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The Actor

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A few hours after the Riley’s stop in Manchester, Thompson reappeared for a fund-raiser at Bedford’s Wayfarer Inn, a hotel known for decades as a base for reporters boozing their way through the New Hampshire primaries. On this 90-degree summer scorcher, the air-conditioning in the small conference room where Thompson was supposed to greet high rollers was on the fritz. Not even Jeri’s perky smile and repeated recanting of “Hi, I’m Jeri, and I’m your official greeter tonight” could relieve the torpor.

After 45 minutes, Thompson emerged, covered in sweat and looking dangerously gray. For a moment, a “What the hell have I got myself into?” look crossed his face. There was another, less exclusive fund-raiser just down the hall, packed with TV cameras (the Fox exclusive had been lifted), but Thompson bargained for some down time. “Give me five minutes,” he asked. He didn’t look like a man in game shape.

Twenty minutes later, a car drove him to the other side of the hotel, either to make his entrance grander or to save him the two-minute walk. After a brief introduction, Thompson took the microphone and talked about terrorism. He spoke in a reassuring, fatherly voice. “We’re confronted with a group of people who killed thousands of our people and would like nothing more than to get their hands on technology to kill millions,” Thompson said. “They’re getting ready to resume a war that’s been going on for hundreds of years, and they have another hundred-year plan. Some of our leaders got a plan for the next election,” he continued, presumably referring to those leaders who want to pull out of Iraq. “And they think they can win votes out of it.” As a policy idea, it wasn’t what one would call a breakthrough, nor was it much of an applause line. When Thompson talks about issues, his speeches tend to lose focus and drift.

But when the speech ended and the music blared, Thompson got in the Country Fred groove. He was doing the walk and talk, where he is most successful. “Keep your powder dry,” Thompson told his fans. He paused mid-mob to answer a Franklin Pierce College poli-sci student’s question about entitlements. This time it was a TV reporter who ventured an unsanctioned question, asking Thompson whether he was a lazy man. Thompson didn’t get angry; he just laughed. “That’s what they said about me before I ran the first time, and that’s what they said about me two years later,” he replied. “I won the first time by twenty points, and 21 points the second time. If you can do that while being lazy, I recommend it to everyone.”

the greatest testament to the power of Fred Thompson’s down-home likability might be that his Senate years were widely viewed as a train wreck, yet he emerged not only unscathed but also as a presidential contender.

Things started auspiciously enough. Because Thompson had been elected to fill Gore’s unexpired term, he was sworn in a month before other freshmen senators on December 9, 1994. Republicans didn’t waste any time putting the actor in front of the cameras. On December 15, Thompson gave the Republicans’ response to President Clinton’s budget address. Thompson spoke for only five minutes, but he struck a chord. A STAR IS BORN read the headline of Frank Rich’s New York Times column.

But that would be the high point. Thompson spent the next two years accomplishing almost nothing of significance other than raising money for his 1996 reelection: Thompson brought back the red truck and won in a walk.

While Bill Clinton easily trounced Bob Dole in that year’s presidential race, allegations surfaced that the Chinese government had funneled money into the Clinton campaign and that Al Gore had attended a fund-raiser at a Los Angeles Buddhist temple financed by foreign nationals. Thompson, chairman of the previously backwaterish Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which had jurisdiction, called for hearings.

In the weeks leading up to the hearings that July, the papers were filled with stories of Thompson’s Watergate role and his prosecutorial flair. The Democrats’ ranking minority member was John Glenn, and the conventional wisdom was that Thompson would charm the octogenarian into submission. It didn’t happen. Thompson condescended to Glenn and alienated members of his own party. When New Hampshire Republican Bob Smith announced in his opening statement, “It is probably the biggest scandal in the history of the Republic,” Thompson turned to the Democratic side, rolled his eyes, and muttered, “Jesus Christ.”

In 2005, Thompson donated his Senate papers to the University of Tennessee. Some of his archives are filled with notes of off-the-record interviews Thompson conducted with reporters during his Senate years. In his papers, Thompson complains about the trouble he had managing his colleagues during the 1996 hearings. He speaks of “members on your [own] side, grilling your team to a point where [you have to] get them to a room, woodshed them, [on] how to ask questions, how to proceed.”

Thompson was also accused of grandstanding, and his relationship with then Republican Senate leaders Trent Lott and Mitch McConnell quickly soured. Soon Thompson was warring with both sides. “[We have] presidents at fund-raisers, Lott [saying] raising money is the American Way, [and] McConnell [is the] Darth Vader of Reform,” Thompson says in one of the off-the-record sessions found in his archives.


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