IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

GOP hopeful Thompson took own Senate path

In his eight years in the Senate, Fred D. Thompson displayed little enthusiasm for the divisive battles that motivate religious Republican primary voters.
/ Source: The New York Times

From a political standpoint, it should have been an easy decision. The calls flooding Fred D. Thompson’s Senate office in the winter of 1999 showed that his Tennessee constituents overwhelmingly favored removing President Bill Clinton from office. But as the historic impeachment trial neared, records show, Mr. Thompson agonized over what he saw as two “bad choices.”

Years before, as Republican counsel to the Senate Watergate committee, Mr. Thompson had witnessed the proceedings that led to President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation. Now, he pored over legal tomes on precedent. He ordered up lengthy staff memorandums on what the founding fathers intended when they said a president could be removed for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” scribbling his thoughts on a yellow legal pad.

Did the president’s cover-up of an affair with a White House intern justify deposing him “against the will of the people,” Mr. Thompson wondered, or should Mr. Clinton be protected by the very “baseness of his actions?” “His office is too high + the crimes too low,” he mused.

Yet would an acquittal not “haunt us in the future,” setting the bar so high that even a “serial perjurer” could not be removed from office so long as his conduct was “to cover up personal wrongdoing?”

“Worse of both worlds,” he scrawled on a scrap of paper. “Will be easier if you vote guilty.”

Today Mr. Thompson is campaigning for president, selling himself as the most devoted conservative in the Republican field, a leader whose vision was shaped by the Republican revolution of 1994.

But his approach to the impeachment case — and his ultimate decision to part with the Republican majority by voting to acquit Mr. Clinton on one of two impeachment counts — underscores the concerns now being raised by many conservative leaders.

Less than a month into Mr. Thompson’s official campaign, they are asking how truly committed he is to their cause and, given his late-starting and somewhat languid campaign, how much he really covets the prize. James C. Dobson, the influential Christian conservative leader, recently offered this verdict in an e-mail message to supporters: “He has no passion, no zeal and no apparent ‘want to.’”

In his eight years in the Senate, Mr. Thompson compiled a solidly conservative voting record. But a review of thousands of pages of his papers archived at the University of Tennessee and interviews with his former aides show that he displayed little enthusiasm for divisive battles over abortion and other issues that motivate religious Republican primary voters. And when his convictions and his party’s interests diverged, Mr. Thompson brought a lawyer’s sensibility to his deliberations, rather than that of a rote partisan plotting a path to Pennsylvania Avenue. He veered from party orthodoxy often enough that his staff once proudly compiled a long list of votes titled “Breaking With the Republican Pack.”

Those records and interviews also offer a portrait of an often ambivalent politician. From his election in 1994 to his decision in 2002 not to seek re-election to a seat considered so safe that Democrats had all but written it off, Mr. Thompson did not really take to the rhythms of the Senate, much less amass a lengthy list of legislative achievements. Asked this month to name his top accomplishments, he said to National Review, “You mean, besides leaving the Senate?”

Though Mr. Thompson is now refining some of his earlier positions in a way that better reflects his party’s base, he said in an interview that he had conducted himself in the Senate with the freedom of knowing that “this was never meant to be the place where I would stay for my entire career.”

“You are either going to do the right thing, or you’re not,” he said. “If you are politically tacking all the time, it makes life too long and too complicated.”

‘Bored’ by the Senate
As Mr. Thompson made a recent campaign swing through New Hampshire, a man in a bar thrust a copy of Newsweek into his hand and asked for an autograph. The magazine’s cover featured a photograph of Mr. Thompson with the headline “Lazy Like a Fox.” The candidate, grinning broadly, signed with a flourish.

Even before Mr. Thompson officially jumped into the race, detractors charged that he was, as the conservative commentator George F. Will put it, “less than a martyr to the work ethic” in the Senate.

Mr. Thompson seems unfazed by the criticism, eager, in fact, to portray himself as an accidental politician untainted by the striving culture of Washington. As he recently told an Indianapolis television news interviewer, “I haven’t been deciding that I wanted to run for president since I was high school prom king — and I never was, incidentally.”

From the beginning, Mr. Thompson’s career has taken a remarkably passive and serendipitous course.

His first big break came as a 30-year-old small-town lawyer, when his mentor, former Senator Howard H. Baker Jr., chose him over far more accomplished candidates as the Senate Watergate committee’s Republican counsel.

Mr. Thompson parlayed the resulting attention and connections into a lucrative legal and lobbying career. Colleagues say he was skillful, if not always driven. At the Washington firm Arent Fox, where Mr. Thompson was registered as a lobbyist from 1991 to 1994, he was well liked but brought in few clients and billed only about 500 total hours.

Mr. Thompson fell into his acting career after he was tapped to play himself in a movie about a lawsuit involving a clemency-selling scandal that brought down the Tennessee governor. By the time Mr. Baker talked him into running in a special election for Vice President Al Gore’s Senate seat, Mr. Thompson had 18 movie credits to his name.

The campaign initially faltered, with Mr. Thompson trailing badly in the polls. Fed up with fund-raising and the chicken-dinner circuit, he almost quit before deciding to switch gears and drive the state in a rented red pickup truck. He won by more than 20 percentage points as the Republicans seized control of Congress.

(Mr. Thompson is similarly disposed in his presidential bid. Though polls show him emerging as a leading contender in an unsettled field, one recently departed campaign official said: “You’d give him fund-raising call sheets and they’d go into a watery grave in his in box. I’m not sure if he has a full appreciation of what it takes to get there.”)

Less than a week after he was sworn in, Mr. Thompson delivered the Republican response to a prime-time speech by President Clinton. Winning rave reviews for his down-home style, he was instantly labeled a rising star.

Success in the Senate, however, requires more than oratory skill.

Records show that Mr. Thompson delved into the areas that mattered most to him, regularly writing his own speeches and demanding detailed memorandums that often ran well past the one-page limit favored by some senators. He focused on green-eyeshade issues like budget and regulatory reform that, while not exactly the stuff of headlines, have far-reaching impact. Believing that many matters are best left to the states, he voted against popular measures to create federal crimes. Former aides say he could be a stickler for preparation and would often be found in the reading room off his office, prepping for votes and hearings over a cigar.

“On the lazy charge, I have to chuckle because I was there sometimes until 1 in the morning working with the man,” said Paul Noe, a Thompson aide when the senator led the Governmental Affairs Committee.

But few of his legislative initiatives became law, and even admirers acknowledge that he had little patience for the endless debates over minutiae that consume much of the Senate’s time. Nor, say aides, did he relish the schmoozing and deal making necessary to become a heavy-hitter on Capitol Hill.

One former aide, Kelvin Moxley, said Mr. Thompson had not come to Washington with the purpose of injecting himself “into every aspect of human life.” Still, in the clubby atmosphere of the Senate, a place of schmoozing and deal-making where accomplishment is measured in terms of bills passed and power amassed, Mr. Thompson’s seeming indifference set him apart.

“You know who my three best friends in the Senate are?” Mr. Thompson once asked his chief of staff, Tom Daffron. “Bill Cohen, Alan Simpson and Hank Brown. And you know what they all have in common? They’re all quitting.”

Constituent service is the scut work of any legislator, and Mr. Thompson did his fair share. He brought home federal dollars and took the lead in creating a program to compensate cold war-era workers made ill from radiation at nuclear weapons plants in Tennessee and elsewhere. But several recording industry lobbyists said they had difficulty capturing his attention on their issues, even though Nashville is the country music capital of the world.

As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mr. Thompson was outspoken on the topic of unconventional weapons. He held up a China trade bill overwhelmingly favored by the business community in an unsuccessful effort to require sanctions if China violated nuclear proliferation agreements. That, said a former aide, Hanna Sistare, took “some guts and determination.”

But when Mr. Thompson left the Senate and was appointed to a bipartisan commission that advises Congress on Chinese threats to national security, his concern did not translate into regular attendance. Although Mr. Thompson nods to his membership in a campaign video, the panel’s minutes show that of the 19 hearings during his 2005-6 tenure, he attended only 6.

“When he was there, his contributions were thoughtful and constructive,” said a Democratic member, William A. Reinsch. “But he wasn’t there enough to really leave an imprint.”

Norman J. Ornstein, a Congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who worked closely with Mr. Thompson on several government reform measures, said that while Mr. Thompson took his job seriously, “the Senate as a whole bored him.”

“He was perfectly happy to go to hearings and vote and all of that,” Mr. Ornstein added, “but if 6 or 7 rolled around and you were going to have a session where there wasn’t a lot that was going to get done, he was happy to get out of there.”

An independent streak
Days into Mr. Thompson’s first Senate term, two Republican colleagues made what seemed a simple request: Would Mr. Thompson co-sponsor legislation to amend the Constitution to prohibit flag burning? He was a logical choice, having used the issue to great effect during his campaign. But records show that Mr. Thompson initially declined the invitation to champion the cause. He would vote for the measure, but would not sponsor it.

An aide, Mary Ann Carter, wrote him a memorandum urging him “to rethink our decision not to be a co-sponsor.” He changed his mind, but only after she reminded him that he had blasted his Democratic opponent for opposing a flag burning amendment and promised the Citizens Flag Alliance to support one if elected.

To judge from the ratings of interest groups, Mr. Thompson was a loyal Republican. He received a 100 percent score from anti-abortion groups, ardently championed the causes of the National Rifle Association, sided with the American Conservative Union 86 percent of the time and backed President Bush on the war with Iraq, tax cuts and most everything else. But such numbers do not necessarily measure a politician’s priorities.

In confidential surveys sent out by the Senate Republican leadership, Mr. Thompson recommended giving priority to issues like Congressional term limits and overhauling welfare, entitlement programs and the tax code. But he passed over divisive social issues like late-term abortion, cloning, physician-assisted suicide and affirmative action.

In an interview, Mr. Thompson said his priorities had not changed. The government’s primary responsibility is to address such problems as “a growing bureaucracy becoming more and more incompetent,” he said, adding that keeping the focus on such issues is “a politically good thing, too.”

“Republicans used to always win, any survey that you took, any poll that you took, on the reform agenda,” he said. “When we moved away from that, we got beat.”

Though Mr. Thompson mostly toed the party line when it came time to vote, he occasionally exhibited an independent streak.

There are the well-known breaks with his party’s leadership. Although he barely mentions it now, arguably his most significant Senate achievement involved the passage of campaign finance overhaul. He helped lay the groundwork as chairman of an inquiry into fund-raising abuses surrounding the 1996 election by investigating Republicans as well as Democrats, then championed legislation widely opposed by conservatives.

More quietly, he took a stand that placed him in the middle of the Bush administration’s battle with Congress over executive privilege. His private papers show that he met with Vice President Dick Cheney in 2001 and unsuccessfully urged him to reach an accommodation with Congress’s investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, as it sought documents relating to Mr. Cheney’s secretive energy task force.

“See how well that worked out,” Mr. Thompson joked in an interview, before explaining that he was concerned that if the G.A.O. lost the legal fight with the vice president, as it eventually did, Congress’s oversight role would be diminished. Mr. Thompson also showed concern over some of the Bush administration’s antiterrorism policies.

Several former aides say he was troubled by the administration’s decision to hold terrorism suspects indefinitely without normal due-process rights, and records show that he once asked for a memorandum on what recourse would be available to a hypothetical foreign Vanderbilt University student implicated in a terror plot and secretly “tried at the direction of the president.”

A month after the Sept. 11 attacks, he supported an unsuccessful effort to amend the USA Patriot Act to place limits on “roving wiretaps.” Though he voted for the legislation, his trepidation echoed his stance against a Clinton administration effort to expand the F.B.I.’s wiretapping authority, when he warned of “the price we may pay in the infringement on our personal freedoms.”

Weighing the president’s fate
Mr. Thompson says he does not “recall any real tough votes.” But by his own account, one of the most momentous was the Clinton impeachment.

Early on, Mr. Thompson met with one of the House’s Republican impeachment managers, Representative James E. Rogan. Mr. Thompson’s advice ranged from the partisan (“the most important task is to unite all Republicans”) to the practical (Don’t waste your time with print reporters, “most of whom can’t investigate, and few of them who will.” Television has more “impact on the populace.”)

But as the debate intensified, Mr. Thompson’s Tennessee field office reported that it “was getting a lot of people asking why Senator Thompson is not out front publicly supporting impeachment.”

“Politically it was a no-brainer — you know, guilty all the way,” Mr. Thompson recalled. But when he studied “what our founders meant,” he said, he was “surprised that some things that are clearly wrong and even violations of the law were not impeachable offenses.”

On Feb. 12, 1999, Mr. Thompson voted to find Mr. Clinton guilty of obstructing justice. But he joined just 10 other Republicans, many of them moderates from more liberal states, in voting to acquit on the perjury charge, reasoning that while the president’s conduct on that front was “sordid,” it did not justify removing him from office.

His Senate office phone lines immediately lit up with angry calls from Republican constituents. But Fred Ansell, one of his former senior aides, said Mr. Thompson shrugged off the potential political fallout by quoting the 18th century Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Susan Saulny contributed reporting.