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Bigger Than Life

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.

"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.

But the folks in Lawrenceburg bristle when they hear Thompson described as a lazybones. No one gets out of a small town like that by whistlin' "Dixie."

The record shows that, particularly as a younger man, Thompson, now 65, was driven, pretty much a workaholic and in a very literal sense opportunistic. People saw things in Fred Dalton Thompson -- he dropped "Freddie" after law school -- that he may not have seen in himself. They offered him chances, and he jumped.

Thompson fit an archetype: the solid guy. He isn't charismatic in a traditional sense. He has no flash, no dazzle. His charisma is physical: He fills up a room.

Young Freddie developed into a big man, with a deep, aged-bourbon voice that other men would kill for, plus a face that looked older than its years, interesting and fleshy, with all kinds of creases, furrows, jowls and a bulldog mouth.

He became a formidable presence, someone who could win a lot of battles just by showing up. Identity is a collaboration between actor and audience, and Thompson always benefited from the way others responded to him. People cast Thompson in roles; his job was to hit the mark.

Lucky, some have called him, but he also leveraged his good luck to maximum effect. "He definitely took advantage of every opportunity offered him," says his childhood friend Jan Clifton.

Even the worst jam of his life -- when his sweetheart Sarah came to him with that startling news -- turned out to be fortuitous.

"We were upset about it," says Ed Lindsey, Sarah's uncle. "The whole family was. It was quite a shock to us because Sarah was a very fine person, and still is." He says Sarah's father, Oscar, was "dumbfounded" by the situation.

The family sat down at the dinner table of the patriarch, W.H. "Bid" Lindsey Sr., to figure out what to do. Sarah Lindsey declined to give an interview, but her brother, Oscar Lindsey III, says he recently discussed the matter with her and she recounted what happened. Everyone in the room expressed an opinion about how to handle this calamity. Finally, the patriarch asked Sarah to speak.

She thanked everyone for their thoughts. And then she said, "But I intend to marry Freddie Thompson."

"We more or less embraced Fred," Ed Lindsey recalls. "We said: Okay, you're part of the family now. We'll take you in -- no questions asked. But we expect something in return."

Thompson didn't want to discuss the reasons for his early marriage, but he acknowledges that he had to grow up quick. Of his own parents, he says, "I'm sure they were upset." His father didn't offer advice, but treated him differently -- more like a man. A couple of weeks after he turned 17, he and Sarah wed at the Lindseys' church, Coleman Methodist.

"One of the things I wanted to make sure of is that I didn't want to disappoint anybody, and I could show the doubters and my old high school classmates that I could measure up. . . . I immediately buckled down and tried to make up for what I lost in high school."

That was his hamster-wheel period, when he was husband and father while still in the 12th grade, living with his in-laws, working nights and weekends. After finishing high school, he followed Sarah to Florence State, in northern Alabama.

His ambitions were modest: Maybe he'd be a coach someday. But his wife -- who would go on to become a college English professor -- broadened his horizons. Perhaps he could become a lawyer like some of those Lindsey folks, he decided. After briefly dropping out of Florence State and working odd jobs, he enrolled at Memphis State, majoring in political science and philosophy. Vanderbilt Law School saw enough promise to offer him a scholarship.

After he passed the bar exam, he was back in Lawrenceburg, right off the village square, handling small-claims cases as a partner at a law firm with Sarah's uncle. "That's all I had ever wanted to do, is come back and practice law in my small town," he says.

But the place couldn't hold him.

* * *

Thompson started the first Young Republicans chapter in Lawrence County just as the South was switching from Democratic to Republican. He rode the wave.

A job opened in Nashville for an assistant U.S. attorney; thanks to his Republican connections he was transformed again, into a federal prosecutor, nailing moonshiners and bank robbers. He won every bank-robbery case but one (a bad guy whose name he can tell you instantly to this day).

When Howard Baker, a Republican senator from Tennessee, ran for reelection, he asked Thompson to help manage his campaign. The two spent many hours on the stump, and Baker came to trust the young lawyer. After Baker's victory, he approached Thompson with an idea. The Senate, he said, was forming a committee to look into this Watergate business. He needed someone to be the minority counsel on the committee. "I wanted somebody I trusted rather than a legal luminary," Baker explains.

Thompson leaped, as always.

His three kids were in grade school; they stayed with Sarah in Nashville. Thompson flew away, and into a maelstrom.

He found himself at a little table in the corner of a crowded Senate staff room, forced to move his chair every time someone went to the restroom. He worked long hours, ate late dinners at the Monocle or the Carroll Arms, and stayed in a small apartment with two other staff members, hurling paperbacks across the room to get his friend Howard Liebengood to stop snoring. He sometimes returned home for the weekend to see his family.

"It didn't start out being that big a deal," he says. "It grew. And then you go out and then everybody on the street is talking about it, and you realize this thing you've been working on for several weeks has grown enormous."

President Richard M. Nixon cursed when he learned that Baker had hired "that kid" from Tennessee. Baker reassured Nixon, "He's tough. He's 6 feet 5 inches, a big mean fella." But months later, Nixon was still cursing when Thompson's name came up. "He's dumb as hell," he growled. "Fred Thompson. Who is he?"

Scott Armstrong, a Democratic staff member, thinks Baker intentionally hired someone who didn't know the ins and outs of Washington. "He was a retriever. Baker would throw the stick and he'd come back with it," he says. "He's an actor. He plays roles. When Baker wasn't around, he was at sea. No one was writing the script for him."

Baker argues otherwise: "We were all in over our heads, as it turns out. But one of the things I liked about Fred then . . . is that he wasn't overwhelmed by it."

In Armstrong's view, Thompson and Baker were working with the White House to shape its defense -- "trying to put the fix in for Nixon."

Thompson calls that "absurd" and says his contacts with Nixon's aides were appropriate, a view shared today by several Democratic staffers who recall Thompson fondly. "The White House trusted nobody. I don't think they even trusted Fred or Senator Baker," says Rufus Edmisten, a Democratic staffer. Terry Lenzner, another Democratic staffer, grew to recognize Thompson as "a solid guy and a good thinker" and says: "By the end of the investigation I had complete trust in him."

Thompson would eventually write a book about Watergate, "At That Point in Time," in which he acknowledged his reluctance to face Nixon's culpability in Watergate: He wrote that he was subconsciously looking for "a reason to believe that Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States, was not a crook."

Until Watergate, Thompson hadn't appreciated the power of television. "Even I, with my trial lawyer's egotism, was taken aback one night when Sarah and I walked into a restaurant and several young couples broke into applause," he wrote.

Alexander Butterfield, a former White House aide, told Senate investigators behind closed doors that Nixon had installed a secret taping system in the White House. Thompson wasn't in the room for the revelation, but he was allowed to ask the key question when Butterfield testified on national television: "Are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?"

Edmisten remembers one day, after the secret tapes revealed Nixon's involvement in the coverup, when someone said to Thompson, "Fred, it looks like your man's gone."

"Fred didn't answer . . .," Edmisten says. "He just had this pained look and sort of shook his head and walked on."

* * *

After Nixon resigned in 1974, Thompson moved back to Nashville and started a lucrative private law practice. In 1977, he was hired by Marie Ragghianti, who had been fired after blowing the whistle on corruption in the Tennessee parole system, to represent her in a lawsuit against Gov. Ray Blanton. She recalls Thompson's effect on her antagonists: "When I walked in with Fred, they were visibly intimidated. I never felt so secure in my life."

Peter Maas wrote a book, "Marie," about her case. When director Roger Donaldson decided to make the story into a movie, he asked Thompson if he'd audition for a part.

"I assumed it would be maybe a one-word walk-on or something like that," Thompson says. When he saw the script, he couldn't believe his eyes: The part he was reading for was "Fred Thompson."

He got the job. There was one catch, a producer told him: They needed to figure out the financial arrangement.

"How does $25,000 sound?" the producer asked.

"Well, it sounds okay, but it will take me a little while to raise the money," Thompson joked.

When the movie came out, it said right there in the opening credits, "And Fred Thompson as Himself." Sure enough, when Sissy Spacek (as Ragghianti) gets thrown in jail, there's Fred Thompson Himself, wearing a white cowboy hat, riding to the rescue.

Critics called him a natural actor. Paul Attanasio wrote in The Post: "A big man with a booming voice and a noble rock of forehead, Thompson has a way of curling his lips and eyebrows into a look of supercilious contempt that will make you howl."

Movie producers started dialing his number whenever they needed an authority figure who knew how to smoke and cuss and bark orders. His Southern drawl was perfect for lines such as "I imagine you'll tell me what all the hubbub's about" ("The Hunt for Red October") and "Stack 'em, back 'em and rack 'em. Move!" ("Die Hard 2"). Thompson played, among other roles, a Navy admiral, a White House chief of staff, a CIA director and a president of the United States (thrice). Most recently, he has been a district attorney on the hit TV series "Law & Order."

Dick Wolf, the show's producer, calls Thompson "the living definition of command presence."

Thompson says his favorite role was in "Red October": "Got to shoot on the USS Enterprise. And I played a solid guy. I played a military guy. Had military guys tell me over the years that they had officers just like that and I nailed it."

His younger brother, Ken, says that after Fred became famous, "it was a little bit like walking around with Elvis."

Thompson insists he's not aware of how he fills up a room, all that alpha-male stuff that people always mention. "I'm not cognizant of it to this day," he says. Asked to describe himself, he says, "I have an inner peace, and an inner confidence."

He has made some mistakes, had some failures. Sometimes he sounds a note of regret, acknowledging that he hasn't always lived up to his personal standards. He and Sarah divorced just before his first movie came out. During his eight years in the U.S. Senate, he was anything but lazy as a ladies' man, dating a long list of eligible women before marrying his second wife, Jeri Kehn, in 2002.

He has also known great pain: In 2002 he lost his daughter Betsy to an accidental overdose of medication, and in his heartbreak he quit public life. But he also knows how fortunate he has been. How things usually broke his way.

"The lesson you learn in life," he says, "is that the smallest decisions can lead to doors opening in your life that you never could imagine."

* * *

After he announced his bid for the presidency, Fred Thompson returned to Lawrenceburg. About 10,000 people thronged the village square to see the local boy in a suit and tie, thinner than he used to be, talking without notes and pacing the full length of the makeshift stage.

He was just a few steps from where his grandfather had run a little cafe; he could see the spot where he'd been a country lawyer fresh out of school, and the location of the old courthouse, where he'd tried his first case even as buckets were catching the leaks from the ceiling. "The best daddy a boy ever had, and a wonderful daughter, are laid to rest here, in my home," he said.

He thanked his mother, his brother, his sons. He thanked the Lindseys. He thanked Sarah. He'd been blessed, he said.

"I want to tell my former teachers I'm just as surprised to be here as you are to see me up here tonight," he said, and he grinned as the square filled with laughter.

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