March 28, 2007


Another Beltway Bubba?: Fred Thompson has spun an insider background into a good ol'boy image that could take him to the White House (Michelle Cottle, December 1996, Washington Monthly)

With his traditional Southern values, his common-sense reform goals, and his folksy demeanor, "Ol' Fred," as the senator sometimes refers to himself, puts a populist face on a party struggling with an elitist image. Factor in Thompson's media savvy, and you have the makings of a political icon. You have, in fact, the makings of another Ronald Reagan.

Thompson's acting background alone might have made the Reagan comparisons inevitable. But he also has that innate "Reaganesque" charisma that neither MGM nor Julliard can impart. (In describing the senator, people use "mesmerizing" and "magnetic" often enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck.) Also, like no Republican since Reagan, Thompson embodies what the GOP is desperate to achieve: a marriage between its social traditionalists and its fiscal conservatives. He doesn't even face the gender gap the party grapples with. And unlike fantasy candidate Colin Powell, Thompson is a political animal willing to sling--and get slapped with--some mud if need be.

Thompson's no-nonsense demeanor also marks him as statesmanlike. "In Tennessee, we have two Republican U.S. senators, a majority in the House, a Republican governor--all these people look to Fred as a unifying voice," says Alex Fischer, executive vice-president of Akins & Tombras, a Knoxville-based public relations firm that works with the state's prominent Republicans. "He pulls everybody together and has kept the party here on a more even kilter than in other parts of the nation"

For all of his charm and presence, Thompson is more than just a pretty face. Once people finish gushing over how genuine and friendly he is, they move on to terms like "smart," "intelligent," even "brilliant" (giving him a leg up on Reagan in the brains department). His professional reputation among lawyers and politicians alike is that of a sharp mind and quick wit. "Fred brings with him the grace of a Southern lawyer, and he's an excellent negotiator," says Sam Dash, Thompson's majority counterpart during the Watergate hearings. "He knows how to look laid back even when he's not. He can tell a joke and drawl his voice to make everybody feel he's not under anxiety. He'll get you talking about an entirely different topic, then from out of nowhere comes the punch"

The GOP is well aware of Thompson's potential. Tennessee was the epicenter of the 1994 Republican revolution, with the party picking up the governorship, two Senate seats, and two seats in the House. Republicans credit much of their Tennessee landslide to Ol' Fred.

Buoyed by Thompson's performance at home, party leaders lost no time trotting him out to test on a national audience. In December 1994--having served a total of one day in elected office--Thompson was picked by Bob Dole to give the GOP's response to President Clinton's televised tax-cut message. Chosen largely for his familiar mug and intimate speaking style, Thompson served up a performance that garnered rave reviews. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post declared him the clear victor in this Battle of the Bubbas.

Since then, Thompson's cup has continued to run over. He has been listed as a "rising star" and "freshman all-star" in the Washington press. In October Bob Dole invited him down to his Bal Harbor, Fla., condo to help Dole practice for the presidential debates, and after waltzing into his second term last month, Thompson is slated to assume the chairmanship of the influential Governmental Affairs Committee--a major coup for someone with only an abbreviated, two-year term under his belt. "Right now," says Susan Thorp, political columnist for The (Memphis, Tenn.) Commercial Appeal, "he's the poster boy of the party, and he knows it"

Already there are rumblings about Thompson as a future contender for the White House. (With Vice President Gore the likely Democratic choice, this sets up the intriguing possibility of an all-Tennessee ballot.) Even the opposition is taking notice. One former Clinton campaign staffer predicts: "Forget Kemp. Thompson is the Republican to beat in 2000"

Thompson's swift rise to power can be attributed to equal parts luck, savvy, and timing Like many of the 1994 freshmen, he rode the prevailing wave of antigovernment sentiment into office, campaigning on a platform of term limits, campaign finance reform, and slashing congressional pay and perks. Arguing that career politicians lack the courage to make the tough decisions (i.e., spending cuts), Thompson maintains congressional service should be an interruption to, rather than the foundation of, a career. He advocates filling Congress with "citizen legislators," people not dependent on the government for their livelihoods. Thompson's 1994 campaign ads combined this reform theme with a down-to-earth image, featuring the candidate in bucolic settings, talking about eliminating Congress's "million-dollar pensions" and teaching them that "we can't tax our way to prosperity:' His stump speeches painted voters a picture of Thompson riding up to the Capitol in his truck, picking Washington up "by the scruff of the neck and giving it a good shake"

The voters ate it up. Positioned as a champion of the people, Thompson stood out in sharp contrast to his cerebral, wonkish opponent, then-Rep. Jim Cooper. The epitome of a New Democrat, Cooper had undercut much of his support on the left by supporting NAFTA and voting against the administration's crime bill. His proposal for overhauling health care (the major competitor of the President's plan) had earned him the moniker Mr. Managed Care, and the insurance industry contributions to his campaign marked him as the puppet of special interests. With his 12 years in the House, Cooper didn't stand a chance against Thompson's popular cut-their-pay-and-send-them-home campaign.

Once in office, the unthinkable happened: Thompson began working to make good on his word.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 28, 2007 2:09 PM

Thompson is a good pick.

Let's put el Caudillo in the number two slot. We need somebody really scary as Vice-President.

Posted by: Lou Gots at March 28, 2007 3:32 PM
....populist face on a party struggling with an elitist image.

I thought we couldn't even pronounce the English language correctly.

Posted by: JR at March 28, 2007 3:34 PM