Thompson's Top Adviser

By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, August 2, 2007

Speaking at his $1,000-a-ticket fundraiser at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in downtown Washington on Monday night, Fred Thompson began by introducing "my campaign manager -- oh, I mean my wife." That little joke about Jeri Thompson reveals how the prospective Republican presidential candidate regards the attack on his intelligent, beautiful wife.

As the actor-lawyer-politician nears his long-awaited official announcement, Mrs. Thompson is slurred as a "trophy wife" -- privately by her husband's opponents for the Republican nomination and publicly by the media. Even Thompson supporters grumble that Jeri, 40, is too alluring, that she should modify the way she dresses and that, even then, she should not practice her skills as a professional political operative on behalf of her 64-year-old husband.

That Thompson made light of this at his fundraiser reflects the cool reaction to crises he has displayed as GOP counsel for the Watergate investigation, as U.S. senator from Tennessee and in many dramatic roles (most recently, district attorney of Manhattan). That he is in a commanding position for the nomination may explain the extraordinary attention paid to his wife.

Murmuring about Jeri Thompson hit a peak July 22 on "Fox News Sunday," when the program's roundtable engaged in whimsical contemplation of debate between spouses of Democratic presidential candidates. "Well, first," said Juan Williams of National Public Radio, ". . . I think you should get Jeri Thompson in here, the trophy wife, right?" William Kristol of the Weekly Standard interjected: "That's unfair." Williams: "Unfair, unfair, I know, but --" Kristol: "It is unfair."

That ended the discussion. I asked Williams, a respected journalist, whether he regretted the comment. He did not, but he explained that he got the idea from a July 8 New York Times article by Susan Saulny. "Is America ready for a president with a trophy wife?" she asked in the paper's Style section. "Subsequent to that," Williams told me, "I heard the same thing in conversation with people in other campaigns -- about her being so young, so attractive and so powerful."

The archetypal "trophy wife" (a phrase coined by Fortune magazine 18 years ago) conjures up the image of a rich corporate executive who tires of the woman he married when they both were young, whom he has grown old with, and turns to a young, chic new wife, usually seen as a home wrecker. Mrs. Thompson does not fit that mold. Thompson had been divorced for 17 years and was on friendly terms with his first wife when he married Jeri Kehn in 2002. They also have two small children -- not the trophy wife caricature either.

Nor does Jeri Thompson's background fit the caricature. After working for the Senate Republican Conference and the Republican National Committee, she became a big-time political media consultant in Washington. She has been intimately involved in the planning of her husband's campaign, including last week's staff shakeup. When Tom Collamore left as Thompson's campaign manager, he told CNN that he was "very respectful of the desire of Fred and Jeri to make some changes as they move to the next level." Those comments generated whispers in the political community that whoever ran this campaign would have to answer to the candidate's wife.

Actually, Collamore is a former bureaucrat and tobacco lobbyist with vastly less political experience than Mrs. Thompson has. Not even Collamore's friends could conceive of him running a national campaign. Indeed, Fred Thompson's close associates maintain that there was no chance he would be a candidate for president were he not married to Jeri. He tells friends that he abandoned what seemed to be a promising campaign for the 1996 nomination because he did not feel he could manage that endeavor as a single man.

The spectacle of Thompson's Republican adversaries demeaning his wife in conversations with journalists suggests how seriously they regard his prospective candidacy. He starts his campaign in the top tier of candidates and is already the candidate of the South and the favorite of social conservatives. His test is how he will do after Labor Day when his candidacy's phantom stage is over. Jeri Thompson will be at his side as an asset, not a liability.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company