribbles his signature over and over again. With his Droopy Dog mug, his virtually bald pate, and his bulky, six-foot-five frame overshadowing the throng, the 64-year-old candidate resembles nothing so much as a mildly beleaguered father surrounded by a pack of attention-seeking children.
To watch Thompson work a crowd like this is to glimpse the primordial roots of the Fred Fever currently gripping the GOP. Part of the appeal is obvious: A well-known actor, Thompson carries with him an inherent star quality that cannot be overestimated in our celebrity-obsessed culture. Moreover, after years of portraying a particular type of folksy authority figure, Thompson gives voters the sense that they already know who he is and what sort of leader he would be. Conversely, as a still relatively unknown political commodity, the candidate has a touch of the blank-slate phenomenon working for him, allowing savior-hungry Republicans to project onto him whichever personal and ideological traits they most desire. Underlying all of this, however, is an even more primal allure: In any given situation, Fred Thompson fundamentally seems like more of a man than anyone else around him.
If there's one thing conservatives are obsessed with these days, it's manliness. Saddled with a president they once cheered as a kick-ass cowboy but have come to scorn as weak on everything from immigration to government spending, Republicans are desperate for a competent, confident champion to make them feel good about themselves again. As Rudy Giuliani recently told a crowd of Delaware supporters, "What we're lacking is strong, aggressive, bold leadership like we had with Ronald Reagan."
Enter Fred Thompson. More than anyone in the field--more than Giuliani, more than John McCain, and certainly more than the altogether-too-well-coiffed Mitt Romney--Thompson exudes old-school masculinity. Along with the burly build, he has the rumbling baritone, the low-key self-assurance, and the sense of gravitas honed by years as a character actor playing Important Men. In Thompson's presence (live or on-screen), one is viscerally, intimately reassured that he can handle any crisis that arises, be it a renegade Russian sub or a botched rape case.
But therein lies the irony. For, while the veteran actor certainly looks and sounds the part of the man's man in this race, there's precious little in either his personal or political history to suggest that he overflows with any of the attributes commonly associated with manliness, such as determination, perseverance, leadership ability, or garden-variety toughness. By his own account, Thompson is a not especially hard-charging guy who has largely meandered through life, stumbling from one bit of good fortune to the next with an occasional nudge from those close to him. It is, to some extent, part of his much-ballyhooed comfortable-in-his-own-skin charm. But it also raises questions about whether he has the gumption to gut out a presidential race when it inevitably becomes difficult, or mean, or plain old boring. In short, is Fred Thompson really enough of a man for this fight?
Young Freddie Thompson never postured himself the future leader of the free world. He wanted to be a high school basketball coach. It was an obvious aim for a big guy from a small town who had the brains for academics but not the enthusiasm. Raised modestly middle-class in the central Tennessee town of Lawrenceburg, the teenage Thompson was regarded as likeable, outgoing, lazy (he had a tendency to doze off during class), and an incorrigible cutup. (As the Nashville Tennessean charmingly reported, Thompson's high school principal had to create a separate study hall for the mischief-making athlete and one of his close pals, accessible only through the principal's office.) Most folks assumed Freddie's future held nothing more exceptional than following his dad into the used-car business. The summer after his junior year, Thompson got his girlfriend, Sarah Lindsey, "in trouble," as people used to delicately put it. The couple married in September of Thompson's senior year and moved in with Sarah's parents while the groom finished high school. Fred Dalton "Tony" Thompson Jr. was born in spring 1960. Three years later, daughter Betsy arrived during her parents' junior year at Memphis State University. In 1964, Thompson enrolled at Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville, and, for the next three years, Sarah taught (when not on maternity leave with their third child, Dan) while Fred worked as everything from a shoe salesman to a hotel night clerk to help support the family.
Over the years, Thompson has made repeated reference to the fact that he isn't the kind of guy driven to achieve. "I have never beaten down a lot of doors in my life," he told Fox News in March. "Occasionally, doors have opened to me, and I had sense enough to see they were opening and I would walk through them, and they've always turned out well for me." Ironically, getting his high school sweetheart pregnant was the first and arguably most important of these doors. Considerably more goal-oriented than her young beau, Sarah has long been credited with starting Thompson on the road to personal maturity and professional direction. Better still: Her family, active in the local GOP, helped steer Freddie toward a career in law and politics. Sarah's grandfather, an attorney, is said to have been the inspiration behind Thompson becoming a Republican, and Thompson's first job out of law school was in the Lawrenceburg practice of Sarah's uncle, also a big GOP booster. Soon, Thompson began stretching his own political wings: helping organize a Young Republicans group for Lawrence County, managing a (failed) U.S. congressional campaign in 1968, and winning a spot on the county's Republican Executive Committee. From that post, he could network with state party bigwigs, including the man who would become his political Yoda, Senator Howard Baker.
The godfather of the modern Tennessee GOP, Baker was known for recruiting hot young talent in his quest to revivify the state party. (Lamar Alexander was another fabulous Baker boy.) Thompson swiftly emerged as one of the senator's most promising prospects. In 1969, Baker helped Thompson land a position as assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, a post that provided the fledgling lawyer with some early media training. "The U.S. attorney whom he worked for didn't like to try cases. Fred did, and soon he became a hot item in the local media," recalls William Kirkland, Thompson's best buddy from law school. "He was interviewed quite a bit--and he didn't shy away from that publicity." After working on Baker's 1972 reelection campaign, Thompson really hit the big time in 1973, when Baker, to the consternation of his Senate colleagues, drafted the unknown Tennessean to serve as minority counsel on the Watergate hearings. While Thompson didn't distinguish himself as a great legal mind during the proceedings, he did make a national splash when he famously asked White House aide Alexander Butterfield whether he knew of any listening devices in the Oval Office. The moment was pure political theater, as both parties' legal teams already knew the answer. But being chosen to ask the question in front of the TV cameras (a coup engineered by Baker) gave Thompson a healthy dose of national celebrity. By the hearings' end, the small-town lawyer with the unforgettable voice had signed with a major-league speakers' bureau in New York. "I got paid large sums of money for giving speeches in schools that I could never have gotten into," he later joked to The New York Times.
Post-Watergate, Thompson returned to private practice in Tennessee, where another door swung wide. In 1977, he represented Marie Ragghianti, a former head of the state parole board suing Democratic Governor Ray Blanton for wrongful termination. The case brought to light a cash-for-clemency scheme that ultimately took down the corrupt administration. More importantly, it launched Thompson's acting career when he was cast to play himself in a movie about the scandal, titled Marie. A string of supporting roles in better-known films and TV shows followed, and, for the bulk of a decade, Thompson performed an impressive two-step, simultaneously forging political ties as a Beltway lobbyist and perfecting his public persona as the face (and voice) of institutional authority in such films as No Way Out (in which he played the director of the CIA), Fat Man and Little Boy (a major general), The Hunt for Red October (a rear admiral), Thunderheart (an FBI honcho), and In the Line of Fire (the White House chief of staff).
In 1994, Baker cracked yet another door for his protege, approaching Thompson, by then a minor celebrity, with a new proposition: running for the Senate seat left vacant thanks to Al Gore's ascension to the vice presidency. Thompson, who had previously rejected his party's urgings to pursue elected office, reluctantly agreed. But his campaign against Democratic Representative Jim Cooper stalled out of the gate, with Thompson trailing by more than 20 points nine months out. As the story goes, over a meal at a local Cracker Barrel, campaign manager Tom Ingram asked a dispirited Thompson how he would run the race if he had his druthers. ("He wasn't having a good time," recalls Ingram, now a Senate aide to Lamar Alexander.) Thompson said he'd like to throw on a pair of jeans and drive around the state just chatting folks up. Voila! A populist phenom was born. In early August, Thompson ditched his suits, rented a red Chevy pickup, and commenced his good-ole-boy charm offensive. Playing to the broad anti-Washington sentiment of the time, Fred cheered the virtues of "citizen legislators" over career pols, decried Washington's misguided efforts to "tax ourselves into prosperity," and vowed to "go up there and grab that place by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shake." Three months later, despite Cooper's attempts to paint him (not inaccurately) as a "Gucci-wearing, Lincoln-driving, Perrier-drinking, Grey Poupon-spreading millionaire Washington special interest lobbyist," Thompson won the race by 20 points. Two years later, he was reelected by an even fatter margin. Though touted as a prospective presidential candidate for 2000, he opted not to run after his Senate investigation into foreign contributions to the Clinton-Gore campaign failed to uncover any actionable misdeeds.
In January 2002, Thompson suffered a devastating personal loss when his daughter Betsy died of an accidental prescription-drug overdose. A few weeks later, he announced that he would not seek reelection to the Senate. Heading back into the private sector, Thompson looked to resume both his lobbying and his acting careers. Conveniently, before his term was even up, Thompson was cold-called by "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf, who wanted to know if he would be interested in joining the cast of the spectacularly popular franchise. Since then, literally millions of Americans have come to know Thompson as the dashing, curmudgeonly, and comfortingly conservative District Attorney Arthur Branch.
Thompson also kept a toe in the world of public policy. In addition to his lobbying and acting, he serves as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and chairman of the State Department's International Security Advisory Board. He has also been pinch-hitting for the venerable radio commentator Paul Harvey on the ABC radio network. By all accounts, Thompson is successful beyond his wildest childhood dreams. But, late last year, after fellow Tennessean and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced that he would not run for president, those closest to Thompson once again began whispering in his ear about bigger, better things. Perhaps the most influential of these whisperers has been Thompson's second wife, Jeri Kehn Thompson.
If Thompson's first wife put him on the path to law school, it's widely acknowledged that his second wife is the one driving his presidential run. Blonde, bodacious, and 24 years younger than her husband, Jeri is often sniffily referred to as Thompson's "trophy wife," but she is clearly more than that. A one-time Senate staffer and spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, Jeri is regarded around Washington as politically shrewd and fiercely ambitious on behalf of her spouse. In the wake of Frist's announcement, Jeri promptly contacted Republican p.r. veteran Mark Corallo about serving as her husband's spokesman and raising his profile inside the Beltway. More recently, after lefty filmmaker Michael Moore took a public poke at Thompson, challenging him to a health care debate and criticizing his penchant for embargoed Cuban cigars, Jeri brought the issue to her hubby's attention and urged him to call up a friend with a video camera and record his now-famous 30-second Web response. (In it, a cigar-chomping Thompson says he's too busy to meet with Moore, but wryly warns him to watch his step lest his "buddy Castro" decide to toss him in a mental institution as he has other documentarians. "A mental institution, Michael. That'd be something you oughta think about," intones Thompson with a meaningful arch of his brow.) Last month, at a reception for party bigwigs and top donors that preceded the GOP gala in Richmond, Jeri diligently stood in line to meet and greet every person in attendance. "She's been one of the key players," confirms Tom Ingram.
Thomson surrounded by admirers at a recent New Hampshire fund-raiser.
But, while Jeri is clearly providing some of the fire-in-the-belly that Thompson otherwise lacks, there is much chatter about whether the brassy former operative realizes just how tough it is to be the wife of a candidate, much less of a president. The most oft-cited question mark is Jeri's very public pursuit of Thompson. (In romance, as in politics, Thompson has as often been the hunted as the hunter.) Divorced from Sarah in 1985, Thompson was an infamous ladies' man during his Senate days. (Former girlfriends include country singer Lorrie Morgan and GOP fund-raiser Georgette Mosbacher.) Falling under Thompson's spell at a Fourth of July picnic in 1996, Jeri's subsequent campaign to elbow out her competitors for his affection repeatedly made the gossip columns in Washington and New York, most memorably in April 2000, when she groused to the New York Post's Page Six about "all these women" trying to move in on her man. "They just won't leave him alone," she fussed. "I can't get up to get a cocktail at a party without coming back and finding some girl sitting in my chair." Veteran journalist Margaret Carlson caught the worst flak. "She just won't get the hint that he has a girlfriend," Jeri charged, adding, "She calls his apartment all the time. I mean, what is the deal with these women? Don't they have any pride? It's the joke all over Washington that Margaret has this huge crush on him. And Fred is clearly not interested." The situation got nasty enough that the senator himself was forced to step in, issuing a public denial of Jeri's swipes at Carlson. Seven years later, the episode still prompts much tittering around the Beltway. But Jeri may have the last laugh: She wed her reformed Lothario in June 2002 and is today the proud mommy of a four-year-old daughter and a nine-month-old son. And with a little luck (Fred's specialty) and a lot of hard work (her department), she just might wind up First Lady.
Promising to get to the bottom of Clinton administration fund-raising scandals in 1997.
Looking back over the sweep of Thompson's life, you get the picture of a nice, decent guy fortunate enough to have had a string of helping hands propel him along the road to success. "Fred's charmed," says Ingram. "I mean, from Lawrence County, which was [back then] a Democratic stronghold, to his relationship with Howard Baker, to representing Marie, to finding himself playing himself in her movie, to asking the pivotal Watergate question about the tapes …" Here, Ingram pauses and backtracks a bit to assure me: "He's very serious. He's very thorough. But he's also been at the right place at the right time with charmed results." Far from undercutting his presidential prospects, this laid-back reputation fuels the seductive story line of Thompson as a Natural Born Leader--a man who excels because of his intrinsic worthiness, not any grinding ambition. "It's part of his appeal," says Tennessee Representative John Duncan, co-chair of the "Draft Fred" committee. "I don't think people like people totally obsessed with politics." "He gives the impression of a man who has things in perspective," agrees Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's lobbying shop. "It's been my impression that workaholics don't work out in the White House." In this way, the candidate is a lot like the man he is auditioning to replace: George W. Bush, who, perhaps more than any president in recent history, tapped the U.S. electorate's distaste for politicians who look like they're trying too hard. "You worry about some guys--Mondale, Gore, Kerry, and in some ways Bush Senior--who spent their entire life wanting to be president," says conservative activist Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform. By contrast, he notes, "With Thompson, there's a sense of self-assuredness that Nixon didn't have and that Reagan did."
Ole Fred certainly knows this. Over the years, he has shrewdly cultivated his easygoing image, recognizing the advantages of appearing cool and in control under pressure. As his Watergate co-counsel Sam Dash once told me, "Fred knows how to look laid back when he's not. He'll tell a joke or drawl his voice slowly to make everybody feel he's not under anxiety." In recent months, as his team has quietly scrambled to lay the groundwork for a late entry into the race, Thompson has taken care to project a que vibe about this whole presidential business. "One advantage you have in not, you know, having this as a lifelong ambition is that if it turns out that your calculation is wrong, it's not the end of the world," he shrugged to Fox News.
As appealing as this laid-back image may be, it should raise some red flags about whether Thompson is enough of a go-getter to go all the way. During his Senate days (and even his Watergate days), Thompson wasn't known for his vigorous work ethic. "You can tell when somebody is going to be here for the long haul" in part by the amount of scut work they put in, says a veteran Democratic Hill staffer. "And Thompson clearly was never going to be a workhorse." The senator himself has long admitted that he found legislative life tedious. "I don't like spending fourteen- and sixteen-hour days voting on 'sense of the Senate' resolutions on irrelevant matters," he once grumbled. "The rap on him always was that he was obviously bored up here," says the Hill staffer. It's not that Thompson is lazy, per se. Rather, he doesn't want to do what he doesn't want to do.
The big question now is to what extent that includes all the grunt work demanded of a presidential candidate. Thompson has never been much of a political animal, and, as his old friend Kirkland notes, raising money has always been particularly "distasteful" to him. Ingram predicted back in May that Thompson will only run "if he believes he can do it differently." And, sure enough, the early rumblings from Team Thompson have focused on his plans to spend less time trudging through the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire and more time blogging, podcasting, and making other creative use of hot new techno-campaign tools. The campaign is plugging the strategy as a more populist approach to politics, allowing Thompson to bypass the biased mainstream media and speak directly to voters--a virtual variation on the red pickup truck. Of course, all his competitors are making similar online efforts. They just consider it a supplement to vigorous on-the-ground campaigning, not a substitute.
As for what sort of strong leadership Thompson would supply once in office, his legislative career offers little insight. Despite his early reformist zeal, Thompson left few footprints during his time on the Hill. And his one significant leadership test, the 1997 campaign finance investigation, is generally regarded as a flop. His attempts to make the hearings less partisan by probing allegations leveled at Republicans as well as at the Clinton-Gore campaign were swiftly undermined by his party's leaders. In the end, Thompson was deemed a well-intentioned chairman shamefully "sandbagged" by both teams--a verdict that may reflect well on his even-handedness and general character, but is hardly a tribute to his leadership skills.
Happily for Thompson, his on-screen record of leadership is more successful--and vastly better known. Indeed, his four-year stint playing District Attorney Arthur Branch on "Law & Order" is arguably his number-one qualification for a presidential run. It's not merely that Thompson's character is a commanding yet avuncular figure; it's that he's an explicitly and appealingly conservative one, a type you don't often find on network television. Within the context of the show, Branch is a down-to-earth, common-sense conservative surrounded by twitchy liberal Manhattan types whom he can lecture about their squeamishness on capital punishment and their ludicrously broad interpretations of the Constitution.
Authoritative but not authoritarian, paternal but not tyrannical, strong but not scary, Branch is, in many ways, the portrait of an ideal conservative. And, in the minds of countless Americans--including many inside the Beltway--Fred Thompson is Arthur Branch. As Bob Novak put it in a column a few months ago, "Sophisticated social conservative activists tell me they … are coming to see [Fred] Thompson as the only conservative who can be nominated. Their appreciation of him stems not from his eight years as a U.S. senator from Tennessee but from his role as district attorney of Manhattan on Law & Order." One shudders to think how the unsophisticated activists decide whom to support.
Reductively speaking, Thompson stands as the Daddy Party's dream Daddy--although a Daddy of a very particular type. Forget the nurturing, "compassionate conservative" model of Bush's 2000 candidacy, which has been roundly discredited on the right. Forget, too, the blustery, "Bring it on!" swagger that W. adopted after September 11, a little-guy machismo one also sees in Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. Thompson's manliness is laconic rather than feisty, a style more John Wayne than Jimmy Cagney. "He's a big man," says Duncan. "He has a way of filling or dominating a room." And, as all of us recall from our schoolyard days, big guys like Thompson don't need to run around picking fights, talking smack, and constantly reminding us of how tough they are because, well, look at them.
Certainly, the Thompson talk in both cyberspace and the traditional media is a study in hero worship, with grown conservatives swooning like cheerleaders smitten over the manliness of the varsity quarterback. There is much rejoicing about the senator's growling voice, his studly cigar habit, and his physical size. My favorite bit of macho Fred-worship making its way around the Internet is a widely circulated joke about the title of the recent film 300, in which a small troop of Spartans holds the line against the massive Persian army: "If Fred Thompson had been at Thermopylae, the movie would have been called 1." (Reading posts like this, it's unsurprising that, according to USA Today, 64 percent of Thompson's supporters are male, the highest percentage for any presidential hopeful.)
Among more serious journalists, The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes has developed a particularly intense man-crush on Thompson, penning a series of breathless valentines about the fledgling campaign, starting with a 6,000-word profile in April that gushed: "As we spoke, I was struck by the fact that Thompson didn't seem to be calibrating his answers for a presidential run. On issue after contentious issue, I got the sense from both his manner and the answer he gave me that he was just speaking extemporaneously." Nor is it only the conservative media getting high on the smell of testosterone. The creepiest musings about Thompson's "sex appeal" thus far have come from NBC's Chris Matthews, the machismo-obsessed id of the Washington media, who recently cooed: "Can you smell the English leather on this guy, the Aqua Velva, the sort of mature man's shaving cream, or whatever, you know, after he shaved? Do you smell that sort of--a little bit of cigar smoke?"
More adolescent members of the chattering class, meanwhile, have taken to drooling over Mrs. Thompson, whose penchant for low-cut, form-fitting ensembles already has buttoned-down political types buzzing. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough recently created a stir when he and guest analyst Craig Crawford of Congressional Quarterly indulged in some lascivious speculation about whether the curvaceous Jeri's fitness regime makes use of a stripper's pole. Tacky as the comments were, they were essentially envious. "That's what a Hollywood career will do for you!" enthused Crawford.
Inevitably, with his official entry into the race, Thompson will lose a little luster as he morphs from above-the-fray candidate-in-waiting to flesh-and-blood (not to mention bloodied) combatant. Still, the lure of his manly charms should not be underestimated. As Bob Davis, a former Thompson staffer now chairing the Tennessee Republican Party, puts it, "When you put your children to bed at night, and you're laying your head down on your pillow, this is a guy people would trust to protect their backside no matter what happened."
This is an especially potent lure with the Republican Party feeling so lost and fragile. Just last month, former Thompson sweetie Lorrie Morgan predicted to the Sunday Times of London that Thompson will prove irresistible to women voters: "He's majestic. He's a soft, safe place to be, and that could be Fred's ticket. Women love a soft place to lay and a strong pair of hands to hold us." Team Thompson is betting that, these days, the same may be said of the entire GOP.