The Rise Of Jeri Thompson
Sunday, August 5, 2007
On a hot Saturday in June 2002, Fred D. Thompson married his second wife, Jeri Kehn, in an unventilated Congregational church in her home town of Naperville, Ill. Kehn, in a Valentino gown, was a 35-year-old media consultant for a Washington law firm; Thompson, a 59-year-old U.S. senator from Tennessee.
"I think he will be a calming influence, and she will be good for him," Kehn's mother, Vicki Keller, said at the time.
It was a triumphal return for Kehn, who had left Naperville for college and spent much of her 20s biding her time in Nashville without a clear career path, living with a boyfriend whose main claim to fame was getting arrested in Red Square for unfurling a pizza-parlor banner in the last days of the Cold War. Kehn left three court judgments behind her in Nashville, one of which remains unpaid today, and a court twice garnished her wages.
But after meeting Fred Thompson, Kehn began establishing herself in Washington Republican circles, and marriage more than consolidated her place in the city. Today, Jeri Thompson, 40, has emerged as a driving and at times divisive force within the presidential campaign her husband is preparing to launch, one that could make her the nation's youngest first lady since Jacqueline Kennedy.
In the nascent Thompson campaign -- anticipated with high hopes by many conservatives unsatisfied with the current crop of GOP candidates -- Jeri Thompson plays a role arguably as influential as those of two better-known spouses of Democratic candidates, Bill Clinton and Elizabeth Edwards. She helps shape her husband's conservative message and image, has been a strong voice urging him to run and recently helped instigate a shake-up that pushed aside Thompson's first campaign manager and his research director.
"They've been a team since they got married," said Victoria Toensing, a prominent Republican lawyer who got her start in Washington working for Fred Thompson three decades ago and is now friends with his wife. "Husbands and wives can be teams nowadays in politics. There are no more Bess Trumans staying home in Missouri."
It has been a remarkably swift climb to prominence, and one that gave Jeri Thompson little familiarity with the public spotlight. She married Fred Thompson shortly before he retired from the Senate to focus on his career as an actor and has stayed home raising their two young children.
The current GOP presidential field provides two examples of the political perils of a controversial spouse. In 1999, in the midst of Sen. John McCain's first presidential campaign, his wife, Cindy, addressed her previous addiction to painkillers, which eventually led her to steal drugs from her nonprofit medical group. Rudolph W. Giuliani's third wife, Judith, has endured stories about her previous marriages and her penchant for expensive shopping.
Even before her husband's campaign is official, Jeri Thompson has had her share of publicity. She has had to fend off insinuations about her age and good looks -- including a New York Times reference to her as a "trophy wife." And some advisers inside the Thompson campaign have anonymously criticized the strong hand she has taken in running it.
Campaign sources described Jeri Thompson as firm, straightforward and assured of what she wants to do, but unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of campaigning. Many decisions have been held up awaiting her approval, they say, from routine matters such as travel schedules and car manifests to weightier ones including direct-mail efforts, personnel choices and the timing of the campaign kickoff.
One person directly familiar with the campaign said Thompson was the architect of the strategy to portray her husband as the true conservative in the race. The source said Thompson works mostly from the couple's home in McLean, "running the campaign from the kitchen table." She frequently calls aides and demands answers quickly. "Everything for her is at Defcon," the source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak on behalf of the campaign.
Neither Jeri Thompson nor the Thompson campaign would comment for this story.