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The Front-Runners: Fred Thompson

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Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 12, 2007; 12:00 PM

"There are presidential candidates who are congenitally ambitious, having started campaigning for votes shortly after leaving the womb. ... Then there's someone like Thompson -- a reluctant candidate, not terribly interested in stumping, slow to enter the race, so laid back that he declines to take the wide-open shot at an opponent during a televised debate ... not running for president so much as amblin' for it. But the folks in Lawrenceburg bristle when they hear people describe Thompson as a lazybones. No one gets out of a small town like Lawrenceburg by whistlin' Dixie. The record shows that, particularly as a younger man, Thompson was driven, pretty much a workaholic, and in a very literal sense opportunistic. People saw things in him that he might not have seen in himself. They offered him chances, and he jumped."

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Washington Post writer Joel Achenbach was online Wednesday, Dec. 12 at noon ET to discuss his article exploring Fred Thompson, his relationship with his father, and his campaign for the presidency.

The transcript follows.

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Joel Achenbach: Hi everyone! I hope you had a chance to read the Thompson story today. I'll pause and put on some Muzak to let those of you just now joining us check out the fabulous prose and even more breathtaking archival photos, the fun sidebars, the graphics, the whole package of good stuff generated by our hard-working if not always fully appreciated newsroom.

[Muzak version of "Dazed and Confused"...]

Also check in at the Achenblog later, I'll post some additional Thompson material.

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newagent99: Er, nice-looking? Did you guy's get paid to say that? Eeeek.

Joel Achenbach: Dear newagent99: Did you look at the pic of the kid in high school? Why don't you go look now and get back to me. Compared to what I looked like in high school, he was Cary Grant.

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Knoxville, Tenn.: What is the Thompson strategy to winning the nomination?

Joel Achenbach: My piece was a biography focusing mostly on his earlier years, and I didn't look at his current campaign strategy, if, in fact, there is such a thing. My impression is that his is a highly unusual campaign that doesn't involve a lot of actual "campaigning" or that old-fashioned meet-the-voters stuff that perhaps is too 20th century for his strategists. But FYI, if you read the sidebar by Mike Shear you will learn more about his campaign.

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Arlington, Va.: Thompson is the strongest candidate for the ultraconservative voters in this upcoming election, yet arguably, what the country needs at current is a moderate in office, someone to reunite the warring Republicans and Democrats and have the country working together again, instead of divided in two. If he were elected president, what would he do to close the divide between the conservative and liberal people in Washington and in the United States as a whole? How would he address the problems of mediating differences and having this country work together for a better future -- a better future that a vast majority of people would agree with and support?

Joel Achenbach: That's a good question. I can't speak for what he would do. My brief examination of his Senate record indicates that he was viewed as more of a moderate than a strict conservative. Helen Dewar, our beat reporter back then, described him as a moderate when he announced that he was quitting. Of course it's all relative (anyone is moderate compared to Jesse Helms, for example). As for bringing people together, he does seem to have had an ability to make friends on both sides of the aisle and is not by nature a particularly alienating, fiery, crusading type who steps on toes and throws a sharp elbow. He's very laid back.

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HelenDAO1: Bigger than life? Physically, yeah. But Fred still has to prove that he's not just another empty suit.

Joel Achenbach: His campaign has been one of the more puzzling presidential runs in recent memory. The early hype was huge, but then he didn't electrify anyone when he spoke, and waited for months to announce, and can go an entire week without a single stump speech.

Empty suit? He can sometimes give that impression, perhaps, with his vague answers. But when he was a younger guy in particular he was known as very detail-oriented, someone who would read an entire case file down to the last memo before going to trial, and by and large was considered by peers (including Democrats) to be a very intelligent guy. I heard that from many people, some of whom were not his allies.

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Charlestown, N.H.: What is Thompson most concerned about?

Joel Achenbach: My impression is that he and his backers felt that there wasn't a "true conservative" in the race. There was an opening. He was cast as the "Reagan conservative." But although he clearly has some ideological beliefs (he believes in federalism, is anti-tax, anti-abortion -- now more than a decade or so ago -- and wants to stay the course in Iraq) his major push so far on the campaign trail has been for a partial privatization of social security.

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washingtonpost.com: You write that Thompson started one of the first Young Republican groups in the area where he grew up, which had been strongly Democratic for a long time. What drew him to the Republican Party?

Joel Achenbach: His wife's family. The Lindseys were a rarity in Tennessee -- they were Republicans, and had been for many years. Thompson grew up in a Democratic family. But remember, this was a time when the South was switching over in large measure because of a reaction to civil rights. Thompson's standard bio says that at Memphis State he began reading things like "The Conscience of a Conservative," and pretty early on he decided to go GOP. It was fortuitous, because when Nixon took office -- and with Baker a Republican representing Tennessee -- Thompson was one of the few GOPers around and quickly was snapped up and propelled to more important roles, such as minority counsel on the Senate Watergate committee.

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Washington: How is his campaign spinning Thompson's marital history for family values voters?

Joel Achenbach: I don't think it has been much of an issue -- no spinning necessary. It's all part of the record, and he addressed directly his tenure as a D.C. ladies' man when he met with GOP senators earlier this year. Someone asked him about his Hollywood Fred (bachelor) phase and he said sometimes he chased women and sometimes women chased him and when they chased him they tended to catch him.

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washingtonpost.com: It's been written that Thompson leaked the Senate Watergate Committee's knowledge of the Nixon tapes back to the White House. Did Thompson or any of your other sources have anything to say about that?

Joel Achenbach: Thompson defended to me his contacts with the White House and said that was what any lawyer in his position would have done. Three Democrats on the committee said the same thing to me. Scott Armstrong has a much harsher verdict on it and says Thompson and Baker were engineering Nixon's defense. Yesterday I looked at the transcripts of the Nixon tapes and it's clear that Nixon disliked Thompson and viewed him as "dumb as hell." Toward the end of the summer, there was some chatter about Thompson "feeling more like a Republican every day" or something to that effect (I'll try to post in on the Achenblog later). Thompson told me he felt the entire time that he was walking a tightrope. In his 1984 interview with The Post's Myra McPherson he said he wished he had been more partisan.

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Seattle: I'm sorry, but from everything I've seen and read, Thompson seems like he'd rather be fishing. How much of it is that he really was testing the waters on a run and got swept up, because most politicians who say that they are "testing the waters" really mean that they are running?

Joel Achenbach: Maybe that's where he's been: fishing. No "rather be" about it! I think early this year when the GOP was shaping up, Thompson and his wife and their friends saw a major gap for a serious no-squishiness conservative and thought he could just step into it.

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Seattle: Assuming he does as well in Iowa as he's been polling -- around fourth or fifth place tops -- does he drop then, or wait around for South Carolina?

Joel Achenbach: The Milbank piece made it sound as though he's really bringing out the "Ol' Fred" routine for South Carolina, leaving the well-heeled lawyer/lobbyist far behind. So he could do well in South Carolina and probably essentially will skip New Hampshire (he won't even visit until after Iowa). They always say that there's only three tickets out of Iowa but this year that might not be true for the GOP. I could imagine five tickets out. (Spot the idle speculation...)

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Seattle: I may have missed it but has he responded to the Nixon tapes where he was called a dupe and an idiot by then-President Nixon?

Joel Achenbach: When I spoke to him he kind of laughed about it. I got the impression he considers the fact that Nixon spoke so poorly of him as a badge of honor -- you know, indicating that he wasn't a stooge for the Nixon White House.

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Ottawa, Ontario: If he gets to be a real contender, how do you think the social conservatives will react to his two marriages and, um, multiple relationships between the marriages?

Joel Achenbach: I don't know. He hasn't held himself up as perfect. To Katie Couric he said he regretted during his single years not upholding some of his personal standards. But I can't read the minds of social conservatives.

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Charlotte, N.C.: But he's not "dumb as hell," is he? Just not the best organized/most vocal Republican candidate?

Joel Achenbach: No, he's not dumb. He's smart. Southern folks (and I am from the South even though the accent was beaten out of me through the years) often are mistaken for being dumb because of their accents. Whether he's got much fire in the belly, well that's another matter.

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San Francisco: If Thompson ever returns to a leadership position in the polls, will the press more carefully examine his role as a Nixon White House mole during Watergate? Doesn't passing information regularly from a Senate Committee to the subjects of the investigation violate legal ethical canons, as well as open him up to charges of untrustworthiness and, well, being a stooge of Nixon's? Does the GOP really want to fight the Watergate battles again?

Joel Achenbach: See my previous answer on this. I think it definitely would cause a lot of discussion -- but there already have been prominent press reports on this and I didn't get the impression that Thompson was damaged by it. Keep in mind, he was speaking to the White House counsel's office (Fred Buzhardt, I believe) and not to Nixon. He and others say that's business as usual. I don't know if that's true or if and to what degree it violates the rules. It definitely is a murky area for him -- because there was coaching by the White House counsel on what to ask witnesses.

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Virginia Beach, Va.: Did you spend any time with Thompson himself?

Joel Achenbach: I talked to Thompson three times by phone, but not in person.

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New York: Thompson came to the Senate from lobbying, having become as crony a D.C. insider as there was some time before. I missed this in your story -- did you run out of hard drive space?

Joel Achenbach: Yes the computer went on the fritz.

We focused on three turning points: early marriage, Watergate and the start of his acting career. If you read my piece you'll see we skip over not only his lobbying but also his Senate career (though there's a very short sidebar that talks about the Senate). This was not meant to be (nor could I have produced in the time allowed) the full Thompson biography.

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Norfolk, Va.: How much time did you spend with Thompson? Did you get the impression that he'll be just fine if he doesn't get the nomination?

Joel Achenbach: He doesn't seem ever to have had the inner craving to be president that you usually see in (successful) presidential candidates. I always thought you had to really want it, bad. The way Bill Clinton wanted it.

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Florida: I attended Fred's rally a couple of months ago, and he said all the right things and looked the part, but I can't help wonder if he'll still be in the race when our primary rolls around. Any thoughts?

Joel Achenbach: If he tanks in South Carolina on Jan. 19 (I believe that's the date) I can't imagine he'll be ambling from Pensacola to Key West for the following 10 days.

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Anonymous: Are any of Thompson's children out stumpin' for him? Who in his family did you get to interview?

Joel Achenbach: I talked to his brother, Ken, who was very helpful. I didn't get through to his sons. I spoke briefly with his ex-wife, Sarah, but she graciously declined an interview. I spoke to a great number of people who were very helpful but never wound up in the article itself. Howard Baker called me back and I'll post some of his thoughts on the Achenblog later. I went to Lawrenceburg, and met with a bunch of his friends -- his ex-brother-in-law, a fellow who helped him start that Young Republicans chapter, etc. And I spoke to just about everyone still around from the Watergate staff.

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Washington: Looking at the poll in today's paper, McCain and Thompson look similar, starting off in mediocre shape and sliding slowly downhill. Is Huckabee taking support from both of them by showing himself to be more of a "Reagan conservative" as well as being -- how shall I put this -- more energetic?

washingtonpost.com: In Poll, Huckabee Closes on Giuliani (Post, Dec. 12)

Joel Achenbach: Thompson's campaign sends out a lot of e-mails criticizing Huckabee -- I think they see Huck as siphoning off the support they need and want. Thompson and McCain are friends and allies and for that reason Thompson doesn't seem to be going after McCain.

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Columbia, Md.: Joel, Thanks for taking my question. Freddy is a charmed candidate from the South. Is he well-positioned as a vice presidential hopeful enabling or compensating for other presidential nominees?

Joel Achenbach: He'd be a safe choice, probably, as vice president -- but not unless he shows more strength, verve and panache on the campaign trail.

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Joel Achenbach: I appreciate everyone dropping by today. If you want to give me any direct feedback on the piece or ask a question, e-mail me and I'll try to respond ASAP.

You can also post comments at the Achenblog.

Thanks for the questions.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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