Fred Dalton Thompson: Prosecutor, Actor, Politician

Fred Dalton Thompson
Image courtesy of Republican National Committee

Fred Dalton Thompson: Prosecutor, Actor, Politician

| published November 3, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

His vocal chords were among the most distinctive and recognizable in Hollywood, and in American politics. At least one famous Presidential candidate joked “If I had his tonsils, I would be President right now.”

The deep, golden drawl of Fred Dalton Thompson will be heard no more, save for the reruns of the popular television shows in which he starred, and the scores of classic movies in which he performed, often in the role of a military commander or a top politician. In his real life, Fred Thompson had been a gifted attorney and prosecutor, a counselor for the Watergate Committee, a writer and columnist, and a member of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations.

Thompson, who served as a U.S. Senator from Tennessee, starred in TV shows such as “Law & Order,” and ran for President himself in 2008, died in Nashville, Tennessee this weekend at the age of 73. Thompson passed away after a second occurrence of lymphoma, his first bout with cancer coming in 2004.

Thompson was born in Sheffield, Alabama in 1942, a stone’s throw north of Muscle Shoals and a few blocks from the Tennessee River. But Thompson grew up just across the river in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. Those who knew him say that his childhood experiences in both small towns, and in the largely rural areas surrounding Lawrenceburg, helped shape his politics and his sense of fair play and plain talk. Though his height gave him a natural advantage in sports, in school, Thompson’s academic efforts ranged from fair-to-middling to just plain lacking. That is, until, right after marrying his 17-year-old high school sweetheart, when his new father-in-law handed him a paperback copy of Clarence Darrow’s autobiography. The book changed his life, and the young Thompson decided right then that he wanted to be a lawyer.

Thompson later became one of the first people in his family to attend college. At what was then called Memphis State College—now University of Memphis—Thompson completed his double major work in Political Science and Philosophy. Later, with scholarships based on his high academic standing, he attended law school at Vanderbilt University.

After law school, he went to work as a U.S. Attorney and prosecutor, where he demonstrated enough legal skill and savvy that he caught the attention of Tennessee Senator Howard Baker. Thompson became campaign manager for Baker’s re-election campaign in 1972, and later went to work on Baker’s staff. That job led Thompson to his first high-profile political assignment, and his first big role in front of TV cameras: lead minority counsel to the U.S. Senate Watergate Committee, headed by Senator Sam Irvin, which convened in 1973 and completed its work 18 months later, in late 1974.

  Image courtesy Wikipedia

According to press lore and Senate legend, Thompson was the committee member who crafted the basic operating principle of those now infamous hearings: what did the President know, and when did he know it? Thompson may have formed the words and the phrase, but it was Baker who first specifically asked, and it was that question and credo which became the central concern of both Senate Democrats and Republicans investigating Watergate at the time.

Thompson, a Republican, was ironically vilified by both sides at various times during the Watergate hearings: Democrats suspected him of being a mole of the White House and a hostile interrogator of witnesses who might damage the reputations of President Nixon and his inner circle; some Republicans were initially wary of Thompson, suspecting him of being a hack for the moderate Baker, and worried he was a lightweight who would cave in too easily to pressure from the senior Democrats on the committee. Alexander Haig once remarked that Thompson was “dumber than hell.”

In truth, Thompson was a cagey, pragmatic and calculating interrogator who played it straight, down-the-middle, and always with a common-sense approach to the proceedings. His homespun manner often concealed what was arguably one of the sharpest legal minds in the room.

It was Thompson, in fact, who asked what was arguably the most famous question of those Senate hearings, prompting a stunning disclosure made by White House aid Alexander Butterfield on live TV on July 16, 1973.

“Mr. Butterfield,” Thompson asked in his gruff, downhome drawl, “were you aware of the existence of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the President?” Like most skilled attorneys, Thompson already knew the answer. Butterfield indeed acknowledged the existence of the taping system and its many hidden microphones, and the rest—as they say—is history. The revelation that President Nixon had been secretly taping his conversations with staff members Bob Haldeman, John Erlichman, John Dean, Charles Colson, John Mitchell, and others, was—to put it mildly—explosive. Transcripts of those tapes, released only after a protracted legal battle and on the cliff’s edge of a near-constitutional crisis, proved to be the pivotal moment in the Watergate scandal, and the evidence found in a few of those tapes ultimately forced the resignation of Richard Nixon.

So, in an ironic bit of historical trivia, Thompson not only authored what became the central investigative thesis of the Watergate Committee at its very start—a framework behind which, if the question had remained unanswered, may have shielded Nixon from further scandal—but he also introduced the question which shifted the tide of the hearings, ultimately cracking the Nixon administration’s stone wall.

After Watergate, Thompson worked as a prosecutor, then, later as a defense attorney, and still later as a lobbyist in Washington. Among the corporations or groups Thompson lobbied for: the Teamsters’ Central States Pension Fund; Westinghouse and several of its subsidiaries; cable TV companies; and Equitas Ltd, a British company which was hit by heavy legal action as a result of asbestos.

Contrary to what many people think, Thompson’s career as an actor precedes his career as a politician. Thompson first acted in the role of himself in a short film Marie, about the legal case of Marie Ragghianti, in which Thompson had played a role some years earlier. Thompson did so well in that Roger Donaldson directed film, that it immediately landed him requests for other roles—including the political thriller No Way Out, also directed by Donaldson, which starred Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman and Sean Young. That role—as CIA director Marshall—established Thompson’s bona fides as an actor almost universally understood to be an authority figure.

Two years later he landed a similar part, as Admiral Joshua Painter in the Tom Clancy adventure thriller The Hunt For Red October. This may have been Thompson’s most defining role, one in which his formidable acting skills aligned neatly with his stage gravitas to establish a powerful screen presence—and it did no harm to his reputation as a no-nonsense, plain-talking pragmatist, skills which would work to his advantage not only in his frequent TV and film roles, but also when he ran for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee in 1994.

Standing straight, Thompson was six feet five inches in height, with a rich, golden voice regarded by many as the very tone of authority. Not since Ronald Reagan has politics had such a deeply Middle American sound in someone with Hollywood talent and political chops. Thompson served in the U.S. Senate from 1994 to 2004. He was first elected to the Senate to fill the unexpired term of Al Gore, who was then vice-President to Bill Clinton. During the election of 2000, Thompson was on the short list of possible running mates for George W. Bush, but lost out to Dick Cheney in the final cut.

In the steady run-up to the Presidential election of 2008—in the wake of the pending retirement of then-President George W. Bush, and in advance of what was largely assumed to be an election pitting Hillary Clinton against the Bush legacy—Thompson’s name was floated as a possible successor to the legacy of Ronald Reagan. When John McCain’s campaign hit rock bottom, and as Republicans began to feverishly look elsewhere for their Gipper-like hero amongst a crowded field which included Rudy Guiliani, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Duncan Hunter, and Ron Paul, it was Thompson most frequently cited by some observers as the candidate with the moxie and gravitas to not only share the debate stage with Hillary Clinton, but best her as well. With McCain stuck in single digits, and the rest of the GOP field relatively flat (Romney was burnishing his record as the true fiscal conservative of the bunch) talk of Thompson reached a fever pitch that summer, culminating with his face on the cover of Newsweek and Time.

But shortly after Thompson’s campaign began to roll, it was already showing signs of a stall. Thompson performed well in early debates, and also scored well in focus groups monitoring the debate in real time. His answers to questions regarding border control, immigration, fiscal policy, military posture, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the European economy were all robust and well-received by conservatives and Republicans. But inexplicably, his poll numbers remained static, and his campaign never seemed to catch fire. Some insiders of his early campaign operation said part of the problem was that Thompson lacked the fire-in-the-belly required to run for President, a grueling process which requires maintaining a withering schedule, and offers little room for downtime.

Thompson’s candidacy, like those of Giuliani and others, faded after poor showings in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. By then, McCain had become the comeback kid, essentially securing his nomination by the end of the day on Super Tuesday.

Thompson frequently used his deep reservoir of talent and likeability to serve Republican causes and projects, and was recruited to do voice-over work for several films and recorded video presentations used during the Republican National Conventions of 2004 and 2008.

Among Thompson’s acting roles: five years on NBC’s popular and Emmy-winning “Law & Order” television series, portraying a New York District Attorney named Arthur Branch, whose tough, non-nonsense, sometimes brusque style made him a huge hit with the show’s many fans. He also starred in scores of movies, including Days of Thunder (with Tom Cruise), Die Hard 2 (with Bruce Willis), Fat Man & Little Boy (with Paul Newman), Cape Fear (with Nick Nolte and Robert Di Niro), and In the Line of Fire (with Clint Eastwood).

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Hamlet's Passing: Mario Cuomo, Rest in Peace; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 2, 2015.

Going the Distance: Steve Byrnes, Rest in Peace; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; April 26, 2015.