Despite a recurrence of lymphoma, former Senator Fred Thompson kept working up until nearly the end of his life, which ended today at age 73. His last film, released just after Labor Day this year, was ironically called “90 Minutes in Heaven.” Fred will keep everyone beyond St. Peter’s gate educated and entertained for far longer than that.
Fred Thompson had a humble background as the grandson of a sharecropper and son of a used-car salesman in Tennessee but succeeded in four different careers: law, politics, lobbying, and acting. He was a sports star but an indifferent student until age 17 when he read the autobiography of Clarence Darrow, the great attorney from the Scopes “Monkey” trial that took place in his native Tennessee.
“I just knew it. I was 17 and I wanted be a lawyer. It’s the only thing I considered for five minutes,” Thompson told the Boston Globe in 2007. “Until I was 17, it never occurred to me I had to be anything, but at 17 I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.”
He soon became not only a good one, but a famous one. At age 30, he was Republican counsel in the Watergate hearings, and he began building a reputation as a straight-shooter. It was he who asked the question that forced a White House deputy to admit that Richard Nixon had secretly recorded his Oval Office conversations.
Later in the 1970s he played a key role in exposing a Tennessee cash-for-pardons scandal; his acting career began when he won the part of playing himself in the 1985 movie version of the story. He eventually starred in over 20 movies, replaced radio legend Paul Harvey, and played the district attorney on Law and Order for years.
In 1994, he left a comfortable lobbying career to run for the U.S. Senate, proving himself to be a popular down-home campaigner who won twice by over 20 points in a state that Bill Clinton carried twice. In 1997, he chaired the investigation of both Clinton-Gore and GOP campaign fundraising abuses: He was largely stymied when key witnesses declined to testify or fled the country, though evidence eventually surfaced of a Chinese plan to influence U.S. politics.
In 2002, he lost his daughter after she failed to come out of a drug-overdose induced coma. Already frustrated with the Senate’s endless maneuvering over minutiae, he decided to retire at age 60 only two months later and change his life. In June of that year, he married his second wife, Jeri (his first marriage at age 17 ended amicably in divorce in 1985). In 2003, they had their first child (a second was born in 2006).
“I had the deepest lows and the greatest highs in the space of 18 months,” Thompson told me back then. “I count my blessings, and I have a real focused sense of purpose now.”
That purpose include his leaving the Law and Order TV sound stage for a campaign microphone as he ran tor the GOP presidential nomination. But he got a late start and was plagued by a lackluster staff. He was eventually bested by his old friend John McCain, but not before his campaign finally came alive in later primaries and ended honorably.
In or out of office, Fred Thompson stayed true to the conservative principles he believed he had made America great. He always thought a major reason Republicans lost the presidency in 2008 was that they had aided and abetted runaway government spending. Republicans had to commit themselves to smaller government, he contended, because Democrats are incapable of following through on ever being fiscally prudent. “Their political coalition needs more revenue like a car requires gasoline,” he told me as he ran for president. “Reagan showed what can be done if you have the will to push for tough choices and the ability to ask the people to accept them.”
Fred Thompson never made it to the White House, but he nonetheless showed a strength of character and a grounded belief in common sense that left his country a better place.