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.”
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 through 2003, before making a brief run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.
“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.”
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 pick up truck before soundly defeating Democrat Jim Cooper — currently Nashville’s congressman — in what was a dominant election year for Republicans nationally.
“Tennessee has lost a great statesman and one of her favorite sons,” Tennessee Gov. Bill 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.”
“He was a good-ole-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.”
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 it’s 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.
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 whistleblower 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…
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