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HOW HE GOT HERE

Bigger Than Life

Fred Thompson, shown in 1973, served as chief minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee when he was 30 years old. Until Watergate, Thompson says, he hadn't appreciated the power of television.
Fred Thompson, shown in 1973, served as chief minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee when he was 30 years old. Until Watergate, Thompson says, he hadn't appreciated the power of television. (Bettmann/corbis)

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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Freddie Thompson hit full height in the 10th grade, some 6 feet, 5 3/4 inches. His buddies called him "Stick." He was a nice-looking kid, played football and basketball, chased girls, horsed around in class, rarely cracked a book.

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"Basically, just a carefree, underachieving kid," he says today. "Pretty good kid. Never gotten in trouble or anything like that. But didn't care much about my studies." Years ago, he put it a different way in an interview with The Washington Post: "I was interested in two things -- and sports was one of them."

He must have had something going for him, because he caught the eye of Sarah Lindsey. Freddie was smitten. She was a year older, a pretty brunette, smart, bookish and on her way to becoming salutatorian at Lawrenceburg High School in Lawrenceburg, Tenn. She planned to study English at Vanderbilt University. The Lindseys were pillars of the community, a clan that peopled the important jobs such as mayor and lawyer and county administrator. They owned a business manufacturing church pews.

The Thompsons were a rung down on the social ladder. Freddie's parents, Fletcher and Ruth, had grown up on farms during the Depression, and neither had made it beyond the eighth grade. They lived at the edge of town in a one-story house on a hillside that plunged to a creek. Fletcher sold cars for a living, on Route 43, and did it well, selling to the same folks again and again, eventually opening his own used-car lot. Freddie admired his father's manner, how he could be at ease with anybody, whether it was a guy who didn't have two nickels to rub together or the governor passing through town on a campaign stop. Fletcher Thompson was a serious man, but always good for a joke. "He saw the humor and the tragedy of life," Thompson says.

Ruth, a devout church lady, ushered her two boys to the First Street Church of Christ three times a week. "Every night, Mama put supper on the table at 6 o'clock. If Dad wasn't walking in, it would be 30 seconds before he did."

Life had structure, rules, things you could

count on.

That was the backdrop when Freddie, age 16, learned that Sarah was pregnant.

* * *

There are presidential candidates who are congenitally ambitious, having started campaigning for votes shortly after leaving the womb. There are other candidates for whom being presidential timber is a birthright, something inherited, along with a famous name and a jaw line and maybe a beachfront compound.

Then there's someone like Thompson -- a reluctant candidate, not terribly interested in stumping, slow to enter the race and so laid-back that he declines to take a wide-open shot at an opponent during a televised debate.


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