Teaching the Pig to Dance: A Memoir of Growing Up and Second Chances
by Fred Thompson
Crown Forum, 272 pp.
ne can imagine a moment when spending a few hours with Fred Thompson, former senator, TV star, and author of Teaching the Pig to Dance: A Memoir of Growing Up and Second Chances, would be not merely a pleasant diversion but perhaps the highlight of the day. Imagine yourself incarcerated for three hours in the cabin of airplane as a snowstorm peters out over the runway and the ground crew puzzles its way through the deicing process. At such a moment, the prospect of Thompson, jowly as a coon dog, comfy as a hush puppy, holding forth in his bourbon-and-branch-water baritone about the high old times he had growing up in Lawrenceburg might be a relaxing tonic indeed. But the hours after you shell out $25 for the privilege of reading the same stories in this memoir aren’t nearly as satisfying.
The biggest problem with Teaching a Pig to Dance is Thompson’s misplaced confidence that the book of his devising that the world is hungry to read is the one that deals with his upbringing. Of course, one might have thought the same about a young author named Barack Obama, and it turned out all right for him, although simply on the basic of travelogy, the Africa-Hawaii-Indonesia-Kansas-Chicago itinerary of Dreams from My Father is a tad more alluring than Thompson’s progress from Lawrenceburg to Nashville to Lawrenceburg to Memphis to Nashville to Lawrenceburg.
Fred Thompson, of course, has led a life that has seen more than its share of drama and glamour. He was the minority counsel on the Senate committee that investigated Watergate, which would certainly seem to offer a privileged view of Sam Ervin, Richard Nixon, and one of the great constitutional crises in America’s history. Certainly, it would be fascinating to hear Thompson’s account of his phone call to the White House counsel’s office in which he informed them that the committee knew of Nixon’s secret taping system. It would also have been interesting to hear what Thompson thought when he later listened to the tapes and heard Nixon and Alexander Haig talking about him, and heard Nixon say, "Oh shit, he’s dumb as hell." Later, as a private attorney, Thompson spearheaded a lawsuit that brought down a Democratic governor on corruption charges, then played himself in the movie version of that story, thus launching an acting career in which he’s worked with Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Roseanne Barr, and the stars of Sex and the City. These are brilliant and temperamental people who may have helped him reach some conclusions about the nature of creativity, and the power of the entertainment industry, and the allure of America’s great dream factory. And though he teases us with a mild crack about his Hunt for Red October costar Alec Baldwin’s liberal politics, he declines to offer his inside account of how Hollywood treats a political conservative.
(It’s notable that in his long career, Thompson has portrayed a host of middle- and upper-level-management government workers—district attorney, FBI agent, CIA director, White House chief of staff, admiral and other military officers, one fictional president and two real ones, Grant and Jackson; in a sense, Thompson, philosophically a small-government conservative, has seldom been off a government payroll.)
He then went on to serve eight years in the Senate, where he debated and voted on everything from the impeachment of Bill Clinton to the wars of George W. Bush, and then capped off his political career with a memorably pathetic campaign for the presidency.
hompson has had what a lot of liberal arts majors would call a fantasy career. Yet very little of it seeps its way into this book. "As I got into the process," Thompson explains,
I discovered that what I was writing about was what happened before I left Lawrenceburg, not after I left. The thought of those times didn’t necessarily make me nostalgic, but they did make me feel good. I was revisiting and laughing with some of the most interesting characters and funniest people you’d ever hope to meet … So I decided to write what I wanted to write about.
And perhaps we are the richer for it. It’s true; maybe Thompson’s story of Pooch, the family dog, and the day Thompson’s dad painted Pooch’s testicles a bright yellow might be more gripping than anything Thompson might say about the tensions involved when members of a president’s party can no longer avoid the conclusion that a criminal conspiracy in the White House has reached the very highest level, and that the president himself may have been a party to said conspiracy. And it is also true that Thompson’s recollections of his high school days as a star defensive tackle on the powerful Lawrenceburg team that went all the way to Pulaski and brought home the coveted Butter Bowl might have more appeal to the general reader than any firsthand impressions of presidents he might have picked up or stories he might have to tell from years spent on Hollywood sets and in the halls of Washington power.
I, for one, think I would like to have heard those stories. But you know, I’m not positive. After all, I was one of a great many people who thought Thompson would be a compelling presidential candidate and a formidable force in the 2008 campaign. Instead, candidate Thompson revealed himself to possess a presence that recalled the fire and dynamism of Fritz Mondale. After that campaign, and after this book, one begins to think that while actor Thompson can exhibit gravitas, the inner man may not be all that deep.
For example, forget all of Thompson’s post-Lawrenceburg adventures that he discusses so little, and consider his breezy way of contending with the great moral issue of his youth, race.
We didn’t realize a social transition was going on even though we were living right in the middle of it. I guess that is especially true if you are busy just growing up and think you have your own serious problems to worry about. My generation saw the complete changing of certain basic notions. I went from a time when almost everyone I knew thought that separation of the races was the natural order of things to a time when almost everyone I knew thought exactly the opposite. That’s quite a journey. And it’s one that thankfully my homefolks and I, along with a lot of other Americans, made together.
That’s it? What was all the fuss about?
o be fair, Thompson said that this is the book he wanted to write, and if he has chosen to spend more time on the broken windows he authored as a rambunctious youngster with apparently little impulse control, or on the DUI cases he defended, than on tumultuous events of what on the outside seems like a dramatic life, that’s his prerogative. And who knows? With its homages to family life and small-town virtues, it may be the kind of book that Crown Forum, with its proven prowess in reaching conservative audiences, may turn into a best seller. And one should not be relentlessly cynical. Thompson’s evident affection for his family, his gratitude to the teachers who kept pushing him, often against his will, his respect for his father’s solid and unswerving devotion, and his manifest enjoyment of a good joke are admirable. But all of that might very easily have been conveyed in the first seventy or eighty pages of a longer and far more interesting and enjoyable memoir of a public man, if only the author had had it in him.
And that book might have had a lot more in it about pig dancing, accounts of which in this particular volume are unaccountably slim.