ThompsonWatergate

Fred Thompson’s family today announced the surprising death of the 73-year-old actor and politician, saying that he died surrounded by family after a recurrence of the rare form of lymphoma he battled in the mid 2000s.

Thompson was talented both as an actor and a politician. He was huge — 6 ft., 6 in., with a voice to match — which is the one thing I remember about the only time I had the opportunity to meet him. He was from the Republican Party’s moderate wing; a Howard Baker Republican, you might say. In fact, Thompson’s introduction to politics came in 1972 when he managed Baker’s U.S. Senate re-election campaign. 

Later, it was Thompson — who was at that time the chief legal counsel for Senate Republicans investigating President Richard Nixon’s role in the Watergate scandal — who handed Baker the infamous question that he had scrawled on paper: “What did the president know and when did he know it?” In the widely-circulated photo of Baker and a stern-faced Sam Ervin from the Watergate hearings, it was Thompson who was seated to Baker’s immediate right.

Thompson was atypical as a politician. He wasn’t born into riches. In fact, he and his first wife lived in public housing in the early days of their marriage. He had never held political office when he sought Al Gore’s Senate seat in Tennessee, but he and his trademark red pickup truck won the hearts and the imagination of Tennessee voters as he crisscrossed the state in the run-up to the election and soundly won the race.

It was boredom that had driven Thompson from acting into politics, and it was boredom that would drive him from politics back into acting in 2003. He could’ve served in the Senate for as long as he wished, but he didn’t wish to do so. Had he stayed put, he might have someday been president. Instead, he chose to take on his now-familiar role on NBC’s Law & Order TV drama. 

Nevertheless, he still wound up running for president, after Howard Baker talked him into it in 2007. I recall speaking to Baker in the hallway of the Scott County Office Building in Huntsville in late summer of 2007, asking him about how he perceived Thompson’s chances of winning the Republican nomination. Baker worried that Thompson was waiting too late to jump into the race. And, in fact, he was. Thompson didn’t officially declare his candidacy until September 2007, after the campaign was well underway. He left the race in January 2008 after failing to gain traction, and threw his weight behind John McCain, the eventual GOP nominee. 

It was somewhat odd how closely Thompson’s career paralleled Baker’s. Perhaps not too odd, considering that Thompson was a Baker protege, but odd nonetheless. Baker made a name for himself for his role in the Watergate scandal. He then failed in a bid for the White House in 1980, but later served key roles as President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff and as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Japan. Thompson sought to make a name for himself in a Senate investigation into fundraising during the 1996 presidential campaign, but that investigation never gained traction. Like Baker, Thompson’s presidential bid never got off the ground. Like Baker, Thompson enjoyed respect and admiration from both sides of the aisle in Washington. And, like Baker, I’m pretty sure Thompson would’ve been a good president if he could’ve convinced voters to send him to the White House.