In 1993, I was sent to Nashville by Esquire Magazine to write a profile of Fred Thompson, who was about to undertake a run for Senate in Tennessee. I arrived and spent a day digging through the archives of the city’s two newspapers to find out whatever I could about him. I knew he had been a lawyer in private practice and had become a movie actor by accident following a stint as minority counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee. I remembered having watched as Thompson asked White House official Alexander Butterfield the question whose answer ultimately led to the downfall of the Nixon administration — a question about whether there had been a secret taping system in the White House.
In those archives, I learned more. I learned Thompson was the son of a car salesman who had married during high school (with a child following in short order). He put himself through college and law school by winning scholarships and supported his family by working the night shift at various cheap motels. After law school, he became an assistant U.S. attorney in Memphis until Senator Howard Baker asked him to run Baker’s reelection campaign in 1972. Thompson was not yet 30 years old. When Baker was given the job of serving as the leader of the minority on the Watergate committee, he asked Thompson to serve as counsel.
I found a story in the Nashville Banner‘s morgue about a case in which AUSA Thompson had successfully prosecuted a family for running a moonshine business. How colorful, I thought. This would make a great lead anecdote for my article. Fred, 6’6″ in his stocking feet and as broad in the shoulders as a linebacker, offered me a dry smile as I shook his hand in his law office. We sat down, and I said, “Do you remember a case you prosecuted in 1970 against a moonshine family? That must have been something. Would you tell me about it?”
His smile turned rueful. He went quiet, and then came one of those moments in which the world actually enlarged for me — in which my perspective was unexpectedly broadened. “Yeah, I remember,” he said. “Those people. Those poor, poor people. They had rickets. Living in a shotgun shack. What they made from that liquor — nothing.” He explained that the case had been brought to his office by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the bureau was still trying to justify the A part of ATF that had been part of its original mandate under its original name: the Bureau of Prohibition. So it went around hunting backwoods folk on the grounds that they weren’t reporting the income they made off their moonshine to the IRS. He shook his head at the memory. “We should have left those people alone,” he said. “What harm were they doing. What harm had they done.”
There I was, all excited to have found a cool tale about an ambitious young DA making a sexy case. So cinematic! And Thompson brought me up short. Twenty-five years later, the memory I had surfaced did not provoke an amusing anecdote but rather a feeling of shame.
I asked him what it was that had made him a Republican. He said that when he was working at nights behind a motel desk, he needed to stay awake, and he began to read National Review. Eventually that led him to William F. Buckley Jr.’s oeuvre, and to Hayek, and to Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, and to Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, and to other works that helped him develop a philosophy about the centrality of the individual and the dangers of an overreaching state — the same overreaching state he would serve in prosecuting those moonshiners a few years later.
I knew his acting career had begun when Hollywood had come to Nashville to make a movie about Marie Ragghianti, a whistleblower who discovered that the governor of Tennessee had literally been selling pardons to prisoners. She was fired and hired Thompson as her lawyer; the case eventually led to the governor’s ouster. Thompson was a key character in the movie’s final act, and after a few days of interviewing actors in Nashville to play him, a frustrated casting director named Lynn Stalmaster asked Thompson if he’d like to read for the part of himself. Fred said he guessed sure, took a walk around the block, and then did the reading. Stalmaster told me that moment of inspiration was the proudest of his career in casting. The movie, Marie, is not very good — until Thompson appears and quietly sets it afire.
“People ask me how to make a career as a character actor,” Fred said. “I tell them, ‘Well, first, get hit by lightning.'”
The thing about Thompson was, he continued to work as a lawyer throughout his career as an actor in The Hunt for Red October, No Way Out, Days of Thunder, Cape Fear, and other pictures. Among other things, he was one of the three trustees of the Teamsters pension fund, which had been seized by the government. So though he rose to the point where he was likely making close to half a million dollars per picture, he was not dependent on that work for his livelihood — and there were things he did not wish to do.
That included cursing on the screen. He had a fight (I recall him saying it lasted several days) with the famously temperamental producer Joel Silver on the set of Die Hard 2 because the script called for him to use the F-word. His contract specifically said he would not use profanity. Silver didn’t care and simply could not imagine Thompson would make trouble on this score. But unlike other Hollywood players, Thompson viewed acting as a lark, and was able to stand his ground.
As that story indicates, he had other things in mind for himself. Al Gore’s change of jobs provided his opening. He ran for and won Gore’s Senate seat comfortably in 1994 and then by a landslide in 1996 (since the first race had only been to fill out the last two years of Gore’s term).
In many ways, he was a transitional political figure in the Republican party. He came to politics as an aide to a moderate Republican, Howard Baker, and was part of the construction of a GOP in Tennessee that was less ideologically driven than was the case in other Southern states in the 1970s and 1980s.
But it was philosophical conservatism that had captured his attention in his college and law-school years. His election in 1994 as part of the Gingrich Revolution was not only due to his attractiveness, his resume, and his literal star power, but because he was intellectually in tune with the changes being wrought to the GOP. The very qualities that made him a memorable performer and a good senator—that combination of amiability and steel—did not really include the consuming ambition to rise to the top. He staged a run for the presidency in 2008, in part because the presidential campaign of his friend John McCain seemed to have self-destructed in the early summer of 2007. But his heart wasn’t really in it, and he seemed satisfied by McCain’s revivification.
Thompson was not suited to the task of running for the presidency, I think, because he had an essentially ironic view of the world and its workings. In the last years of his life became one of Twitter’s best political tummlers, issuing forth perfectly crafted one-liners about the absurdities of the Age of Obama. On September 23, only five weeks before his untimely death yesterday at the age of 72, he offered this: “Obama at a school in Iowa: Students ‘shouldn’t silence’ guest speakers who are ‘too conservative.’ Yes. That’s what the IRS is for.”
My profile of Thompson never ran; Esquire changed editors, and the new one told me it was “boring.” If so, that was the greatest failure of my professional life, because Fred Thompson was one of the most interesting and most impressive men of our time. RIP.