Fred Thompson, RIP

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I was sad to hear of the passing, on Sunday, of actor, lawyer, and former U. S. Senator Fred Thompson, who was felled by lymphoma at the age of 73. My condolences to his family and friends, with my thanks for supporting him in his service to our country.

Writing for Commentary, John Podhoretz tells Fred Thompson's story through the lens of his research into a 1993 profile of Thompson, who was then preparing to leave acting and run for Senate. It is worth reading in full. Many other blogs have quoted the passage about Thompson's regrets over his prosecution of moonshiners while serving as an assistant U. S. Attorney. I was impressed by his account of Thompson's self-education in political philosophy and how it served him well as he entered electoral politics many years later:

I asked him what it was that had made him a Republican. He said that when he was working at nights behind a motel desk, he needed to stay awake, and he began to read National Review. Eventually that led him to William F. Buckley Jr.'s oeuvre, and to Hayek, and to Whittaker Chambers's Witness, and to Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences, and to other works that helped him develop a philosophy about the centrality of the individual and the dangers of an overreaching state -- the same overreaching state he would serve in prosecuting those moonshiners a few years later....

But it was philosophical conservatism that had captured his attention in his college and law-school years. His election in 1994 as part of the Gingrich Revolution was not only due to his attractiveness, his resume, and his literal star power, but because he was intellectually in tune with the changes being wrought to the GOP. The very qualities that made him a memorable performer and a good senator--that combination of amiability and steel--did not really include the consuming ambition to rise to the top.

I was impressed, too, at the easy way he wore stardom:

The thing about Thompson was, he continued to work as a lawyer throughout his career as an actor in The Hunt for Red October, No Way Out, Days of Thunder, Cape Fear, and other pictures. Among other things, he was one of the three trustees of the Teamsters pension fund, which had been seized by the government. So though he rose to the point where he was likely making close to half a million dollars per picture, he was not dependent on that work for his livelihood -- and there were things he did not wish to do.

That included cursing on the screen. He had a fight (I recall him saying it lasted several days) with the famously temperamental producer Joel Silver on the set of Die Hard 2 because the script called for him to use the F-word. His contract specifically said he would not use profanity. Silver didn't care and simply could not imagine Thompson would make trouble on this score. But unlike other Hollywood players, Thompson viewed acting as a lark, and was able to stand his ground.

Podhoretz noted the conflict between the demands of high-stakes politics and Thompson's temperament, a temperament better suited to observation than action:

Thompson was not suited to the task of running for the presidency, I think, because he had an essentially ironic view of the world and its workings. In the last years of his life became one of Twitter's best political tummlers, issuing forth perfectly crafted one-liners about the absurdities of the Age of Obama. On September 23, only five weeks before his untimely death yesterday at the age of 72, he offered this: "Obama at a school in Iowa: Students 'shouldn't silence' guest speakers who are 'too conservative.' Yes. That's what the IRS is for."

As longtime BatesLine readers will recall, I was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Thompson's 2008 run for president, as was much of the conservative blogosphere. Thompson was well-informed on the issues, well-grounded in principle, willing to speak politically-incorrect truths and not back down, but in a reassuring, avuncular manner and with a dry wit (which he continued to display after the campaign on his own radio show and his Twitter account).

Here he is from 2007, discussing amnesty and the border fence:

As blogger See-Dubya noted on the occasion of Paul Harvey's death:

One more thing: back when Fred Thompson was just flirting with running for President, one of the things that excited me the most about his candidacy was his ABC radio addresses he gave while sitting in for Paul Harvey. I thought that was a politically brilliant move that really showcased Fred's strengths-authentic, no-BS Heartland conservatism. I wasn't the only one-I kind of trace the groundswell of interest in Thompson back to his time broadcasting from Paul Harvey's chair, and likewise the deflation of the Thompson bubble to the time he left it.

Here in Oklahoma, Thompson managed to win the endorsement of Sen. Jim Inhofe, then-U. S. Rep. John Sullivan, local radio talk show hosts, and other prominent officials and activists.

Alas, Thompson's skills as a leader didn't match his skills as a communicator. Although he was accused of lacking "fire in the belly" (an accusation he ably rebutted), the real problem is that his campaign team was unable to organize and capitalize on the grassroots goodwill he enjoyed. His departure from the race brought forth numerous anecdotes about the disconnect between Fred 08 HQ and supporters. The Fred 08 letdown is why I feel compelled to look not only at policy positions but the fundraising skills and campaign logistics required to reach the finish line as I decide which of several good candidates will have my support for 2016. Perhaps a more ambitious, higher-strung Fred would have been better able to push and direct his campaign team, but would a more ambitious, higher-strung Fred still be Fred?

(No Fredhead was as enthusiastic as Jackie Broyles, fictional co-host of Red State Update. His response to Thompson's withdrawal involved gasoline and matches. The latest "Ole Timey Country Down Home Red State Update Podcast 'n' 'Em" remembers Fred Thompson by Dunlap reading some of his pithy recent tweets as Jackie laughs and sobs.)

After the campaign, Thompson began a syndicated radio talk show with his wife Jeri as his co-host. Many of his interviews with newsmakers are available on the Fred Thompson YouTube channel, which also has video from his 2008 campaign.

Chris Cilizza of the Washington Post reviews the career of "one of the most talented politicians of his generation":

Former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) died Sunday at 73. He will be remembered by most Americans as an actor who became a politician. But he also was one of the most gifted pols of his generation, possessing a natural ability that helped him win a Senate seat with ease but also led to his underwhelming 2008 bid for president....

The buzz around Thompson was considerable in those first few years in Washington, as many Republicans viewed him as the second coming of Ronald Reagan, another actor-turned-politician. Thompson was regularly picked by his party's leaders to deliver their message du jour and was seen as someone who was simply biding his time until he ran for president....

I've always thought of Fred Thompson in basketball terms -- and not just because he was 6-foot-6. He was like a tremendously gifted hoops player who played the game because he was good at it. But he never really LOVED the game. He could take it or leave it. Just like when a supremely talented basketball player either doesn't live up to his supposed potential or walks away from the game at a young age, Thompson's unwillingness to take full advantage of the tremendous natural political gifts he was given was met with exasperation by both less-talented politicians and the staffers who tried to get the best out of him.

But that was Thompson. He always had those abilities, so they didn't seem as amazing to him. And if he was "wasting" them, well it was his life. "I can live, I will be happy either way, you decide," he once said on the campaign trail in Iowa. "I'm not even trying to say that I'm better than everybody else. ... I am just saying that what you see is what you get. I'm doing it my way -- just like I have done everything else in my life."

While Thompson had every right to live life as he chose, and it's understandable that anyone would prioritize family (particularly young chlidren) over public life, what's missing from Thompson's quote here and Cilizza's analysis is a sense of stewardship of one's gifts and abilities. I can't help but think that, had Thompson put in the work to develop in his areas of weakness, his strengths would have made him the man of the hour in 2008. His grasp of conservative principle was both intuitive through his small-town Tennessee upbringing and grounded in his extracurricular law-school reading. His commanding and reassuring presence, familiar through his work in Hollywood, might have been able to sell conservative policies to low-information voters in a way that John McCain and Mitt Romney never could.

As we honor Thompson for his significant contributions to the public good as prosecutor, corruption-busting attorney, senator, presidential candidate, and commentator, the sense of unrealized potential should challenge us all to examine our own gifts and opportunities and ask what we should be doing to amplify our impact on a nation that desperately needs conservative influence and leadership (even if they don't know it yet).

MORE:

Cilizza links this ad from Thompson's 1994 campaign for Senate, which he says shows "Thompson at the height of his powers":

WSJ Editorial Board remembers Sen. Thompson's investigation of the Clinton campaign-finance scandals as "his finest role":

Younger readers who want to know what a second Clinton Presidency would be like could do worse than inspect the volumes of sleazy facts that Thompson and his investigators uncovered. There was Mr. Clinton's refusal to implement a Nafta trucking provision in return for Teamsters money; one-time Commerce official John Huang who midwifed illegal contributions from Lippo Group employees; fixer Harold Ickes's fantastic vanishing memory; the Lincoln Bedroom cash machine; Mr. Gore and the Buddhist Temple of money, and so much more.

Thompson's committee became the main source of public information about the scandal that played a crucial role in re-electing Bill Clinton because Mr. Clinton's Attorney General Janet Reno refused to appoint a special prosecutor and the Justice Department brought relatively few charges. Had the offenses been committed by Republicans, the press corps would have called for heads on pikes but the Clintons stonewalled their way to survival as usual.

Cilizza's colleague Justin William Moyer explains how a legal case Thompson took out of pity for a woman persecuted by the local political machine became his inadvertent ticket to Hollywood:

In 1976, Marie Ragghianti, a mother of three who put herself through Vanderbilt University, was appointed chairman of Tennessee's parole board by Gov. Ray Blanton (D). Yet she ran afoul of Blanton when, after learning the governor took cash in exchange for a convict's clemency, she started voting against his recommendations. In 1978, she was fired after what turned out to be a largely groundless investigation of her expense records. She was also put under state surveillance, set up for DUI charges and falsely alleged to have stolen credit cards.

So, Ragghianti went to see a Tennessee lawyer she had seen on TV during Watergate: Fred Thompson.

"I tried to talk her out of a lawsuit," Thompson wrote. "They could make her life miserable in ways that she could not understand." Another problem: "Marie had uttered the most terrifying words that a lawyer can ever hear: 'I am broke.'"

But Ragghianti's story tugged at his heartstrings.

"The more I thought about it, the more I knew she was right about one thing: What they had done to her was cruel and unfair," Thompson wrote. "... I never did like Blanton anyway. It would be fun to rattle his cage."

When Hollywood decided to make this David v. Goliath victory into a movie, and they couldn't find the right actor to play Fred, they asked Fred to play Fred, which turned into a career:

"When they needed some middle-aged guy who'd work cheap, they'd call me for a little part and I'd go out there two or three weeks and knock one out," he said in 1994.

Some said he was a natural -- or, at least, a natural for the parts he played.

"Literally, I don't think Fred ever acts," Tom Ingram, a longtime friend who worked on Thompson's Senate campaigns, said in 2007. "He played himself in 'Marie,' and he's been playing himself ever since."

WSJ quotes from Thompson's 2007 op-ed on the positive economic effect of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts:

In fact, Treasury statistics show that tax revenues have soared and the budget deficit has been shrinking faster than even the optimists projected. Since the first tax cuts were passed, when I was in the Senate, the budget deficit has been cut in half. . . .

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this success story is where the increased revenues are coming from. Critics claimed that across-the-board tax cuts were some sort of gift to the rich but, on the contrary, the wealthy are paying a greater percentage of the national bill than ever before.

The richest 1% of Americans now pays 35% of all income taxes. The top 10% pay more taxes than the bottom 60%. ...

To face these challenges, and any others that we might encounter in a hazardous world, we need to maintain economic growth and healthy tax revenues. That is why we need to reject taxes that punish rather than reward success. Those who say they want a "more progressive" tax system should be asked one question:

Are you really interested in tax rates that benefit the economy and raise revenue--or are you interested in redistributing income for political reasons?

The Daily Signal has collected 31 of Fred Thompson's best quotes, including several of his recent Twitter aphorismata:

5. "After two years in Washington, I often long for the realism and sincerity of Hollywood," he said in a speech before the Commonwealth Club of California.

14. "Some of our folks went to Washington to drain the swamp and made partnership with the alligators instead."

23. "On ABC, Josh Earnest said that the economy is 'building momentum'. Well, Josh, things that are rapidly going downhill often do that."

29. "NYC reports it's struggling to keep booming population of stray cats under control. Tough one. Have they tried cat-free zone signs? "

Peter Suderman at Reason:

He went on to play numerous other roles in the following years, including a memorably grave Navy Admiral in The Hunt for Red October and a key supporting part as an air-traffic-control director forced to deal with a chaotic terrorist attack in 1990's Die Hard 2.

Neither of those roles were showy, and you can easily imagine lesser performers disappearing into the parts. But they played to Thompson's strengths; he projected authority, responsibility, and competency, even as everything went to hell around him. You could imagine Thompson--or at least the character he played--being in charge, and being good at it....

Thompson sought to capitalize on that same impression in his 2008 run for president, but he could never quite pull it off. In the debates, he never seemed quite well enough prepared, and the presidential persona he was obviously aiming for never quite stuck. At heart, Thompson was always a character actor, not a leading man.

At the same time, his unwillingness to dig too deep into the role was unexpectedly endearing. He wanted to be president, but he was not mad for the job or what it might bring. As George Mason Law Professor Ilya Somin said in a Facebook post last night, it may be that Thompson's "most admirable qualification for the presidency was that he clearly did not want the office nearly as much as most other candidates, and largely lacked their obvious lust for power."

Like all politicians, he was an actor playing a part. But unlike so many, he didn't let it consume him.

Andrew McCarthy, National Review:

He was one of the great gentlemen it has been my privilege to know. Fred would have been a great president because - and today's candidates could take a lesson from this - he cared more about America than about being president. He was not the best candidate, but he would have been the best incumbent.

John Fund, National Review:

In or out of office, Fred Thompson stayed true to the conservative principles he believed he had made America great. He always thought a major reason Republicans lost the presidency in 2008 was that they had aided and abetted runaway government spending. Republicans had to commit themselves to smaller government, he contended, because Democrats are incapable of following through on ever being fiscally prudent. "Their political coalition needs more revenue like a car requires gasoline," he told me as he ran for president. "Reagan showed what can be done if you have the will to push for tough choices and the ability to ask the people to accept them." Fred Thompson never made it to the White House, but he nonetheless showed a strength of character and a grounded belief in common sense that left his country a better place.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on November 3, 2015 11:56 PM.

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