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For Thompson, Star Billing in Senate Drama

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 1997; Page A08
The Washington Post

He boasts a commanding presence, an impeccable resume and a sheaf of flattering news clips, and last week Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) got the money and the mandate he wanted to launch the Senate's high-profile investigation into campaign improprieties.

In the Thompson mythology, the victory seemed inevitable: another milestone in a crusade to rescue the nation's electoral system, another asset to parlay into a presidential candidacy in 2000.

The Thompson reality may be quite different. Success last week probably owed less to his own expertise than it did to the efforts of maverick Republicans and Democrats who successfully fought the GOP leadership's move to limit the investigation only to illegal activities. Now, Thompson's committee will be able to look into improper and illegal campaign activities by Republicans and Democrats in last year's presidential and congressional races.

If Thompson has won high marks for standing firm in the face of opposition, he has also appeared heavy-handed, thin-skinned and uncertain on occasion -- the rookie committee chairman floundering as he tries to manage the most politically delicate and splashiest job in the Senate.

"I've got to step back . . . and make sure that I'm not letting my own views kind of override everything else to the extent that this thing could break down," Thompson told colleagues at a recent hearing.

For the gruff-voiced part-time actor, full-time lawyer and one-time Watergate minority counsel, last week was a return to square one. His investigation is intact and his prestige undamaged, but his skills remain untested.

That will clearly change in the coming weeks. Thompson is already negotiating with Democrats on the Government Affairs Committee he chairs on how to handle depositions and interviews with potential witnesses while wrestling with the procedures they will follow for issuing subpoenas. The committee has already begun examining documents, but sources close to the investigation say hearings are not expected top begin before May at the very earliest.

Few doubt that Thompson has the ability to lead the investigation: "He's done really well," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a former prosecutor and fellow committee member. "He's new; he's coming in with a tough assignment; but he's got plenty of experience as a practical litigator."

But the political stakes are enormous, and Democrats are nervous with a newcomer: "This is an investigation, in part, of us -- of what senators do," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), another committee member. "There's a lot of anxiety here; the investigation is being led by a freshman senator who a lot of people don't know."

Republicans seem confident -- or are they? They have loaded their side of Governmental Affairs with chairmen of other committees like Sens. Pete V. Domenici (N.M., Budget) and Ted Stevens (Alaska, Appropriations) and members of the GOP leadership like Majority Whip Don Nickles (Okla.). This means heavyweight support when things get tough. But it also means there are some seasoned veterans keeping a close watch on Thompson, ready to ride to the rescue if he loses control.

After an explosion of publicity late last year, Thompson for months avoided interviews, and he remains difficult to read, not only for the public, but for many colleagues. He earns high marks as a well-spoken, thoughtful and fair-minded man, but he is not very well-known and is certainly no backslapper, despite a Tennessee drawl.

His resume is superb. No stranger to congressional investigations, he got his first taste of fame nearly 25 years ago as minority counsel for his mentor, Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), during the Senate Watergate hearings.

After Watergate, Thompson went into private practice in Tennessee and Washington. In 1977 he represented Marie Ragghianti, the head of the Tennessee Parole Board, fired from her job after exposing a pardon-selling scheme.

Ragghianti won reinstatement, and Thompson sounded so good reading trial transcripts that he got to play himself in the movie, "Marie," starring Sissy Spacek. He has since acted in 18 films -- including "Barbarians at the Gate," "Die Hard II," "In the Line of Fire," and "The Hunt For Red October." Usually he plays authority figures, often in the federal government.

His acting experience was the icing, giving him a smooth, telegenic manner to go with the authentic credentials as a tough Washington trial lawyer with experience both as a lobbyist and a congressional staffer. He is 54, and, at 6-foot 6-inches, 240 pounds, he is an imposing figure.

But the Senate was full of imposing figures. Thompson rubbed one of them the wrong way in January when he told Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) -- without consulting him beforehand -- that he wanted $6.5 million for the investigation. Glenn, the former astronaut and a national hero, said this behavior was unpleasantly "unprecedented," and it rankled him.

Thompson's Jan. 28 speech introducing the investigation caused more discomfort. He wanted a "fair and evenhanded" probe to include Republican as well as Democratic campaign activities, he said, but "we must have a sense of priorities." As he proceeded to list them, Democrats squirmed. Thompson focused on the 1996 presidential race and barely mentioned the GOP or Congress.

The next day, members of the Governmental Affairs panel gathered to discuss the scope of the inquiry, with Democrats voicing concern that Thompson and the Republicans were focusing almost exclusively on White House wrongdoing.

Not so. "I am not looking for a fight," Thompson said, and that night the committee staff wrote a resolution outlining a broad-gauged probe that satisfied both parties.

"I think we have come a long way," Glenn remarked the following day.

But not far enough. Glenn insisted that $6.5 million was too much money. Democrats wanted to spend $1.8 million to start, then make another request: "We'll have better accountability," Glenn said.

Thompson rejected that. More money meant Thompson could wait longer before asking the full Senate for more -- an advantage for the Republicans if the investigation wasn't going the way Democrats wanted it to go.

Democrats wanted less money, more trips to the Senate and more opportunities to kill the investigation with a filibuster, if, as they feared, the Republicans were going to turn it into a partisan smear job.

"We were testing each other in an almost primitive way," Lieberman said. The committee approved the scope of the investigation unanimously, but the Democrats wouldn't budge on money.

Knowledgeable sources said Thompson became increasingly irritated. He was losing his patience, the sources said, and soon he would start to show it -- very bad form in the elaborately courteous culture of the Senate.

Thompson had first run for the Senate in 1994 to fill the final two years of Vice President Gore's unexpired term. His campaign against Rep. Jim Cooper (D) was foundering until he decided to abandon his suits, put on an open-necked shirt and crisscross the state in a red pickup truck.

Instead of a Gucci-loafered, highly paid Beltway lawyer/lobbyist, he became "Ol' Fred," and swept past Cooper like a cyclone. Last year he trounced a relative unknown to win a full, six-year term.

Thompson looks the part of a senator and has generally voted with the Republican majority, but he is a believer in some unpopular causes and not shy about saying so. As a trial lawyer he opposes Republican efforts to curb damage awards. As a recent arrival, he favors term limits.

And he is so far the only Republican to join Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in supporting a campaign finance reform bill. "I supported campaign finance reform before it was cool," he said on Jan. 28.

In mid-February, the panel met to issue subpoenas prepared by the Republicans. Glenn complained because all but two of them were aimed at Democratic transgressions and all had been drafted, once again, without prior consultation: "After all the talk about bipartisanship, that's really hardball," Glenn said.

Thompson exploded. He had gone out of his way to accommodate the Democrats, he said, but "at every step of the way, I've been met with resistance."

The committee argued for hours, but it was clear that Thompson was losing the loyal opposition in a procedural squabble.

Republicans began to defect two weeks later, when two key senators objected to the inclusion of congressional campaign practices in the investigation and demanded that the scope be narrowed to include only "illegalities" while ignoring unsavory practices that did not break the law. Thompson opposed the change, but had to accede to a compromise crafted by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) or risk losing the investigation altogether.

Glenn and the Democrats drafted a series of amendments to try to restore the scope, and by March 9, Lieberman had written an amendment that did so simply by changing illegal" in the Lott compromise to read "illegal and improper."

Then, in one of those mushy, unstructured dramas for which the Senate is famous, the Lott compromise began to unravel.

According to knowledgeable sources, several senators asked Thompson how he felt about the new resolution. He didn't like it, he told them, but didn't plan to do anything about it. McCain talked with Thompson. So did committee members Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).

By the time the weekly Republican luncheon convened Tuesday, the sources said, Thompson, Collins, McCain and Brownback had let Lott know they would not support his compromise, but Lott believed he had enough votes, and he urged senators to back him as "a test of party loyalty."

McCain stood up, the sources said. He could not support Lott, he announced. Next was Specter, who was followed by Thompson: The Lott compromise would preclude a necessary examination of the whole campaign system, he said. Collins followed, then Brownback and others.

Very soon, said one senator, "it became apparent that Trent had to change course." And he did. By the time the luncheon broke up, the Lieberman amendment had become the new Lott substitute. Funding would be $4.35 million until the end of 1997. It passed 99-0.

"I cannot express the extent of my delight in the cooperation we have seen here in the last few hours," Thompson said on the floor that afternoon. Indeed, 99-0 is about as strong an endorsement as the Senate can give and far beyond anything Thompson could have expected before lunchtime.

In classic Senate fashion, he thanked his leader (Lott), reached out to the Democrats (Glenn), and included the Republicans who had risked the wrath of the leadership in a Senate-wide group hug. "We have had a good debate," he said.

As for himself, Thompson added, "I have tried to walk . . . that tightrope between toughness and thoroughness" and "fairness and bipartisanship." He hadn't done as well "as I would have liked," he continued, "but I am committed to starting forward from today and making sure that we get back on track."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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