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The Actor

Thompson’s hearings grew even more unpopular with his own party when he diverted the proceedings to the subject of campaign-finance reform (Senate Republicans opposed such reform for fear of losing hard-won fund-raising advantages). Lott was furious, and Thompson suspected the majority leader was the anonymous author of quotes criticizing the hearings.

The senator further angered conservatives by becoming an early supporter of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform legislation. Although Thompson has recently tried to minimize his enthusiasm for the bill, his Senate papers include a handwritten note from Senator Russell Feingold after the measure passed the Senate in 2001 reading, “You were essential to our success from the outset!”

Thompson’s Senate years also featured a level of sympathy for Bill Clinton that conservatives don’t tend to share. In 1995, Thompson’s archives show, he sent Clinton a note after the State of the Union address that partially read, “The speech probably would not have seemed so long to some of us if you hadn’t been putting the wood to us so effectively.” Thompson’s 1999 split vote on Clinton’s two counts of impeachment squared with one of his off-the-record sessions in 1998, when he told reporters, “I’m prejudiced in his favor, I object to the tactics used against him.” This didn’t stop Thompson from sending Kenneth Starr a congratulations letter at the end of the Clinton saga.

Thompson may blast colleagues for not draining the Washington swamp, but he did his share of feeding the alligators. His papers include ingratiating notes to George Will, Arianna Huffington, and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. There’s a mash note from Bruce Willis (“You were great in Die Hard”) and a letter from Oliver Stone thanking Thompson for brokering an interview with Martin Luther King Jr. assassin James Earl Ray.

Thompson’s off-the-record chats with reporters also suggest that his claim that he hasn’t given much thought to running for president might be somewhat disingenuous (his campaign has attempted to make a virtue of the fact that Thompson, unlike his competitors, isn’t obsessed with power). During one 1998 off-the-record bull session, Thompson boasted to a reporter, “Al Gore goes to bed at night and says, ‘Please don’t let it be Fred Dalton Thompson.’”

As a senator and movie star of a certain age, Thompson was a steadily sought-after D.C. bachelor. He alternately dated Lorrie Morgan, a five-times-married country-music star, Republican pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, former Time columnist Margaret Carlson, and Washington socialite Georgette Mosbacher. “I chased a lot of women, and a lot of women chased me,” Thompson told Republican congressmen earlier this year. “And those that chased me tended to catch me.”

Thompson’s relationships with the Washington elite, romantic and otherwise, have paid significant dividends. This March, Carlson talked up Thompson’s presidential possibilities on MSNBC, rhapsodizing, “He’s handsome, he’s charming, he sounds like a president, and he looks like a president.” She didn’t disclose their prior personal relationship.

Thompson scored more gravitas points last month when Washington Post columnist and socialite Sally Quinn breathlessly wrote that Vice-President Dick Cheney was on his way out and should be replaced by, yes, Fred Thompson. “Everybody loves Fred,” Quinn wrote. “He has the healing qualities of Gerald Ford and the movie-star appeal of Ronald Reagan.” For what it’s worth, they both appeared in the 1994 remake of Born Yesterday.

Talking about his Senate years in July, Thompson said, “When I served eight years, I left. I was following George Washington’s model of serving eight years, getting on his horse, and never coming back.”

It’s only partially true. After 9/11, Thompson announced he would seek reelection the next year. But in January 2002, Thompson’s daughter Betsy died of an accidental drug overdose, ending a long, troubled life. In March, Thompson withdrew his candidacy and sharply criticized the media coverage of Betsy’s death. “I simply do not have the heart for another six years,” he said at the time.

A few months before he left office, Thompson received a call. This time, his career angel was Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, who offered him the role of Arthur Branch over the phone. He immediately accepted. Thompson kept his hand in the lobbying game in 2004 by taking on Equitas Ltd., a British reinsurer responsible for paying out millions in asbestos claims. Equitas wanted Senate legislation that would limit its liability and paid Thompson $760,000 over the next three years. He also serves as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and in 2005 help shepherd Supreme Court chief justice John Roberts through his Senate confirmation hearings.