An Ol’ Broad’s Ramblings

May 7, 2007

Fred in D.C.

Filed under: 2008 — olbroad @ 9:04

In D.C., tenacious Thompson defied prediction
Reliable conservative had fierce independent streak


On the afternoon of July 16, 1973, Fred Thompson catapulted himself into history by asking a simple question.

“Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?” the sideburned, 30-year-old Tennessee lawyer asked President Nixon’s aide, Alexander Butterfield.

“I was aware of listening devices, yes, sir,” Butterfield told Thompson and members of the Senate committee investigating the break-in by Nixon operatives at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate building.

Revelation of the tapes, which clearly showed Nixon’s involvement in covering up the break-in, set off a cascade of events that led to the president’s resignation.

Since then, Thompson has played nearly every role in Washington over the past three decades: from staffer to lobbyist to lawmaker.

Now he appears to be auditioning for the biggest leading role of all — the presidency. An examination of his three-plus decades in the capital reveals Thompson as a tenacious investigator and successful lobbyist but a sometimes frustrated and uneven lawmaker who bridled at the slow pace during his eight years in the Senate.

“The Senate was not a natural place for Thompson,” said Norm Ornstein, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute think tank and an expert on Congress and Washington politics. “Spending a lot of time sitting around picking your rear end was not his idea of a good time.

“He has a lot more of an executive personality,” Ornstein said. Thompson is a visiting fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based institute.

Law clients run gamut

Thompson came to Washington as a protégé of Tennessee’s Sen. Howard Baker, after helping run Baker’s successful re-election campaign in 1972. He was appointed by Baker, the ranking Republican on the Watergate committee, as its chief minority counsel.

After the Watergate hearings, Thompson went back into private legal practice, established a Washington office and began lobbying. He also took several temporary appointments to government jobs, including special counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1980 to 1981 and special counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1982.

Lobbying records show his clients spanned the political spectrum. One was Westinghouse Electric Corp., for which he lobbied in favor of nuclear power. Another was the Teamsters union’s Central States Pension Funds.

Thompson also lobbied on behalf of an eclectic group of foreign clients, including Toyota Motor Corp.; The Perrier Group; and Jean-Bertrand Aristide, then president of Haiti.

In 1994, Thompson — his acting career in full bloom — won election to the U.S. Senate seat vacated when Al Gore was elected vice president two years earlier. Harlan Matthews had been appointed by Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter to serve until the special election.

Once on the job, Thompson’s celebrity made him more than just another freshman.

Less than a week after he took office in December 1994 he was chosen to give the GOP response to a speech by Democratic President Clinton.

He was often stopped for autographs in Capitol hallways, and at a Baltimore Orioles baseball game that first year with Baker, admirers crowded around Thompson, ignoring the former Senate majority leader and Watergate icon.

He’s ‘a fearless senator’

In those first years, Thompson displayed two traits that would mark his Senate tenure. First, he was a reliable conservative voice and vote. His votes consistently were ranked as more conservative than
80 percent of his Senate colleagues, according to the National Journal.

But he also had an independent streak.

“I believe that Fred is a fearless senator,” said former colleague Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. “By that I mean he was never afraid to cast a vote or take a stand regardless of the political consequences.”

In his first year, he was one of five Republicans to vote against a cap on punitive damages in product liability cases.

Powell Moore, Thompson’s chief of staff from 1998 to 2001, recalled Thompson voting against a federal law to outlaw guns in schools. He obviously didn’t favor people having guns in school, Moore said, but as a federalist believed “the federal government has enough to do than to get involved in the local schools.”

Hearings are a milestone

The turning point in Thompson’s Senate career, said Bruce Oppenheimer, political science professor at Vanderbilt University, occurred July 8, 1997, the summer after he easily won election to a full six-year term.

That was the day that Thompson, as chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, convened hearings into allegations of illegal campaign fundraising by Clinton’s re-election campaign.

In a dramatic opening statement, Thompson talked of a “plan hatched during the last election cycle by the Chinese government and designed to pour illegal money into American political campaigns. The plan had a goal: to buy access and influence and furtherance of Chinese government interests.”

What followed were months of hard-to-follow testimony involving a cadre of characters.

Unlike the Watergate hearings, these had no White House tapes, no smoking gun and no clear resolutions.

“I think people had unrealistic expectations,” Oppenheimer said of the hearings.

When Thompson called an end to the hearings four months later, many considered them a failed fishing expedition.

Supporters point out that in subsequent years, many of the people exposed during the hearings ended up being indicted and convicted of violating campaign finance laws.

Whatever the public judgment, the hearings spurred Thompson to work for stricter campaign finance rules.

He was a key player in passage of the McCain-Feingold legislation in 2001 — one of seven Republicans who voted for it. That vote remains the one black mark on his record among some conservatives, who saw the law as limiting free speech.

Politics take a back seat

As the end of his first full term neared, Thompson’s political career was arcing downward.

A variety of explanations is given: frustration over the pace of the Senate, irritation with the extreme partisanship or simply a loss of interest.

Whatever the reason, as 2002 began, Thompson was being eclipsed by Bill Frist, the other Tennessee Republican senator, who first won election to the Senate in 1994.

By the end of the year, Thompson had left the Senate, having decided not to run for reasons that included the death of his 38-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Pancini, and Frist had led a GOP takeover and ascended to majority leader.

“This guy could have been a mover and shaker in the Senate and chose not to,” Oppenheimer said. Why? “That’s the big question,” he said.

Even as Thompson slipped easily back into his acting career — shooting his first episodes of the Law & Order television series while still in office — he did not leave the Washington scene.

He resumed his lobbying career, taking in $500,000 from 2004 to 2006 representing Equitas Ltd., according to lobbying records. The British firm handles claims from people made ill by asbestos exposure.

Thompson also showed up alongside Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in 2005 as his White House-designated guide through the Senate confirmation process. Earlier this year, he helped raise money for convicted vice presidential aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s defense fund.

For a man who prides himself on his Tennessee roots and oozes the aw-shucks country lawyer persona, Thompson’s ongoing roles in Washington are reminders that he remains — as he has for more than half his life — a Beltway insider.


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