R.I.P. Fred Thompson, A Faded Type of Washingtonian

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Attorney, U.S. Senator, film and television actor, lobbyist, and presidential candidate Fred Thompson died from a recurrence of lymphatic cancer on November 1, 2015. He was 73 years of age. He was a former assistant United States Attorney from Tennessee; a campaign manager for former Republican U.S. Senator Howard Baker; the minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, where Baker served as Vice Chairman; a long-time Washington lobbyist with major corporate clients; and the author of a book about one of his law practice clients, whistleblower Marie Ragghianti, who exposed corruption in the Tennessee pardon and parole system. When his book was made into a motion picture Fred was asked to play himself—launching his successful acting career in film and television.

In 1994 he ran for and won Al Gore’s Senate seat, when Gore became vice president. Eight years was all Fred could take of the Senate, as he watched a new style of conservative Republicans come to Washington not to see what they could accomplish, rather to see how much of the system they could tear down or stymie from doing anything. When out of the Senate, Fred took political assignments for the Bush II administration often using his acting skills to do commercials supporting the invasion of Iraq or a voice-over for the Republican National Convention, or other party statements.

I first met Fred when he served as minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee. On the second day of my five days of testimony of what I had learned of the underbelly of the Nixon presidency, Thompson questioned me. Having once served as a minority counsel to the House Judiciary Committee on the other side of the Capitol, I was in very familiar territory, so when he began I decided to test him.

“Mr. Dean, let me ask you a few questions about your actions after the Watergate incident,” he began with his deep and resonate voice, but quickly added, almost apologetically, “by asking questions about your own personal involvement, I hope I am not appearing to be badgering you in any way, but I am sure you understand that your actions and motivations are very relevant?” It was a curious opening, so I decided to push back. I had largely undermined his boss, Howard Baker, by revealing in a closed session that I was very aware of a secret meeting Baker had with Nixon to open a direct back channel to the White House. The committee’s chief counsel, Sam Dash, had told me Baker voted to block anything and everything concerning my testimony, but when overwhelmingly outvoted by the others on the committee, Baker would withdraw his objections and pretend publicly that the committee’s actions were unanimous.

Responding to Thompson, I gently braced him: “In fact, if I were still at the White House, I would probably be feeding you questions to ask the person who is sitting here.” Not missing a beat, Thompson countered, “If I were here as I am, I would have responded as I have responded, that I do not need questions to be fed to me from anybody.” And he proceeded with his questions, many of which I was certain had come directly from the Nixon White House. As it happened, the next day I was in the committee’s staff offices during the luncheon break, to assist Sam Dash with my exhibits. Fred Thompson came over, extended his hand, and introduced himself. He was a large man, probably 6’4″ or better, and at that time slightly overweight. He was friendly, so I followed up on my comment from the day before. “You don’t really think I believe that no one from the White House is feeding you information, do you?” Somewhat exaggerating the girth of his stomach, he rubbed it, and said, “Do I look I need anybody to feed me anything.” He smiled, telling me that his response to my comment had been a lawyer’s answer during the televised hearings.

During the next forty years, Fred and I found ourselves together in green rooms, awaiting to go on various broadcasts at CNN, CBS, NBC, or MSNBC, or at social occasions, probably close to a dozen times. We always had friendly and interesting exchanges. I recall, for example, during the Bush II years when we had such an encounter when I was out promoting my book Worse Than Watergate in 2004. At the time there were rumors that Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor might be leaving the High Court, for her husband was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. As my conversation with Fred progressed, I told him I had thought about writing a column urging Bush II to select Thompson for the Supreme Court. I explained to Fred since the retirement of Justice Hugo Black—a former U.S. Senator like Fred—from the Court in 1971, there had been no one on the Court with legislative background and experience. Only appellate court judges were being sent to the high bench, people with little true knowledge about the way the government really worked. Thompson had served eight years in the Senate.

Fred listened to my comments, realizing I was serious, then leaned his large frame forward in the chair he was sitting. “John, you make a good point. It could help the Court having someone with a legislative background. But, for God’s sake, please don’t suggest me. Don’t plant that idea anywhere.” Then he leaned back and said, “I am making some real money for the first time in my life, and my wife and children would like that to continue.” His expression said, thank you for thinking of me, but please don’t share this thought with others. I agreed I would not suggest it to anyone, and the conversation turned to writing books and columns, which he was contemplating doing. It was not merely his legislative background that occurred to me would be good for the Court, but given the fact he was well-liked in the Senate by both Republicans and Democrats, he would easily be confirmed, and that would add a more moderate vote to the increasingly conservative Court. Not surprisingly, when Bush later did have the Chief Justice post to fill, he would call on Thompson to help guide John Roberts through the Senate’s confirmation process.

My last visit with Fred Thompson was on June 17, 2012, which was the fortieth anniversary of the arrests for the break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex. For this occasion, the Washington Post had leased the top floor of the Watergate office complex. The building was being renovated, and was under construction, but they built a stage, filled the room with chairs, a bar, an hors d’oeuvres buffet and scattered standing height tables. The Post invited some 500 people to the program to recall Watergate from the perspective of 40 years later. Fred was one who had been asked to share thoughts on stage, as had I along with several others, like Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, along with former Executive Editor Ben Bradlee. Fred’s booming voice greeted me with a friendly “Hello, John,” when I arrived in the back-stage reception area.

I complimented him on how good he looked, for he did. Healthier than I had ever seen him. In forty years we had been visiting in this passing fashion he had never looked better, so I said something to the effect that he was clearly taking care of himself. “Sometimes we have no choice but to take better care,” he answered, but quickly added, “It sure as hell is not as much fun. But I guess I have had more than enough fun for this life time,” he said wistfully. This exchanged largely passed by me at the time, and it was not until I read of his passing did I understand he had been fighting cancer when we last met. Yet, it was anything but conspicuous.

Politically, I suspect there was not much Fred and I would agree upon. But with Fred’s passing it should be noted that if Washington was populated with more people like him, with his civility and decency, we would have a better nation.

Posted in: Other Commentary