Politics & Government

Family ties helped shape Thompson's political career

WASHINGTON — Fatherhood and ambition.

In Fred Thompson's life, they rise and fall together, a recurring couplet in the nostalgic story of a Tennessee fella who's guided more by life's surprises and others' expectations than he is by any master plan.

Consider:

  • The small-town jock called "Freddie" and "Moose," who, at 17, upon getting his high school girlfriend pregnant, married her, heeded her politically connected family and made something of himself.
  • The divorced U.S. senator, lawyer, lobbyist and actor who dropped out of politics when one of his three grown children died from a prescription drug overdose.
  • The unlikely 65-year-old comeback kid, now remarried with a four-year-old girl and a one-year-old boy, who's running for the Republican nomination for president.
  • On the campaign trail, Thompson treats criticism that he doesn't have enough fire in the belly with a father-knows-best attitude.

    "I've had the worst thing that can happen to a father, and the best thing that can happen to a father," Thompson told retirees this fall in South Carolina, in the drawl that's central to his persona. "I think you come out from the other end of that with a sense of what's important and not important."

    Two of Thompson's most important experiences played out in the public eye: the Watergate hearings and his 1985 movie debut, "Marie." But with voters, he talks about parenting as much as he does about politics and acting.

    Seeing daughter Hayden's sonogram — the first time he'd glimpsed any of his children in the womb — strengthened his anti-abortion views, he says. Wanting a stable world for his second family helped nudge him to audition for a part that would be less fun than TV shoots, but more consequential.

    His wife, Jeri, a former Republican consultant, said that one night while they were still mulling whether to make the race, they sat at their kitchen table in Northern Virginia and saw their little girl perched at the top of the staircase.

    "He had this very strange look on his face," she recalled of her husband. "I said, 'What are you thinking?' and he said, 'A lot goes through my mind from the time she's at the top step to the time she's at the bottom.' It's when he decided, I think. In his mind, there was a decision made."

    Thompson has children older than his wife, 41, and younger than his grandchildren. His progeny span two generations, bookends like the Vietnam and Iraq wars to the major societal, economic and global changes that have rocked America in his lifetime.

    Thompson was born in Alabama and raised in Tennessee by parents whose formal education ended with junior high school. He graduated from Memphis State University and the Vanderbilt University law school while working and raising children.

    He read Barry Goldwater's "The Conscience of a Conservative," started a Young Republicans group and worked on a congressional campaign, as a federal prosecutor and for the re-election of Tennessee Republican Sen. Howard Baker Jr.

    Baker became a powerful mentor. He gave the young Thompson, whom Richard Nixon once called "dumb as hell," a job as chief Republican counsel on the committee investigating Watergate.

    Thompson wasn't the staffer who discovered Nixon's secret audio taping system, and he later admitted that he warned the White House that it would be revealed. He didn't initially understand the administration's culpability. But Baker arranged for Thompson to ask about the tapes in televised hearings, and that helped bring down the president.

    Thompson got national exposure; a book deal and an anti-corruption reputation that drew clients, including state parole official Marie Ragghianti, to his new law practice.

    Ragghianti exposed a cash-for-clemency scheme under Tennessee Gov. Ray Blanton, lost her job and hired Thompson to clear her name.

    "He's personable and straightforward, and he was just what I needed at a very dark hour in my life," Ragghianti said in an interview.

    There was a book about the case, then a movie with Sissy Spacek — "Marie" — in which Thompson played himself. That launched his career as an actor even as he kept a hand in on Capitol Hill.

    Celebrity eased Thompson's election to an open Senate seat; he replaced Tennessee's Al Gore, who became Bill Clinton's vice president.

    Serving from 1994 through 2002, Thompson got mixed reviews. He was a reliable Republican vote, but critics said he lacked the appetite for the long hours and tedium and didn't leave much of a legacy.

    In 1997, he was chosen to lead a Senate inquiry into alleged campaign finance abuses by the Clinton administration. Expanding that to look at Republican wrongdoing won him points with Democrats and independents, but angered many in his party. They also said he let the Clinton probe fizzle.

    "He was rolled by Senate opponents and the Clinton machine," said Tom Fitton, the president of the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch. "He did not act with the aggressiveness and energy appropriate, given the allegations."

    Longtime friends and associates say that Thompson's easygoing style and commitment to fairness shouldn't be confused with a lack of dedication.

    "He learns something from the ground up," said Victoria Toensing, a lawyer who worked in the Reagan Justice Department and as Thompson's deputy when he was the Senate Intelligence Committee's special counsel in 1981. "He really goes into a subject. He's a very thorough lawyer."

    The final year of Thompson's Senate career, his daughter Betsy, who had bipolar disorder, died from what was deemed an accidental overdose of painkillers.

    "That basically took all the proverbial wind out of his sail," said Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., who attended the funeral in 2002 and began pushing last year for Thompson to run for president. "It took his heart right out of his body."

    Thompson went back to acting, and making money, as fictional District Attorney Arthur Branch on TV's "Law & Order." He also gave up the single life, marrying Jeri, whom he'd met years earlier while grocery shopping. Then they had children.

    His wife said they neither planned it nor ruled it out. "We do both believe in God having his hand in things," she said. "We went with that."

    "I saw him completely get a second lease on life with Jeri and the kids," Wamp said.

    About this time, Thompson was diagnosed with a non-fatal lymphoma, which required chemotherapy.

    But he had a new appetite for GOP politics. He helped manage Chief Justice John Roberts' confirmation to the Supreme Court in 2005, was chairman of the State Department's International Security Advisory Board and championed President Bush's commutation of White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's prison sentence in the CIA leak case — all while taping the crime series and working for ABC Radio.

    When retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said last year that he wouldn't seek the presidency, Wamp pressed Thompson to get in.

    Thompson wasn't interested, Wamp said. But Baker intervened, and Jeri encouraged him. No other Republican had an easy lock on the nomination.

    Wamp thinks that Thompson's image and message are selling points, and so is his personal experience of "raising a second family in a different generation than the first."

    "I remember when Bush 41 didn't know the price of a gallon of milk," Wamp said, referring to a much-hyped 1992 campaign incident when the first President Bush was reportedly surprised by grocery store scanners, and his critics seized on that to charge that he was out of touch with ordinary Americans.

    Thompson, on the other hand, has a campaign bus with a diaper-changing table.

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