Politics & Government

Meet the woman who got Fred Thompson into acting

Actor and former congressman Fred Thompson is now running for president.
Actor and former congressman Fred Thompson is now running for president. Michael Hickey/MCT

WASHINGTON — When Marie Ragghianti goes to the University of Maryland on Monday to defend her dissertation for a Ph.D. in criminal justice, she'll think of the many people who shaped her experience: prisoners, family, friends, advisers, and, of course, Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson.

Their lives came together 30 years ago in Tennessee: she, a parole board official whose career was jeopardized when she exposed a clemency scandal, and he, an up-and-coming Republican attorney.

Ragghianti, now 65, needed a lawyer with no compunction about going after the state Democratic establishment for selling pardons. Thompson needed a case that would make him famous.

After they won in court, Hollywood made a movie, "Marie," based on their experience. Thompson played himself, which began his acting career. "We were both turning points for each other," Ragghianti, who speaks in a soft, gentle lilt, recalls fondly.

Thompson, also 65, arguably got more out of it.

The movie and TV roles that followed brought him wealth, connected him to interesting people, boosted his law and lobbying practice and helped him win election to the Senate. All that paved his run for president.

Ragghianti's path was less glamorous. Still, the mother of three, who'd escaped an abusive marriage, was able to put her life back together, raise her children and work toward things she considered important.

She did some research and consulting, wrote articles for Parade magazine and other publications, earned two master's degrees and, as a lifelong Democrat, served in the Clinton administration as the chief of staff and vice chairwoman of the U.S. Parole Commission.

She set her sights on a Ph.D. nearly 20 years ago, dividing her time between the Washington, D.C., area and Georgia, where she has family. This month, she moved to northern Virginia and took a job with the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland.

All the while, Ragghianti said, Thompson has remained a constant in her life. They talk every few months and, despite her party affiliation, she's supporting his bid for the presidency.

When she worked selling real estate, Thompson and his former wife, Sarah, bought a home from her. Thompson came to her son's wedding. When her mother died, Thompson attended the funeral. When Thompson's daughter Betsy died five years ago, Ragghianti in turn consoled him.

In between, they enjoyed each other's company and the memories of their shared experience. When both were between marriages, she said, they saw each other socially a few times. Back in the late 1980s, she invited Thompson to dinner to help her celebrate 20 years of being single. "He said, 'That's a great reason to celebrate!' "

After Thompson remarried, Ragghianti gave his second wife, Jeri, her seal of approval: "She dotes on Fred, and I like that about her."

Apparently, the feeling is mutual. "She's an incredible woman," Jeri Thompson said in a telephone interview. "A brave, courageous woman."

As it happens, Ragghianti and candidate Thompson both are thinking a lot about South Carolina these days.

The state has been central to her dissertation, which focuses on the success of "enhanced prison industries," in which inmates work in prison-based factories and use their wages to pay taxes, room and board to the state and restitution to their victims. South Carolina, she said, has the largest such program in the country.

Thompson, meanwhile, has been spending a lot of time in the state. He's lagging in polls in other early voting states, but is ahead or tied in South Carolina. It's must-win if he's to compete for the nomination.

What if Thompson were to advance as his party's nominee? Ragghianti said she loved her parole commission work in the Clinton years. "Once Fred's in the White House," she laughed, "the sky's the limit."