Another Beltway Bubba?

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December 1996

Another Beltway Bubba?

Fred Thompson has spun an insider background into a good ol'boy image that could take him to the White House

By Michelle Cottle


True story: it is a warm evening in the summer of 1995. A crowd has gathered in the auditorium of a suburban high school in Knoxville, Tennessee. Seated in the audience is a childhood friend of mine who now teaches at the school. On stage is Republican Sen. Fred Dalton Thompson, the lawyer/actor elected in 1994 to serve out the remainder of Vice President Al Gore's Senate term (when Gore's appointed successor retired after just two years). The local TV stations are on hand as Thompson wraps up his presentation on tax reform, in the plain-spoken, down-to-earth style so familiar to those who have seen him in any of his numerous film and television performances.

Finishing his talk, Thompson shakes a few hands, then walks out with the rest of the crowd to the red pickup truck he made famous during his 1994 Senate campaign. My friend stands talking with her colleagues as the senator is driven away by a blond, all-American staffer. A few minutes later, my friend gets into her car to head home. As she pulls up to the stop sign at the parking lot exit, rolling up to the intersection is Senator Thompson, now behind the wheel of a sweet silver luxury sedan. He gives my friend a slight nod as he drives past. Turning onto the main road, my friend passes the school's small, side parking area. Lo and behold: There sits the abandoned red pickup, along with the all-American staffer.

Clearly, there's more to Fred Dalton Thompson than first meets the eye--which is saying a lot considering this sleepy-eyed Southerner stands 6'5" and weighs 225 if he weighs an ounce. With his pickup truck, his blue jeans, and his deep, friendly drawl, Thompson has cultivated the perfect political image for today's anti-Washington climate: a straight-shooting, no-nonsense man of the people with a big helping of horse sense and a hankering to clean up our nation's capital. Both his 1994 and 1996 Senate campaigns played up this outsider image, portraying Thompson as an average Joe who shares his neighbors' disgust with a political system that no longer serves regular citizens.

But even without the Hollywood credits, the 54-year-old Thompson is far from your average good ol' boy. In the mid-1970s he served as minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, and later as a special counsel for both the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees. Even more significantly, for nearly two decades preceding his election to Congress, Thompson was a high-paid Washington lobbyist for both foreign and domestic interests.

Despite his Beltway ties, Thompson has maintained his just-plain-folks status among voters, a feat critics attribute to the senator's acting talents and his shameless use of "props" like the red pickup. Indeed, the charismatic Tennessean's ability to charm a crowd is undeniable. During the 1994 race, whenever the opposition tried to pin the "insider" label on him, Thompson would drawl a few lines about the kind of world he wants to leave his grandkids, and all insinuations that he was part of the Washington establishment disappeared like wood smoke on a warm breeze.

For those outside Tennessee who've never seen Thompson in action, now might be a good time to run down to Blockbuster and rent a few of his flicks. (Thunderheart is my personal favorite, though In the Line of Fire took in more at the box office.) Take a good look at Thompson's broad, drooping features (which bring to mind a bear crossed with a basset hound). You'll almost certainly be seeing more of this face in the coming months, because Sen. Fred Dalton Thompson may well be the future of the Republican party.

The Great Communicator

By all accounts, Thompson is "a comer" in the GOT?--and not just because Hollywood gave him face recognition and a polished camera presence. With iris 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"

The Crusader

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. As a member of the Governmental Affairs Committee, he helped pass the Congressional Accountability Act, making Congress subject to the same labor laws as other businesses. He also sponsored a constitutional amendment to establish term limits, introduced legislation to overhaul the budget process, and co-sponsored a smart, comprehensive campaign finance reform bill that would have, among other things, banned PAC money and required 60 percent of individual contributions to come from a candidate's home state. Not surprisingly, the three measures failed--as did most of the substantive reform efforts of the 104th Congress. Undaunted, Thompson continued beating the reform drum during this year's campaign. One of his ads featured the senator recounting all the measures that narrowly failed during his first term, concluding with the hopeful message: "It's a good start" The press seems to agree, frequently praising Thompson for having the courage to stand firm on tough reform issues--even those that could hurt his popularity among fellow legislators. Of course, congressional reform enjoys strong public support; so as long as Thompson doesn't rally enough votes to seriously threaten incumbents' power, he's unlikely to be tarred and feathered for providing senators an occasional opportunity to appear reform-minded.

Besides, being portrayed as an earthy St. George facing careerist congressional dragons is a sure way to the hearts of Tennessee voters--and the national media. And don't think Ol' Fred doesn't know it. Thompson learned early in his career that, where the reformer goes, so go the cameras. As a young lawyer, he became a minor celebrity when Sen. Howard Baker Jr., whose re-election campaign Thompson had just finished working on, asked him to serve as minority counsel during the Watergate hearings. One of Thompson's 1994 campaign spots noted that he was the man who, on July 16, 1973, asked Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield the damning question: "Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?"

Far from a surprise attack by Thompson, this question had already been answered by Butterfield the previous Friday, during questioning by investigators of the minority and majority staffs. By Monday, even the White House had been prepped for the revelation; Thompson had phoned White House counsel Fred Buzhardt over the weekend to inform him the committee knew about the tapes. After some debate, it had been decided that Thompson would ask the key question during the televised hearings as a show of the Republicans' commitment to uncovering the truth. This was typical Thompson, says former Watergate investigator Scott Armstrong. "All of the investigating was done in private, then Thompson would try to set it up so that if there was a kill [during the hearings], he'd look like he was in on it"

The consensus among those who covered Watergate seems to be that Thompson was an unremarkable questioner who staved largely in the shadow of his mentor, Senator Baker. And like Baker, Thompson was criticized by both members of the press and those involved in the hearings for working behind the scenes to protect the president while presenting a nonpartisan public face.

Even before the hearings were over, Thompson had signed a lucrative speaking contract with a prestigious New York lecture agency. "I got paid large sums of money for giving speeches in schools that I could never have gotten into," joked Thompson to a New York Times reporter. In 1975, he published a straightforward though unexceptional account of his experience, entitled At That Point in Time.

Returning to his law practice, Thompson again entered the spotlight in 1977 with his representation of Marie Ragghianti, a former chair of the Tennessee parole board pursuing a wrongful termination suit against then-Gov. Ray Blanton's office. The case was perfect for Thompson, who'd threatened legal action against the Democratic governor twice before on behalf of state employees allegedly dismissed for political reasons. It wasn't until Ragghinati's case, however, that Thompson went all the way. His work helped uncover a clemency-for-cash scheme that led to Blanton's removal from office. It also launched Thompson's acting career, when he was cast as himself in a film version of the case. (In a prophetic bit of symbolism, Thompson's first ever movie scene has him decked out in a white cowboy hat.) Although the movie Marie wasn't a hit, Thompson's performance got him "discovered" and led to a string of solid, second-tier parts in high-profile films. As he told a group of voters during his 1994 campaign, "[W]hen they need an old, beat-up, middle-aged guy who'll work cheap, they call me" "Cheap," of course, is a relative term. Thompson's acting earned him nearly a half a million dollars in 1992 alone. The moral of Marie and Watergate: Political corruption may not pay, but working to uncover it certainly does.

Pure Country?

In last month's election, while many freshman Republicans battled for their lives, Thompson coasted into another term with 61 percent of the popular vote and the largest number of actual votes cast for any candidate in Tennessee history. Ask supporters why Thompson is so popular and they'll tell you: "He's a true Tennessean" Of course, his critics will tell you the grits-n'-gravy, outsider act is a sham. "It's just one of many roles he plays," says a former Cooper aide.

The most frequently cited evidence that Thompson is playing a part is the about-face he pulled during his 1994 campaign. Although he ultimately wiped the floor with Cooper, Thompson was initially considered a long shot not worthy of much GOP attention or funding. Just a few months out from the election, "Cooper had Thompson by the gonads," recalls Nashville Scene editor Bruce Dobie. Cooper was well financed and well seasoned, whereas the cash-strapped Thompson was struggling out on the campaign trail in a suit and tie, slogging through uninspired, uninspiring speeches. "Suddenly, Thompson decides things aren't going right," says Dobie. "He decides he just wants to drive around the state and talk to people. There's a huge overthrow in the campaign, and the highly natural, organic, earthy farmer Fred Thompson is born" Thompson ditched the suit, leased the Chevy, and began a populist, flannel-shirt-and-blue-jeans campaign to rival fellow Tennessean Lamar Alexander's though with considerably more success. "The ultimate irony," says Dobie, "is that here was a man who knew what the bar at the Monocle looked like, yet he also looked wonderful in a pickup truck and spoke the talk of the ordinary person" Soon, says Dobie, "Cooper was so far behind he couldn't see straight"

Having latched on to a winning image, Thompson hasn't missed a trick in milking his heritage for all it's worth--right down to his strategic use of the mama card. In the fine Dixie tradition of being a devoted son, Thompson made Mom his co-star in a 1996 campaign ad aimed at assuring voters he has no plans to destroy Social Security. Even more impressive: If you log on to Thompson's Web site, you can download his mother's "Famous Fresh Coconut Cake and Coconut Cream Pie Recipes"

Of course, these days every politician wants to be seen as a man of the people. Thompson's upbringing, however, gives him an edge: The senator's good ol' boy credentials are impeccable--at least during the early years. Born in Sheffield, Ala., Thompson grew up in a middle-class family in the small, central Tennessee town of Lawrenceburg. Married at 17, and a father soon thereafter, he worked as everything from a bicycle assembler to a shoe salesman to earn money for college. He received his B.S. from Memphis State University, then went on to Vanderbilt University Law School--a great place for a son of the rural South to forge bonds with the state's up-and-comers. (Al Gore and former Sen. Jim Sasser are both Vanderbilt Law arums.) Fred and his wife, Sarah (from whom he was divorced in 1985), both worked to put Thompson through Vanderbilt and support their three kids.

Upon graduating in 1967, Thompson returned to Lawrenceburg to practice law, and there became involved in local Republican politics. In 1969, he got his first big break when he was appointed assistant U.S. attorney for Middle Tennessee by Attorney General John Mitchell (who was later among the administration officials questioned by Thompson during Watergate).

Even before they became a topic of political debate, Thompson's rural origins were an issue with him. As a young man writing about Watergate, Thompson comes across as both self-deprecating about his background and contemptuous of the slick, city folk who don't share it. He questions whether co-workers who were the product of Park Avenue and "Yale secret societies" had ever met a "real live country lawyer" before. Twenty years later. Thompson is still quick to point out if someone is a product of the Ivy League or some other elite institution. In his 1994 race, he criticized his Rhodes scholar opponent, Cooper, for having gone to prep school at Groton, law school in Massachusetts, and grad school in England. It's possible that Thompson resents (or distrusts) those he believes got ahead more through fancy credentials than through hard work. Or maybe the candidate just knows his audience: Southerners are fiercely proud of their heritage (in part because the rest of the country is so quick to ridicule it), and the itch to stretch one's horizons above the Mason-Dixon line is often seen as a betrayal. Fortunately for Thompson, his formative years were spent well below that line.

In the early 1970s, Thompson's down-home image started to get muddied. In February of 1973, he began an 18-month immersion in the world of Watergate. He may have gone into the hearings just a "country lawyer," but he emerged an expert on Washington's perverse machinations.

Far from being soured on politics, Thompson promptly set up shop inside the Beltway. In 1975, he became a registered lobbyist, entering Washington's infamous revolving door, through which well-connected individuals emerge from government service to take well-paying private-sector lobbying jobs.

With a few breaks along the way for additional Senate counseling, Ol' Fred spent the next 18 years as a D.C. lobbyist, viewed by many as the most loathsome type of cog in the political machine. Thompson maintains that he was never really a lobbyist, merely "a lawyer who did some lobbying" But for a guy who wasn't serious about lobbying, Thompson represented some pretty serious clients, including Westinghouse, General Electric, and the Teamsters pension fund. And he lobbied for some pretty influential legislation: As representative for the Tennessee Savings and Loan League, Thompson pushed for Senate passage of the Depository Institutions Amendments of 1982. Sponsored by former Sen.Jake Garn, this deregulation bill provided for additional government support of ailing S&Ls; increased thrifts' freedom to invest in potentially more profitable, but riskier, ventures; and eliminated interest-rate ceilings on new accounts to increase S&Ls' competitiveness. Passed in September 1982, the Senate bill became part of the Garnet. St. Germain Act. widely credited with having laid the groundwork for the S&L collapse of the late '80s.

Beginning in 1991, Thompson extended his lobbying expertise to foreign entities. Working for the D.C. firm Arent Fox Kitner Plotkin & Kahn, Thompson was registered as a foreign agent representing clients including a German mining group and Japan's Toyota Motor Corp.

Similarly, for a guy who's purportedly not that into party politics, Ol' Fred is happy to play hardball out on the campaign trail. During his 1994 race, two Tennessee papers reported on a decidedly partisan "dirty play" by the candidate. According to The Knoxville News-Sentinel and the Nashville Banner, Thompson had remarked to a group of Republican senators during a Washington luncheon that he could win his tough race with dim Cooper if the senators could derail Cooper's attempts at health care reform. (Thompson also sent a letter to Ross Perot asking him not to endorse Cooper's plan.) Thompson's spokesman insisted that the candidate's statements had been mischaracterized.

So why aren't Tennessee voters offended by the political outsider charade? Thompson's friends say it's because, despite his time in Washington, Fred remains a good ol' boy at heart. "This is a guy who will never forget his roots," says long-time friend and Vanderbilt classmate Bill Kirkland. "Fred will never be highfalutin"

But no matter how "sincere" and "earthy" Thompson comes across, the fact remains that this man was for years a successful character actor who earned large sums of money for his ability to look concerned, interested, sympathetic, etc., on demand--in situations where you know it's not real. In Die Hard 2 as the head of Washington's Dulles airport, he actually looks physically pained when terrorists force a jetload of passengers to crash and burn on the runway. (Paradoxically, while he got to the Senate by playing the outsider, in the movies, Thompson typically personifies government authority: an FBI official, the White House chief of staff, the head of the CIA, a U.S. senator. Perhaps it's a sign that in this case, Hollywood has a better grasp of reality than voters.)

Although Hollywood honed his camera skills, Thompson had recognized the power of the media back in his Watergate days. In At That Point In Time he writes: "Until then, I had not fully appreciated the power of television or the fact that anyone who gets sufficient television exposure . . . is an overnight celebrity:' When, 20 years later, he decided to enter politics, Thompson knew exactly what media exposure could do for him. In a November 1994 article in The Commercial Appeal, Thompson says he'd known all along that TV would be the driving force in the campaign: "The camera doesn't lie. It looks straight into your soul. I'm the only one in this race who has known it. And it's now paying off"

The Party Guy

There's a saying in Tennessee for folks who put themselves in situations they're not equipped to handle: If you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch. For a simple "country lawyer," Thompson has done an impressive job of not only keeping pace with the other dogs, but moving up through the pack. Just winning the 1994 election--his first run at public office--was an impressive feat. Combine this with his being chosen to serve as vice president of his Senate class, to respond to Clinton's tax message, to help Dole with the debates, to chair the Governmental Affairs Committee (where he can play an even bigger role in reforming government), and you start to see the potential for Thompson to become the lead dog. The direction he would lead in, however, remains unclear.

When asked about the senator's politics, Tennesseans often compare him to Howard Baker, Thompson's professional and political role model. "Largely, Fred is who he is politically by virtue of Howard Baker," asserts Aubrey Harwell, another Vanderbilt classmate. The affection between the two men is well known (Baker held the Bible during Thompson's swearing-in ceremony), and Baker is one of Thompson's biggest political supporters. "Fred is Baker's son, so to speak," says Alex fischer. "In 1994, Baker worked harder to get Fred elected than he did anyone else in the state"

But when pressed for the specifics of Baker's influence, most folks offer only vague generalizations about Thompson's fiscal conservatism and his ability to stay in touch with his roots. People seem more comfortable discussing the style than the substance of his politics. "I don't know that voters would sense that Thompson got a lot done [last term]," says Tennessee political analyst Lee Smith. "But there's a sense of him as a very candid, forthright individual"

Indeed, Tennessee voters frequently remark on Thompson's common sense and lack of knee-jerk partisanship--his willingness to stand up to his party on the tough issues. "He manages more than most of these guys to take a step back and give a detached view," says Paul Neely, publisher of the Chattanooga Times, which, although typically pro-Democrat, endorsed Thompson this election. "In committee, he seems more likely than some to vote independently of the party," says Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who has worked with Thompson on several committees. "He listens to the arguments being made, then he calls things like he sees them"

Whatever Thompson's behavior behind committee doors, when it comes down to a floor vote, he pulls the lever right along with the party. In a database of congressional voting records maintained by the non-partisan Project Vote Smart, Thompson shares the No. 1 spot with a handful of senators who most consistently vote the Republican party line. And in a November 1995 analysis, Vote Smart lists him as having supported Contract With America items 100 percent of the time. So Thompson may be seen as a moderate, but his voting record has made him a darling of the far right. 'When Thompson was first elected, we were afraid he would prove to be a liberal Republican like Howard Baker," says John Davies, head of the Tennessee Conservative Union, "but we've been extremely pleased with his voting record so far"

It's not hard to see why: Thompson consistently voted to cut education funding and increase military spending He took a hard line on welfare reform and voted against the earned-income tax credit, aimed at providing a financial break for the working poor. But he also voted for the Republicans' $ 500-per-child tax credit--which even The Wall Street Journal slammed for not aiding the families who need it most. Though Thompson says he's pro-choice, his voting record on abortion issues (which includes opposing fellow Tennessean Henry Foster's nomination for surgeon general) has earned him high marks from both the Christian Coalition and the National Right to Life Committee. He has also won the backing of the tobacco industry and the NRA.

The two areas where Thompson does buck the GOP belie his reformer image. Consistently, the former lawyer and lobbyist has broken voting ranks on the issues of tort and lobbying reform. He opposed banning members of Congress from accepting gifts from lobbyists and banning lobbyists from making contributions to members they'd recently petitioned.

Similarly, although Thompson did vote for tire final Contract With America item to overhaul product liability laws, he did so only after working (unsuccessfully) to take the teeth out of the bill. Right along with the Democrats, who were trashed for being in the pocket of trial attorneys, Thompson voted overwhelmingly against measures aimed at capping punitive damages and limiting attorneys' fees. In fact, during his '94 campaign, Thompson sent a letter to a member of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, asking her to convey his opposition to "recent product liability legislation" at an upcoming ATLA conference. Less than two weeks later, ATLA dropped $ 5,000 in PAC funds into Thompson's campaign coffers. Another $ 5,000 arrived the following month. In this election, the group again showed its support with the maximum legal contribution of $ 10,000. All told, as of October 1 Thompson had received over $ 50,000 from PACs representing lawyers and lobbyists.

The Final Challenge

One word notably absent from descriptions of Thompson is "passionate" No one seems able to pinpoint what drives him, what makes him tick--essentially, what compelled him to cast aside a law/lobbying/acting career for the Senate. "Thompson can articulate issues very well, and he certainly has a media presence. But when you try to peel back the image and look inside, there's something missing," says Mike Kopp, who worked on dim Cooper's 1994 campaign and has since become socially acquainted with Thompson.

This lack of a central passion could pose a problem if the GOP plans to cast Thompson in the role of president. "Reagan was passionate about defense," notes Kopp. "Even if you disagreed with his military spending, you knew it stemmed from his core passion of wanting to protect our country. Thompson doesn't seem passionate about anything except being Ol' Erred. If he wants to hold national office and be another Ronald Reagan Republican, he's got to find a core"

Such criticism is ironic, considering that Thompson makes this exact observation about Richard Nixon in At That Point In Time: "[In Nixon,] I could find no underlying philosophy by which all things could be measured. In the end, I think that this, more than any other factor, caused his undoing. There was no anchor there; there were no roots"

Assuming Thompson can define his philosophy, he still lacks one other vital asset for a presidential candidate: a wife. In this age of family values, the GOP would have a hard time painting a single divorce as the epitome of Norman Rockwell Americana. And word has it Thompson's charm works as well on the ladies as it does with the voters. A friend of his notes that "there's been a long line of women" in the decade since Thompson's divorce, including a semi-serious relationship with country music singer Lorrie Morgan. Says Sen. Orrin Hatch, who chairs the Judiciary Committee on which Thompson sits, "Really lovely women just seem to like Fred"

Of course, the next presidential election is four years off, and the senator is remaining prudently silent about his political ambitions. But Thompson has certainly proven himself to be someone who loves a good challenge--and who isn't afraid to think big. One of his colleagues related a story about the party Howard Baker threw at his D.C. condo the night before Thompson's swearing-in ceremony. Apparently, the raucous crowd would not quiet down as Baker introduced Thompson, and taking the stage, Thompson pointed out that, years ago when Tennessee sent Andrew Jackson to Washington, there had been a rowdy group there to greet him as well. Baker reportedly chided his protege, "One office at a time, Fred."

Michelle Cottle was an editor at The Washington Monthly from 1996 to 1998. She is currently a senior editor at The New Republic. Her most recent article for The Monthly is "Love Potion #9.1 Viagra is just the latest weapon in Americas battle with Mother Nature". '

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