November 5, 2015
Fred Thompson, right, Senate Watergate committee minority counsel, talks about his role in the investigation of the Watergate break-in with William L. Underhill, president of the Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association Sept. 22, 1973. J.T. Phillips / The Tennessean
(Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast, ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Fred Thompson died on Sunday in Nashville. He was 73.
He served as counsel to the Senate committee investigating the Watergate scandal.
Mr. Thompson served in the U.S. Senate from 1994 to 2003.
As an actor, he had roles on NBC's "Law & Order" and in films such as "The Hunt for Red October."
Fred Thompson, a former U.S. senator from Tennessee, GOP presidential candidate, Watergate attorney and actor who starred on the television drama "Law and Order," died on Sunday in Nashville. He was 73.
Mr. Thompson died after a recurrence of lymphoma, according to a prepared statement issued by the Thompson family. Mr Thompson, who had recently purchased a house in Nashville to return to Tennessee, was first diagnosed with cancer in 2004.
"It is with a heavy heart and a deep sense of grief that we share the passing of our brother, husband, father, and grandfather who died peacefully in Nashville surrounded by his family," the Thompson family's statement reads.
"Fred once said that the experiences he had growing up in small-town Tennessee formed the prism through which he viewed the world and shaped the way he dealt with life," his family said. "Fred stood on principle and common sense, and had a deep love for and connection with the people across Tennessee whom he had the privilege to serve in the United States Senate. He enjoyed a hearty laugh, a strong handshake, a good cigar, and a healthy dose of humility. Fred was the same man on the floor of the Senate, the movie studio, or the town square of Lawrenceburg, his home."
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Standing at least 6 feet, 5 inches with a booming voice, Mr. Thompson and his larger-than-life persona played a role in several key moments that shaped the U.S. and Tennessee political landscape.
As an attorney, he helped lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. As an actor, he starred in some of the most prominent films and television series of his time. And as a politician, he served the state of Tennessee in the U.S. Senate from 1994 to 2003, before making a brief run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.
Fred Thompson remembered by Tennesseans, others
"Today Tennessee lost a talented and admired statesman and many of us lost a beloved friend," said former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, whose Senate term overlapped with Mr. Thompson's time in Washington. "Working at his side in the Senate for eight years, Fred embodied what has always been the best of Tennessee politics — he listened carefully and was happy to work across the aisle for causes that he believed were right."
“Tennessee has lost a great statesman and one of her favorite sons”
Gov. Bill Haslam
Mr. Thompson was elected in Tennessee as a Republican in 1994 to fill the unexpired term of Al Gore, who had became vice president two years earlier. On the campaign trail, Mr. Thompson famously crisscrossed the state in a rented red pickup truck before soundly defeating Democrat Jim Cooper — currently Nashville's congressman — in what was a dominant election year for Republicans nationally.
In a prepared statement, Gore said he was saddened to learn of Mr. Thompson's death.
"His longtime dedication to public service helped millions of people around the country and here, in our home state," Gore said.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said Mr. Thompson will be missed.
Former Sen. Fred Thompson (Photo: Submitted)
"Tennessee has lost a great statesman and one of her favorite sons," Haslam said. "Crissy and I have always appreciated his friendship, and we will miss him."
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., called Mr. Thompson's personality "infectious" and said he had a way of making all of those around him strive to be better.
"Fred never forgot where he came from, and our state and country miss his common-sense approach to public service," Corker said. "I greatly appreciated his friendship and am saddened to learn of his passing."
Democrats, including former Rep. Bob Clement, D-Nashville, remembered Mr. Thompson as someone who put aside partisanship to solve problems. Clement, a personal friend of Mr. Thompson who briefly attended elementary school with him in Nashville, said Mr. Thompson could "absolutely take over a room" with his physical presence, personality and charm.
"He was a good-ol'-boy from Lawrence County with a lot of talent and a lot of gifts," Clement said.
Born in Alabama, Fred Dalton Thompson grew up across the state line in Lawrenceburg, Tenn. Known then as "Freddie," Mr. Thompson was described as a "class cut-up" and "clown" by a high school basketball teammate in a Boston Globe article.
Although he was a well-respected athlete, his high school banned him from playing basketball after he married then-wife Sarah Lindsey at the age of 17. Not a particularly impressive student, he struggled with school and his future until his father-in-law gave him the autobiography of Clarence Darrow, the famed attorney from the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tenn.
"I just knew it. I was 17 and I wanted be a lawyer. It's the only thing I considered for five minutes," Mr. Thompson told the 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."
“Very few people can light up the room the way Fred Thompson did.”
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander
He made good on his plans, earning a law degree from Vanderbilt University in 1967. Mr. Thompson started working as an assistant U.S. attorney, where he met current U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Alexander introduced him to longtime U.S. Sen. Howard Baker, according to the Globe profile.
Baker became a mentor for Mr. Thompson, in both his professional and political life. In turn Mr. Thompson served as Baker's campaign manager during his successful 1972 run. That relationship brought Mr. Thompson to Washington, D.C., and to a role within the Watergate investigation.
“Very few people can light up the room the way Fred Thompson did," Alexander said in a prepared statement Sunday. "He used his magic as a lawyer, actor, Watergate counsel, and United States senator to become one of our country’s most principled and effective public servants. He was my friend for nearly 50 years. I will miss him greatly. Honey and I and our entire family send our love and sympathy to Jeri and the Thompson family.”
Baker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee investigating President Richard Nixon, secured a job for Mr. Thompson as committee counsel. Nixon was none too pleased with the appointment of Mr. Thompson, who was 30 at the time. Mr. Thompson wasn't "very smart" in the eyes of Nixon, according to a 2007 review by The Associated Press of White House tapes.
"Oh s***, that kid," Nixon said when told by his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, of Mr. Thompson's appointment on Feb. 22, 1973, according to the review.
"Well, we're stuck with him," Haldeman said.
Although the same tapes showed Nixon thought Mr. Thompson would be friendly to his cause — Baker reportedly assured Nixon that Mr. Thompson was a "big mean fella" — it was Mr. Thompson's knowledge of the tapes themselves that helped seal the president's fate.
Lore says it was Mr. Thompson who helped phrase the famed Baker question, "What did the president know and when did he know it?" But the Associated Press accounting notes a different question from Mr. Thompson himself that truly spurred Nixon's downward spiral.
Through GOP investigators, Mr. Thompson learned from former White House aide Alexander Butterfield about the recording system within the White House. Although Mr. Thompson told the White House that the committee knew about the tapes, a move that resulted in years of criticism from Democrats, he still was the first to bring up the matter of the tapes in a public hearing.
On July 16, Mr. Thompson asked Butterfield during a hearing if he was "aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president." As noted in the Associated Press report, the question, and its answer, precipitated the president's resignation nearly one year later.
"Legalisms aside, it was inconceivable to me that the White House could withhold the tapes once their existence was made known. I believed it would be in everyone's interest if the White House realized, before making any public statements, the probable position of both the majority and the minority of the Watergate committee," Mr. Thompson wrote in one of his books, according to the report.
Gore, the former vice president, said Mr. Thompson's "extraordinary integrity while working with Senator Howard Baker on the Watergate Committee helped our nation find its way."
"I was deeply inspired by his matter-of-fact, no-nonsense moral courage in that crucible," Gore said. "Tennessee and our nation owe a great debt to Fred Thompson."
Mr. Thompson worked as a lobbyist off and on for roughly more than 20 years after serving as counsel to several legislative committees.
In 1977 Mr. Thompson found himself representing the whistle-blower in one of Tennessee's biggest political scandals. In her role as a parole administrator, Marie Ragghianti refused to release inmates granted pardons after paying then-Gov. Ray Blanton. Mr. Thompson successfully represented Ragghianti in a wrongful termination case, helping her win a settlement and a return to her job in 1978.
That case eventually became the subject of a book and launched Mr. Thompson's acting career. Mr. Thompson played himself in the 1985 version of the movie “Marie." Critics praised his performance, and more roles soon followed.
Five years later, Mr. Thompson had roles in three of the biggest films of 1990: “Days of Thunder,” “The Hunt for Red October” and “Die Hard 2.” He also enjoyed a five-year run on NBC’s “Law and Order” as District Attorney Arthur Branch from 2002-2007.
Though he took a break to run for the Republican nomination for president in 2008, acting remained a constant in Mr. Thompson’s life.
He appeared in box office hits as recently as 2012, with a role in the horror film “Sinister,” and had a recurring role on NBC’s short-lived 2015 series “Allegiance.”
Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn. talks to reporters on Capitol Hill Thursday, Jan. 7, 1999 after attending the ceremonial opening of the Senate's impeachment of President Clinton. (Photo: Doug Mills / The Associated Press)
Senate and the presidency
In 1994 Mr. Thompson successfully earned a seat in the U.S. Senate by beating Cooper 61 percent to 39 percent.
While Cooper criticized Mr. Thompson for acting like a Tennessean while living the life of a Washington lobbyist and Hollywood star, Mr. Thompson argued in a New York Times article that "in many respects, I am an average Tennessean."
"I worked in a factory. I drive a truck. I practice law. I was a federal prosecutor. I've worked without health insurance. I've worked for minimum wage. ... Like a lot of people in Tennessee, I had to get with it to get by," Mr. Thompson told the Times in 1994.
Mr. Thompson won re-election in 1996 by an equally wide margin, but chose not to run again in 2002.
He returned to acting, assuming his well-known role on "Law and Order" in 2002. But he started to again move away from acting and back toward politics in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. Eventually announcing as a candidate, Mr. Thompson underwhelmed. He never placed higher than third in any of the early primary states and dropped out of the race in late January 2008.
In his book "Teaching the Pig to Dance: A Memoir of Growing Up and Second Chances," Mr. Thompson described his failed candidacy as the first time in his life he "couldn’t accomplish something I had set out to do.”
"It occurred to me that, to paraphrase one of Churchill’s comments, perhaps I had more to be humble about than I had realized. It also occurred to me that this was a pretty doggone expensive way to achieve a little humility," Mr. Thompson wrote in the book, published in 2010.
“Maybe I needed to be reminded of what an old-timer told me years ago after I’d had some success: ‘Just remember, son, the turnout at your funeral is still going to depend a hell of a lot on the weather.' "
Mr. Thompson is survived by his wife, Jeri Thompson, and their children Hayden and Sammy; his brother, Ken; his adult children Tony and Dan; and several grandchildren.
Staff writer Dave Paulson contributed to this story.
Former U.S. senator Fred Thompson has passed away after a recurrence of lymphoma. Known both for politics and acting, the former senator for Tennessee also had a recurring role on 'Law & Order.'