He Sure Can Act the Part

By Liz Garrigan
Sunday, May 20, 2007

NASHVILLE

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.

In fact, Thompson was careful during his Senate tenure to avoid projecting the kind of raging ambition that defines so many other presidential hopefuls. In 1997, he told me that he purposely avoided traveling to states such as Iowa and New Hampshire because he didn't want the chattering classes to make something of nothing, to assume that he was laying the groundwork for a 2000 presidential bid. He avoided grandstanding, made speeches that touted conviction over party loyalty and got out of the Senate when he could have won reelection in a walk, because, his confidants tell me, he became disillusioned with Congress's upper chamber and all the garbage that goes along with politics.

All of which explains why a grass-roots movement has sprung up around the 64-year-old actor. Anyone who thinks the "draft" part of the movement is somehow phony, that Thompson is fueling this all himself, has never met the man, who seems to manage the perfect calibration of laid-back and serious.

"He wasn't born and bred to be president like Al Gore," says conservative Tennessee talk show host Steve Gill, whose boosterish book, "The Fred Factor: How Fred Thompson May Change the Face of the '08 Campaign," is set for release on Friday. He was "the kind of kid who had a lot of talent and no ambition."

But everybody loves an up-by-the-bootstraps story.

Rep. Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Nashville who lost to Thompson in the '94 Senate race -- despite being ahead by 20 percentage points nine months before the election and despite an enviable political bio that includes Rhodes scholar, six-term congressman and son of a former Tennessee governor -- thinks that Thompson's early reputation as an Everyman is "endearing" to Tennesseans. That's especially considering that Thompson went on to redeem himself by earning a scholarship to Vanderbilt University Law School and winning a plum role in the Watergate investigation by virtue of his association with Tennessee Republican Sen. Howard Baker.

"Boy Scouts are too boring to get elected," Cooper quips good-naturedly. "Tell me, I know. I'm an Eagle Scout."

Gill, whose book argues that Thompson is the only candidate who could beat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, predicts an announcement in June or July and says that Thompson is "moving toward" making the run. Thompson's recent announcement that he has lymphoma and is in remission is strong evidence that he's trying to head off any concerns about his health. "I don't think it's foregone. I think it's still just making the decision and engaging the prospect of whether he can win," Gill says.

Should Thompson announce, his general-election advantage is that he's not divisive. He doesn't evoke the kind of vitriolic hate that many other conservatives inspire. He's the kind of guy who could broker peace between Donald Trump and Rosie O'Donnell, someone who would bring red-state and blue-state America together.

Moreover, Thompson wouldn't be tarred with the Iraq war, and his many film and TV credits would buy him enough recognition to mitigate the fundraising disadvantage he would start with.

Of course, first he'd have to get through the primary. And as Cooper points out, that's the tough part: "He comes from the Howard Baker tradition, which is so moderate that they have had a tough time getting elected." And the rap on Thompson is that he's lazy, that he never worked as hard as his colleagues in the Senate. Even some of his supporters concede that's true. But what he lacks in that respect, even some Democrats say, he makes up for with his people-pleasing ability -- the Reagan factor -- and almost Clintonesque communication skills.

A case in point about Thompson's undeniable allure: At an April 18 gathering of about 60 members of Congress, organized by Rep. Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republican, Thompson was asked about his dating history during the nearly two decades between his two marriages. In response, the one-time beau of country music singer Lorrie Morgan offered an honest assessment of his romantic history. "I was single for a long time, and, yep, I chased a lot of women," he said. "And a lot of women chased me. And those that chased me tended to catch me."

It was vintage Thompson, and there's more where that came from.

Shortly after I wrote in 2000 that Thompson bears a striking resemblance to the Klingon "Star Trek" character Worf -- high forehead, wide nose and a hairline that exposes a bald top (Google it) -- a package from the then-unmarried senator arrived in the mail. It was a picture of Worf that Thompson had signed with this message: "In the immortal words of Sawyer Brown, some girls don't like boys like me. Ah, but some girls do."

You'd never catch Al Gore or Bill Frist quoting Sawyer Brown.

LGarrigan@nashvillescene.com

Liz Garrigan is editor of the Nashville Scene,

an alternative newsweekly.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company