By Mike Kinosian,
At an imposing height of six feet six inches, Thompson commanded instant respect – yet was also the very definition of an affable gentleman. Sheffield, Alabama-born Fred Dalton Thompson distinguished himself by representing The Volunteer State of Tennessee in the United States Senate from December 1994 – January 2003.
Approximately two-dozen movie credits, as well as his portrayal of District Attorney Arthur Branch on NBC-TV’s “Law & Order: Trial by Jury,” saturated his remarkably robust resume.
Back in May 2006, Thompson padded his already overflowing portfolio by being named ABC Radio’s Senior Analyst and substituted as needed on the web’s centerpiece, “Paul Harvey News & Comment.”
Tougher than it sounds
Shortly after ABC made the announcement, Thompson engaged in a comprehensive personality profile interview with TALKERS’ current managing editor Mike Kinosian, who was then special features editor of Inside Radio.
Getting acquainted with his new radio responsibilities, the former Senator exuded, “Believe me – it’s quite exciting and one of those happy situations that seems to happen from time to time in my life,” however, it was not something the Memphis State University (1964) and Vanderbilt University Law School (1967) alum was seeking.
Several ABC Radio executives approached him with the idea and things came perfectly together. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for someone still interested in what’s going on in this country; has opinions on things that are important to his children and grandchildren; and who reads five newspapers every day,” stated Thompson, who told Kinosian that he could not bring himself to look at a newspaper on his computer. “I like being able to hold the paper in my hands and cut out articles.”
The role with ABC gave him a chance to continue having a voice. “You can reach an awful lot of people and get your views across on radio like no other medium,” Thompson insisted.
Sitting in for ABC icon Harvey was daunting even for the multi-gifted Thompson who succinctly commented, “Paul Harvey is a legend, but it is also exciting, challenging and an honor to do the same kind of work. Like anything else they pay you for, there’s a lot more to this than meets the eye.”
It wound up being “pretty tough work” for Thompson, although in some respects, it is “like some other jobs” he had in his career.
Introduction to radio came when then-high school student Thompson attended a career opportunity seminar. “Something crossed my mind – and not much more than that – to be a radio announcer,” he remembered. “I knew some radio announcers who called football and basketball games and that interested me. I didn’t listen to very much news when I was younger [but] I heard old-time radio shows like ‘Fibber McGee & Molly’ and ‘The Great Gildersleeve.'”
There was little difficulty though for Thompson to put what was apparently a fleeting fascination with the medium aside, as he decided instead to become a lawyer. That was the only thing he thought about for 25 years – he practiced law and enjoyed it.
Other opportunities presented themselves. One thing led to another, including a self-portrayal in a 1985 movie (“Marie”) about one of his celebrated lawsuits where he took on a Tennessee Parole Board.
Some 13 years earlier, a 30-year-old Thompson spent 18 months as counsel on the Watergate Committee. Attributed to him is an often-quoted question of epic proportions from those hearings: “What did the President know and when did he know it?”
Evidently, that is apocryphal as he modestly declared to Kinosian, it was chairman Howard Baker’s line. “That was a remarkable time in our nation’s history as well as a remarkable time in my life. I was a young man and hadn’t been out of law school very long.”
Holding that unique place in history originated from Thompson’s work on then-Tennessee Senator Baker’s 1972 re-election campaign. “When Watergate hit, Baker decided when navigating Washington’s treacherous shoals, it’s better to have someone you know rather than someone who knows what they’re doing,” Thompson joked.
Those were extreme pressure-cooker circumstances and Thompson “saw the parade of high-level public officials” – including the person who several years earlier signed his Certificate of Appointment as Assistant United States Attorney – on their way to prison. “That was a pretty heavy dose for a young, country lawyer,” Thompson confided to Kinosian. “I left Washington after that with no interest in returning for a long time.”
Painful as it was, there’s no doubt whatsoever the process underscored our republic’s strength, although as Thompson recounted, many other countries made fun of the United States claiming our country made such a big deal of it. “They could not understand why [we didn’t overlook some] peccadilloes or wrongdoing. It did not seem like very much but we showed we are susceptible to some of the same problems or issues as everyone else. The difference is we have the strength to deal with it; we are a free and open society. Through all our partisan fighting, problems and difficulties, we have a system where the powers are separated and we have a free press. We’ve demonstrated that ever since we’ve been in existence.”
A Senate seat opened up in November 1992 when another Tennessee luminary, Al Gore, was elected Vice President. “I’d been successful in other things and thought I was universally respected,” Thompson contended. “Setting out [for that job] was different from anything I’d ever done before. It required harder work, resiliency and not being drained from the process.”
Many recognized his face, but it was Thompson’s name that appeared in pre-election polls against six-term Democratic congressman Jim Cooper. “I was running against a respected opponent and began 20 points behind,” Thompson pointed out to Kinosian. “For 12-18 months, it was extremely lonely and difficult. I was not raising as much money as people thought I should. I’ve won lawsuits and managed to do other noteworthy things, most of which depended on other peoples’ good work and support, but in terms of personal satisfaction, that was the highlight for me.”
As part of that chat, Kinosian speculated that seeing Thompson make a bid for the White House would not be shocking with Thompson remarking, “It’s ultimately a personal decision and you must have it in your blood. Once it’s in there, as my friend [Arizona Senator] John McCain [the GOP’s 2008 nominee] likes to say, it’s only removed by embalming fluid.”
Sufficient personal ambition drove Thompson to make a Senate bid but he differentiated that campaign from a run at the presidency. “It is a different thing altogether and I realize the price you have to pay,” he acknowledged to Kinosian in 2006. “Some might say it’s not a career for a ‘normal’ person. You need unbelievable drive; single-mindedness and purpose; be willing to set aside many other things in your life; and raise tremendous amounts of money. Most people aren’t willing to do that.”
It is also imperative you have extremely thick skin. “Much effort is spent against you to embarrass and drag you down,” Thompson explained. “That’s an unnatural state of affairs for most people to willingly walk into. You’ve got to know yourself and whether or not you’re willing to pay that price. Who wouldn’t like to be sworn in on Inauguration Day [though] and make the great speech as you express your vision of the country? That’s just a thimbleful in an ocean of other considerations and difficulties you have to do to get there.”
Every now and then, Thompson wished he could have stridden back to the Senate floor and delivered a message on something of great substance and consequence, but those feelings quickly faded and he did not regret leaving. “I realize what it takes to get to that point and all the rest that goes with it,” he reasoned. “I enjoyed my service and wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was quite an honor [although] I never went into it with the idea I would stay there the rest of my career. It’s better to leave while there are people who feel [you’ve been effective]”
Constantly having to maintain a partisan pace was among the things that disturbed him. “Everything is about raising money,” Thompson emphasized to Kinosian, a point that would have greater relevance. “You’re trying to figure out how to take advantage of the other side while they are doing the same. Everything seems to be on a very short-term outlook. People who want that to be their career are never off the treadmill and are always running.”
Ticking time bomb
Of even greater importance, considerable time is spent on “insignificant” matters, making it increasingly more difficult to deal with substantive issues.
Elected officials struggle to arrive at some kind of accommodation, but the former Senator opined, “There is no good solution and feelings are exacerbated. Our entitlement programs [will soon] be immersed in a sea of red ink. Baby boomers are retiring; demographics are changing; and we have a growing elderly population. Fewer and fewer workers are paying in [while] more and more people are on retirement. We will need astronomical tax increases. The longer we wait, the more difficult it is going to be – that is something staring us in the face. Everyone knows it is there but we can’t do anything about it because of short-term political considerations.”
One significant concern, he maintained in that 2006 conversation, is our abundance of career politicians. “Too many of them feel war and peace or entitlement programs going bankrupt aren’t the greatest travesties.”
Like everyone else, consumer Thompson was concerned about “our declining standards” on radio and television. “It is unfortunate to constantly be on guard to protect young children from what’s out there,” he proclaimed. “Some people think being more outrageous, more profane and pushing the envelope are ways [to get higher ratings]. It is bad whenever we become blasé about profanity coming into our homes. We ought to do what is necessary, but consistent with the law and First Amendment.”
During that wide-raging dialogue, Kinosian broached the topic of Thompson doing a long-form radio program, but the former Senator did not envision that on the horizon. “There are already a lot of good people in those areas,” he modestly downplayed in his familiar rich tones. “I am not sure I could add or compete that much in those particular areas [so] we’re looking at some other things. Perhaps I can carve out my own niche in terms of news and analysis and have my own voice in that respect in a different way. Many options are out there and you never know how things might develop. I will have my strong and short suits and they will become obvious as time goes on. I don’t suppose we are locked into anything [but] that’s not something we’re thinking about right now.”
When he joined TALKERS several years later, Kinosian caught up with Thompson and reminded him about their earlier discussion and Thompson’s seemingly lack of ambition to join the fray of a presidential run. Of course, Thompson did seek the presidency, declaring in September 2007 and pulling the plug four months later. Wondering why Thompson exited so quickly, Kinosian referenced the earlier banter they had and Thompson underscored it was for the same reason that always bothered him – he felt uncomfortable asking for campaign contributions, which took up a great deal of his time.
Writing in his book “Teaching the Pig to Dance: A Memoir of Growing Up and Second Chances,” Thompson summarized that his failed candidacy was the first time in his life he “couldn’t accomplish something I had set out to do.”
Surviving Thompson are his wife, Jeri; their children Hayden and Sammy; his brother Ken; his adult children Tony and Dan; and several grandchildren.
Email TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@TALKERS.com.