Consider Fred Thompson’s résumé — presidential candidate, actor, senator, attorney, and talk-radio host. Yet his memoir, Teaching the Pig to Dance, focuses on his childhood in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. The message of the book is that the small-town, conservative values he learned there have never failed him throughout his varied and accomplished career.
Take his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Immediately after concluding his presidential campaign on January 19, 2008, Thompson rushed to the hospital to be with his pneumonia-stricken mother. “Literally, almost overnight, I had gone from the most public, intrusive, self-centered existence known to man to the exact opposite — the quiet of my mother’s room late at night. It was a quick journey from manufactured reality to reality.” The campaign was a very public failure for Thompson, but it only made him recalibrate his priorities.
“I had an insurmountable object to overcome in that presidential bid,” Thompson recently told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, “and that was the wisdom and good judgment of the American people.” His memoir is shot through with this sort of self-deprecating wit.
Fred Thompson’s father, Fletcher, began his career as a truck driver, then opened a used-car lot “without any help from his folks, an SBA loan, a ‘stimulus grant,’ or anything else.” Thompson’s first exposure to politics came from his father: Though Fletcher had grown up a Democrat, he soured on the local Democratic politicians and eventually made an unsuccessful bid for county sheriff, backed by a coalition of Democrats and independents.
Growing up, Thompson attended the Church of Christ with his family, and he prayed with his mother every night. His definition of conservatism is heavily influenced by his faith: “The nature of man and the principles that had survived the ages seemed to me to be a much more reliable yardstick than the fads and intellectual brainstorms of the day. For me, this was the essence of conservatism and still is.” He describes himself as a scriptural “strict constructionist.”
Which is not to say that the teenaged Thompson was a straight-laced church mouse. The title of the memoir comes from a high-school teacher he gave a bit trouble to: Mrs. Garner, his Latin teacher. “Teaching Latin to someone like me in high school was somewhat like trying to teach a pig to dance. It’s a waste of the teacher’s time and it irritates the pig. But such was the task that Mrs. Garner accepted.” Thompson was a class prankster, and his lack of focus in class might have resulted in his failing high school, save for the grace of this one teacher.
He married at age 17 when his girlfriend became pregnant, and he went to work to gain the trust and respect of her family. These unexpected circumstances forced the teenager to grow up fast. He made it to college, and at Memphis State University his interest in politics grew: He read National Review in order to rebut his liberal professors’ arguments, and he was a strong supporter of Barry Goldwater. He eventually received his law degree from Vanderbilt.
Thompson’s career as a lawyer earned him his start at his second career, acting. He represented Marie Ragghianti, the head of the Tennessee Parole Board, in a clemency-for-cash case against Gov. Ray Blanton, and the story was turned into a book. When the book was made into the movie Marie: A True Story, Thompson was asked to audition, probably for a role as an extra. He ended up being cast to play himself. That was the first of 20 movies in which Thompson would appear. Thompson says of his acting career: “I didn’t mean to be an actor or be in the movies. It just kind of happened with no planning on my part.” Still, Thompson has managed to bring his politics and principles to his onscreen moonlighting: His most famous character, district attorney Arthur Branch of Law and Order, is a conservative southern lawyer.
Thompson has faced divorce, remarriage, the end of his political career (he says in the book that he will not run again), and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which thankfully is in remission. But these trials have only made him more appreciative of the frailty of life and the importance of family. It is these lessons that are on display in Teaching the Pig to Dance — not political spin or policy proposals, but values, belief, and character.
– Carter Reese is a summer intern at National Review.