Fred Thompson is on his first campaign swing as a declared presidential candidate after announcing his run on The Tonight Show and in a web video. Now, he’s in the crush of campaigning, but last month, when he was still exploring a run, Thompson sat down for an leisurely interview with National Review. He covered his record, how he came to think about running for president, the war, taxes, entitlements, the Supreme Court, his health — all the issues that are likely to determine the fate of his new campaign. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Byron York: How did this get started?
Senator Fred Thompson: Well, I guess in my own mind, as I was looking at things develop in the country, as I was thinking about my own personal situation, I was really better positioned, I thought, than a lot of people who were thinking about this, really, for the first time. So let’s just say that I had had some thoughts about it from time to time over a period of several months, and so when I went on Fox News [March 11], I mentioned that I was going to think about it, and the response was substantial, so I thought more about it. And the response continued to be substantial, so over a period of time, I decided that I was going to put myself in a position to do it.
York: You couldn’t have done this if Bill Frist was going to go the whole way?
Thompson: No, I couldn’t. I did relate to Bill’s situation like, ‘Aha, there’s an opening.’ But the process I described wouldn’t have ever occurred had Bill been there.
I had some overtures. I had a bunch of people from Tennessee want to fly up, a group of my old friends and supporters, to talk to me about it, and I asked them not to. They’d have some great things to say, it was going to be to encourage me to get in, and I didn’t think I would. I didn’t think I would.
York: Did you feel that there was a gap in the Republican field that you could fill?
Thompson: I can’t really say that. It has more to do, for me, with — it’s more about me, and what I perceive to be my relationship, or my potential relationship, with the people. Clearly, if I saw someone who I said, ‘This is the right person for these times who can win,’ and it was clear to me, I probably would have been thinking totally differently. But it wasn’t an analysis of the current field. You can’t tell anything about the current field a year away. The things that you have to do are so great that to me it can’t be motivated by an analysis of the field or who’s got who lined up in New Hampshire or anything like that. It’s really got to be a feeling that related to the American people with regard to things that are important for our children’s future. My focus certainly has not been on ‘Aha, this is a weak field, this is an opportunity for a nice young man like myself.’
York: How would you approach Supreme Court nominations?
Thompson: I feel very strongly about this issue. Other than homeland security, and national security and issues of war and peace, it’s the most important thing a president does. It’s important that the president not only know and understand and learn about the people he’s going to have to choose but he understands the underlying issues and hopefully knows how to read a case and knows who’s following precedent and who’s not and who’s doing it from the seat of their pants based on their own views of social equity, versus the Constitution and the law.
I like Roberts and Alito and Scalia and Thomas. One of the best things that I got to do as a private citizen was to help get Justice Roberts through the confirmation process. It gave me an opportunity to go back through not only his cases but prior confirmation hearings, to re-steep myself in some of those issues. We’re in a heck of a lot better shape because of Roberts and Alito, and one more gain would put us in even better shape.
YORK: Listening to the Roberts and Alito confirmation hearings, it didn’t seem to be a slam dunk that they would someday vote to overturn Roe. What did you think?
THOMPSON: I think it’s a fair assessment to say you can’t come away from their hearings saying that anything is going to be a slam dunk. They are going to hear it objectively and dispassionately, with proper reliance on precedent, and not be results-oriented. That’s the reason we need judges like this, because they’re not results oriented. I think it gives a reassurance to the American people.
York: What was your reaction to the Harriet Miers nomination?
Thompson: Disappointment. To say the least.
York: What are your views on the surge in Iraq?
Thompson: It’s making progress, and it should be given an opportunity to succeed, and we should not be competing with each other to see who can put up the white flag first. It makes us look weak and divided and gives encouragement to the enemy. The idea that we are going to have serious efforts to cut off or hamper funding support of any time, even before Petreaus comes in, when the reports from the battlefield are good, is incomprehensible to me.
It reflects a lack of understanding that we are in a historic global conflict with people who look upon this as a war that’s been going on for centuries. And they’re plenty willing for it to go on for more centuries.
If we appear to be weak and divided, as Osama always said we were, as Saddam always said we were, it would play right into their hands. It would be a recruiting coup beyond 9/11 or anything else and would convince them that their historic plan was playing out. We’ve got to do whatever we can to avoid that. To not avail ourselves of any opportunity to succeed there, we would be placing politics above the long-term interests of our country.
York: What did you make of a statement made by White House spokesman Tony Snow, that with the surge American troops would no longer be fighting with their hands tied behind their backs?
Thompson: The first thing I thought was, Why in the devil were they ever fighting with one hand tied behind their backs?
York: A lot of Republican voters believe that U.S. troops have operated under very restrictive rules of engagement. Your thoughts?
Thompson: I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. They’ve got a process there when they round people up, they’ve got to put them through a process that would make a typical American criminal envious.
It’s no secret. The strategy for a long time was just to kind of hold our own and hunker down while we trained up the Iraqis to take care of themselves and for the government to get on its feet. Hindsight is 20-20, and I guess there’s a case to be made for that, but there’s not a case to be made for it for year after year after year when the situation continues to get worse. But I don’t think that we ought to wallow in all that. It is what it is. We’re talking about the future of our country. We’re there for our own long-term self interest.
At the end of the day, are we going to make further mistakes that will weaken us for the long haul? And it’s going to be a long haul, in case people haven’t gotten the message. I’m not sure people understand to this day the nature of the enemy, or how Iraq plays into it, or what the long term prospects are.
Long term, long term, it’s going to have to involve a resetting of our priorities. You can’t pass a Farm Bill like we just passed and not do anything that needs to be done in terms of military transformation, in terms of looking toward the future with regard to the terrorism threat and Special Forces needs that we’re going to have in the future, while we still are going to have our conventional capabilities, and as China is engaged in a rapid military buildup. Our technological advantages might not be all that we think they are.
We’re scrambling to get our intelligence capabilities up to snuff and where they ought to be. We took a holiday from history after the Cold War, in a lot of respects. We went from a time where the president never talked a CIA director to a time where intelligence is our front line of defense. We don’t have the luxury any more of pretending like we live in a different time.
All this costs money at a time when our entitlement situation [is dire], when the first Baby Boomers are set to retire in the next couple of years. How do we prioritize things? How are we going to have to give up X for Y in terms of our domestic nondefense priorities? In the Korean War, we cut domestic nondefense discretionary spending 25 percent in one year. In one year. Under a Democrat. We don’t consider ourselves at war. We don’t do that any more. We go along with our guns and butter, and we can’t do that indefinitely.
York: Let’s talk about Iran. Are you among those who advocate military action soon?
Thompson: Am I jumping up and down to bomb Iran? All anybody has to do is listen to everything I’ve ever publicly said about it, including the Jay Leno show a while back. I talk about how all of our options should be explored, while we can’t take the military option away, that there are a lot of good things happening inside Iran, they have a lot of problems there that might inure to our benefit, and we can do more from a sanctions standpoint. If we get support, even an embargo would be a step short of military options.
On the other hand, people need to realize that Iran is at the heart of much, if not most of the problems in the Middle East, when there is a prime supporter of Hezbollah and Hamas a threat to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. Would people suggest that we talk our way out of that difficulty? They perceive us as weak now. It’s in their interest to have us defeated and driven out. I recognize that. Ultimately, it has to be dealt with, just not in a knee-jerk fashion.
York: You talk about entitlement reform. Yet George W. Bush, at the height of his powers, got nowhere with Social Security reform.
Thompson: What’s happened in the past is interesting and relevant, but not in any way determinative of the future. The whole basis of what I’ve been talking about is that we’re going to have to do things better and be more resolute in the future. Somebody’s going to have to talk the truth to people and address those things and see what kind of response you get. If you don’t get a very good response, it will continue on the way it is — until it doesn’t, and the government becomes nothing more than a transfer agent from one generation to the next. It will change. The question is when, and do we begin to make progress, not to fix everything forever, but to begin to make progress in the right direction.
The next president is going to have to have people behind him. [Politicians] are not going to ever step up to the plate before they sense the people behind it, and I think that’s the leadership that can only come from the top.
York: You would keep the Bush tax cuts?
Thompson: It’s extremely important that they not expire. They have proven a boon to the economy. We’re collecting more revenue now than ever before in the history of the country. This is a constant fight, and it has to do with power as much as taxes. It has to do with the constant growth of government and how much bigger government is going to get. It’s also about economic growth. None of the problems we have, including the entitlement problem, we can ever get our arms around without pretty continuous economic growth.
I believe in a progressive tax system, but we’ve got 40 percent of Americans now paying the entire tax bill, or 99 percent of it — five percent are paying over half the taxes in America — that’s pretty progressive, and shouldn’t be more so.
York: Have your views of abortion changed over the years?
Thompson: A man who lives a full life and at the end of the day thinks exactly the way he thought about things much earlier on is a pretty hapless guy, in my estimation. My views on abortion has always been basically the same, in terms of my voting record and what government’s role in all that is and what people should do or not do.
But I have to say that the birth of my daughter, and later the birth of my little boy, but especially the birth of my daughter — it changed my own life in a lot of significant respects. I know how I felt the moment I learned that I was going to have a baby at this age. And then, through the means of modern technology, I was able to see this little being and be told by the doctors, what they’re learned in terms of when fingerprints develop, and things that we didn’t know before — so although my votes remain the same and my administration would remain the same as they would have otherwise in terms of being pro-life, as a person, as a human being, I do have a deeper understanding and feeling than I have in times past.
York: What about gay marriage?
Thompson: I am against gay marriage, as an officially sanctioned thing. I don’t like the notions of civil unions, either, but as far as I am concerned, that matter ought to be left up to the states. Gay marriage is something that creates full faith and credit issues. People move around all over the country.
I don’t think anybody ought to be given any special privileges. I do think they ought to have the right to enter into contracts with people, or understandings or agreements with people, just like any private citizen does. If people want to make those kinds of arrangements and understandings with each other, there’s nothing the government should do to interfere with that, as far as I’m concerned. But it’s best handled by the people closest to the scene who can have their views reflected. Tennessee may or may not agree with Massachusetts, but they ought to have the right to make whatever different laws on civil unions that they want to make, or not have them at all.
York: How is your health?
Thompson: It’s good. It’s fine.
York: Other than the lymphoma thing, no other issue?
York: If elected, you would be 66 on Inauguration Day, the third-oldest president to take office, behind Ronald Reagan and William Henry Harrison. Is your age an issue?
Thompson: Far be it from me to say that anything is not an issue for anybody to think about. They’re free to think about anything they want to. All I know is my cards are on the table. People are free to judge for themselves.
One of the first things I did was to go public and talk about my lymphoma situation and all its details, to put all the doctors out there. It didn’t seem to register negatively. There are other candidates out there at present, and last time also, who have had cancer at one time or another. People are free to make up their own minds about that. I don’t know how much more than to get your doctors out there and answer questions at a press conference that you can do. It’s not anything I’m concerned about.
York: What are your two or three most important accomplishments from your time in the Senate?
Thompson: You mean besides leaving the Senate? I came to the Senate in order to try to help balance the budget, cut taxes, make Congress live under the laws that everybody else had to live under, start to rebuild and improve our defenses, and reform welfare. I was involved in all that, and I think I was the leader in some of it. I never scrambled to become one of 40 to get my name co-sponsoring a bill that everybody knew was going to pass, or not pass. I think the record will reflect that
Paul Light was quoted not too long ago that I was probably the most astute steward of government performance that he had seen in the Senate as chairman of the Government Affairs Committee as we tried to reform the operations of government and make it more accountable. I was one of the leads, if not the lead, time-wise, with regard to the homeland security bill. On the campaign finance bill, it was my amendment that got the limits doubled and the amounts that parties could give to candidates doubled. It had been $1,000 for a long time — I tried to get more.
York: A lot of conservatives hated that bill.
Thompson: Yeah, but they loved that part. You didn’t ask me what was ideologically popular, you asked me the things that I did, and I’m saying that bill would have been a lot worse if it hadn’t been for me, because we would be where we are today, with $1,000 limits. Incidentally, I think they still should be greater. On all the key issues, I played a part. Frankly, I haven’t gone back yet in great detail — I’ve got people working on it — to compile everything that I did and exactly what I did on all those issues, but I was in the middle of all of it and helped it happen.
York: You explored running for president in 2000. Why didn’t you?
Thompson: Very briefly. I thought about it a little bit. By the time I looked around, George W. Bush was flying people into the governor’s office down in Austin and pretty much had it wrapped up. And I looked at the situation at that point and the mantra was compassionate conservatism, which I think kind of defined the times that we were in at that point. They weren’t perceived to be tough times, calling for taking a fork in the road. It was kind of a caretaker situation, the way I looked at it, and that didn’t to me justify what it would take to run for president. I think the times are different now.
York: Your wife, Jeri, has gotten a lot of criticism. What’s your reaction?
Thompson: She has taken a lot of comments that should have been directed toward me. We started literally from the kitchen table a few months ago. You have to walk before you can run, and you have to crawl before you can walk. While I did the things that I felt like I needed to do — I had a contract with NBC television, I had a contract with ABC radio, I was chairman of the advisory board on international security for the State Department, and a lot of other things — while I was disengaging from that and getting my thoughts together on issues and things of that nature, public comments I knew I would be called on to make — I asked her to do certain things for me. She did what I asked her to do. She always looks out for my best interests, and when she sees something that she knows I would not approve of, or is not in my best interest, she voices that concern — in other words, just exactly the way I would want her to. Now, some people don’t like that, especially some people who have their own issue with regard to the campaign, shall we say, and they take advantage of putting out anonymous comments and so forth. So that’s the campaign situation.
In terms of this other thing, I think the problem is that Jeri refuses to go out in public and behave like a candidate’s wife before I’m a candidate. The fact that she’s not out there promoting herself seems to greatly concern some people in the media, so they have gone back to old boyfriends, the families of old boyfriends, high school classmates, basically anything that can be dredged up to fill this void that they perceive has been created. Things that you would think could have been checked fairly readily, but things that are clearly erroneous like she’s not a lawyer and she’s never been married before. I listened to a news show with an expert commentator about a week ago talking about Jeri, and in a short segment he had four totally erroneous factual errors about her. So there’s no way that we can drink from that firehose right how. And she’s not going to become a public commentator and personality as a candidate’s wife until there’s a candidate.