THE FRED FACTOR
He Sure Can Act the Part
Like voters everywhere, we Tennesseans want our politicians to be part professor, part John Wayne. But the top-tier candidates in the GOP field so far -- John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney -- somehow lack that magic merger of smarts and swagger, which is probably why nearly half of Republican voters say they're still waiting for the right candidate. Well, their John Wayne is standing just outside the corral.
He is Fred Dalton Thompson, and while he's no admiral, he has played one in the movies. The former senator is also the third man from our humble horizontal Southern state to be touted as presidential material in the past year, after former Senate majority leader Bill Frist and former vice president Al Gore. Thompson has yet to raise a nickel -- or a presidential posse -- but grass-roots Republicans from the East Coast to the West already see the man with the low drawl and the towering stature as their political savior. But is he?
It wouldn't be the first time a B-list actor united the country. In fact, part of what this former ladies' man has going for him is widespread Ronald Reagan nostalgia. That, and he's a refreshing contrast to the calculating likes of Gore and even Frist: He's a guy with a Senate legacy of bipartisanship and even-handedness. (When he led the Senate investigation into 1996 campaign-finance irregularities, he targeted not just the Clinton-Gore White House but Republicans, too.)
And he knows how to play the political game. At the start of his Senate race in 1994, Thompson was a high-dollar Washington lawyer and lobbyist who drove a Lincoln Continental, lived in a condo and wore dark suits and ties to even the most folksy barbecue-and-beans Tennessee campaign appearances. But nobody -- nobody with an echo, anyway -- accused him of being phony when he eventually decided to prop up his flailing bid with, well, props: a getup of jeans and work shirt and some down-home locomotion in the form of a used cherry-red Chevy pickup truck that he drove across the state and featured in television ads to transform his campaign.
All of which makes him some combination of brilliant and lucky as hell.
But there's more to it than that. Unlike his Democratic native-son counterpart Gore, who was picked apart like so much Tennessee roadkill in 2000 for his campaign-consultant-directed wardrobe transformation from dark suits to warmer tones, Thompson was rewarded for his makeover from slick silk-stocking lawyer to accomplished hayseed. In 1996, when he won election to his first full term, more Tennesseans voted for Thompson than for any other politician in state history.
Thompson never came off looking like a cardboard cutout -- the way Gore did as a presidential candidate -- because there was a kernel of truth to the image. Who could imagine a teenage Gore driving a pickup along Massachusetts Avenue on his way to the privileged academic bastion of St. Albans? But young Freddie Thompson probably did kick back in a Chevy, drinking a beer with his buds, after a Lawrence County High School football game. As Tennessee columnist Frank Cagle once put it, Thompson fit that truck in a way that Michael Dukakis never fit the tank.
Course, Thompson also tends to catch some slack because, at 6 feet 6 inches and with a charm and sense of humor that can crack even the most tightly clenched among us, he's someone men want to be and women want to be with. He's the John Wayne to Gore's professor. Gore was the prep-school son of a U.S. senator from Carthage, Tenn., spending most of his formative years not in the green hills of the Volunteer State but in the monument-dotted confines of Washington. Thompson was the son of a used-car salesman from Lawrenceburg, Tenn., who, like Thompson's mother, never graduated from high school.
Gore was always destined for the academic stratosphere, attending Harvard after his private-school grooming. Thompson was such a class clown and scholastic underachiever at Lawrence County High that a group of teachers got together to protest his being named "Most Athletic" by his classmates because they didn't want to reward the kid for being a goof-off.
You get the picture. Thompson's upbringing and early résumé didn't foreshadow someone who might one day be drafted to lead the free world.