First, his Tennessee drawl jogs the memory and then the rangy frame, all 6'5" of it, and finally the monumental brow defending the intense alert eyes.
Watching Fred Thompson walk into a room provokes that odd Watergate deja vu -- any minute the sound of gavels and the hounds of history will be dogging the steps of the man who made his name as minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee.
The time, the pale cast of exhaustion is provoked by his role as majority counsel for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Alexander Haig.
Fred Thompson is back in the game and glad of it.
No, he says, there were never any doubts that he'd take the job, when the call came last month to ask if he'd be interested. "Anybody who likes to try cases and enjoys the fray and gets a call to help the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a task, regardless of what it is, would want to do it," he said. "I do enjoy it. It's like a trial, at least in your relationship to your counterpart. You fight him and all of that, and you probably say mean things to him and he to you and after it's all over you recognize that both of you did a good job. Hopefully, the end was justice, you know, but you're not there to insure justice; the jury and the court are."
Thompson doesn't look all that different from the 30-year-old attorney who left a growing Nashville law practice in the winter of '73 to lock horns with Sam Dash and the serpentine complexities of the Watergate drama. He jousted with John Dean in one memorable exchange. "I hope I am not appearing to be badgering you in any way," he said to Dean. "But I am sure you understand that your actions and motivations are relevant." Dean smiled. "If I were still at the White House," he said with deadly courtesy, "I would probably be feeding you the questions to ask the person who is sitting here."
Win a few, lose a few; does he feel any different? "Oh, I've got many more scars now," he says, in what seems to be a perfectly serious tone of voice, followed by an abrupt, "just kidding -- I don't feel any different, I feel younger than ever."
The evening before the hearings were to begin, Thompson was operating on two hours' sleep. He wasn't expecting much more that night. Meals have been erratic -- his first meal of the day lately has been a sandwich or hamburger at 9 or 10 at night preceded by an endless round of phone calls and meetings with senators, aides and his own staff. Around him, notebooks were spread out on the floor, weary staffers were placing last-minute phone calls to deserted offices. "Helms has left, everyone's left, there's no one here but us," someone sighs.
"It's troublesome, it's tense, it's tough on everybody for a while, but times like this are the high point for me, doing something like this, although I'm beat to hell right now," Thompson says of the exhausting, tedious work of sifting through the voluminous archive materials on Hair and scooping out the ambiguous legal issues involved. "But," he says, "it's something that matters."
That's Side One of the Thompson Work Cantata in small-town Tennessee minor. Side Two goes something like this, and comes by way of talking about what it was like to adjust to private practice again after listening to the sound of his own voice on nationwide television for months. "It wasn't that hard to adjust because I knew it was going to happen," he says. "I could see all the former whatevers up here and it was easy to remember that everything has its time and when the hottest story in town is over, it is extremely old news.
"It's kinda like the story I heard about some old baseball player, it was Lefty Grove, I believe, that I've often thought of. Someone said to him, 'Lefty, how was it that you could go out there and pitch a baseball game with 80,000 people watching and have the bases loaded and two out, the proverbial bottom of the ninth inning and you knew that the whole world was out there looking at you? How in the world do you withstand that kind of pressure?' And Lefty says, 'well, my daddy told me a long time ago a fact of life -- that a million years from now this old world ain't gonna be anything but a frozen little shriveled mass hurtling through space, and when I think of that, I think it ain't gonna make a damn whether Lefty threw a ball or a strike.' And you know, I guess I'm kinda saying the same thing. There's the game. But you got to realize on the outside of that, that you're involved in a game."
Of course, the stakes are raised by the feistiness of the opposition. Thompson tells of a breakfast meeting he had with Terry Lenzner, a former associate counsel to the Democrats during the Watergate days. Lenzner, an attorney now in private practice whose reputation as a tough legal streetfighter has not diminished since his own Watergate days, toyed for a time with taking the position of minority counsel for the Haig hearings.
"I called him," Thompson remembers. "And we had breakfast. Terry expressed an interest in doing a bipartisan investigation, and I said, 'well, Terry, we'll do the same kind of bipartisan investigation we always do -- we'll have Republicans and Democrats and the ones with the most votes will be majority counsel and the others will be minority counsel. When you guys are in, you want majority and minority counsels, and when we're in, you want co-counsels.' We had a good laugh about that." Still, Thompson wishes Lenzner had taken the job. "It would have been a lot of fun."
Thompson's work on the Haig hearings is nearly finished. "It's going to be over a lot faster than anyone thought," Thompson says. Is he disappointed? "Oh, I wouldn't say that," he says, laughing. "Now, see, you can't print my inflections."
Even after the hearings are over, however, Thompson plans to be spending a lot more time in Washington than he has since Watergate, even though he has been of counsel with the Washington office of the O'Connor and Hannan law firm for a number of years. "I plan and had planned, before this thing came up, to spend more time here. The one most important reason is that the Republican administration is coming into office and more and more activity is being generated in Washington; anybody of any consequence has interests up here. It's where the action is and I know a little bit about what's going on up here and I am a practicing lawyer."
Which is what Fred Thompson had wanted to be since he was 17, the year he married his high-school sweetheart, Sarah, and went off with her to Florence State College and then on to Memphis State University and the Vanderbilt School of Law. By the time he began law school he was the father of three children and found an intellectual passion in the study of philosophy. "I was particularly interested in the intellectual battle between Burke and Rousseau about whether man was prone to do the wrong thing or was naturally good and corrupted by society. I think I come down on the side of Burke -- I think that people are prone to error, that more often than not it's a hell of a lot harder to do the righ thing than it is to do the wrong thing, and I think that's what makes the right thing so admirable sometimes, because it's so tough."
In the last few hours before the hearings begin, however, it is politics, not philosophy with which Thompson must concern himself, and he unwinds his floor-to-ceiling frame from the chair he's sitting in and gets up to go. Does he feel like a hired gun in these Adrenalin-driven days?
"Hired, yes, but barely," Thompson says. "Nobody takes a job like this for the money."