– On Monday, March 18 at 7.30 p.m., The Shakespeare Theatre’s “Expert Witnesses” series will feature a Watergate investigator, an actor, a lawyer, a U.S. Senator, and a former candidate for President of the United States – and they’re all one guy: The Hon. Fred Dalton Thompson, Republican of Tennessee.
I had a chance to chat with him in advance, and here’s some of what he had to say.–
The pallid White House Operative sweats under the glare of the rangy young lawyer. “Mr. Butterfield, were you aware of the existence of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the President?” growls the attorney, Chief Counsel to the Republican Minority in the Senate Special Watergate Committee, and Alexander Butterfield begins to reveal the details of the White House secret taping system, a story which will bring down a President….
“It wasn’t as dramatic as all that,” Fred Thompson says now, nearly forty years after the event. Butterfield had told the Watergate Committee staff about the taping system before Thompson became involved. “My Chief of Staff, a former FBI agent named Don Sanders, told me what he had heard from Butterfield. I told [Senator Howard] Baker [ranking Watergate Committee minority member] and [Sam] Dash [chief majority counsel] told [Committee Chair Sam] Irvin. And I was selected to interview Butterfield.”
He was a few days short of his thirty-first birthday, but already an experienced lawyer. He had had three years’ in at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, doing felony criminal prosecutions. Before that, he had been a scholarship student at Vanderbilt University Law School, and before that, he received a double degree in Philosophy and Political Science from the University of Memphis.
He was the first member of his family to go to college.
Less than a decade removed from his law school days, he was now in the middle of the most sensational political-legal story of the twentieth century. The President of the United States stood suspected of using the most powerful institutions in the country, including the FBI and the CIA, to cover up an effort by his operatives to break into the headquarters of his political rivals. And Thompson had discovered that the proof might be on tape.
He was aware of the discovery’s importance. “As a lawyer, I was used to going before a jury and arguing, and the jury would find for the plaintiff, or the defendant, or guilty or not guilty, but afterward you were never really sure. Here, you had potentially a taping system which would reveal exactly what happened. For a lawyer that was an extremely bizarre and terribly significant thing.”
What was his first reaction? “I spent the weekend trying to decide whether it was a setup,” he says. “I considered the possibility that Butterfield had been encouraged to reveal [what he did] because the tapes would reveal, for example, that John Dean,” who had given terrifically damaging testimony against President Nixon, “had lied on certain parts and [the tapes] would destroy Dean’s credibility and wouldn’t kill the President.”
“As time went on, I discounted that theory,” he adds dryly.
You might find it surprising that an ambitious young lawyer, given so powerful a piece of evidence, would look at it skeptically. But inherent caution, and the ability to put things in perspective, appears to have served Thompson well. Otherwise, the astonishing developments in his life – Watergate Committee lawyer, movie actor, United States Senator, candidate for President of the United States; in all, a resume no one else in human history has ever boasted – might have been overwhelming.
From Watergate to a Tennessee corruption case
For example, move five years forward. The Watergate investigation has made heroes out of everyone associated with it, including Fred Thompson’s old principal, Howard Baker – who became Senate Majority Leader, and then a Presidential candidate, and then President Reagan’s Chief of Staff, and who now, at 87, is a senior partner in Tennessee’s biggest law firm. Thompson had a nice law practice in Nashville when a woman named Marie Ragghianti sought to enlist his services. As Chair of the Tennessee State Parole Board, she had refused to release felons who Governor Ray Blanton had pardoned after having been paid to do so.
Blanton fired her.
Fred Thompson didn’t know it, but this was the start of his movie career. He took Ragghianti’s case, and won. Blanton eventually went to jail, and Ragghianti got her old job back, with full back pay. Peter Maas, fresh from his successful true-cop story “Serpico,” wrote a best-selling book about the case. He and Thompson became friends. And then came the movie.
“It was Peter supervising the screenplay. We went out to dinner a couple of times [with Director Roger Donaldson and producer Frank Capra, Jr.] They wanted to make it as authentic as possible. They were using some of the locals to play some of the roles; and they invited me to come over,” to audition.
Thompson didn’t expect too much. “I anticipated saying something like saying ‘your car is ready, sir’” in his movie role. It would be, he thought, “a hoot.”
It didn’t go down that way. “They…introduced me to a little man – I didn’t know it at the time, but it was Lynn Stalmaster, one of the leading casting directors of the era. They gave me something to read, and I found out it was my part, which was much larger than I imagined.”
A little later, he got a call asking him to go to New York. “I didn’t know it at the time, but it was to read for Dino De Laurentiis.” The legendary cinema giant wasn’t there, but he saw Thompson’s audition on film – and he was sold. He had found the perfect…Ray Blanton.
“’But that’s Thompson!’ Roger said.”
“No, that’s Ray Blanton,”’ De Laurentiis insisting, misunderstanding the director. It took some time, but eventually Fred Thompson ended up playing himself…to generally good reviews. (“Mrs. Ragghianti’s real lawyer, Fred Thompson, gives one of the film’s better performances playing himself,” Janet Maslin of the New York Times said.) For the record, the late Don Hood played Governor Blanton.
Thompson went on to play character roles in nearly three dozen films, including “Fat Man and Little Boy,” “The Hunt for Red October”, “Die Hard 2”, and “Cape Fear”. He played two Presidents – U.S. Grant in “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson (in a voice-only role) in “Rachel and Andrew Jackson: A Love Story.”
Entering the political arena
But a less scripted form of political life also held some appeal to the man who was a lawyer – and who played one on TV (Law & Order, The Good Wife.) In 1994, he decided to run as a Republican for the unexpired term of Al Gore, who had vacated his Senate seat the previous year to serve as Vice-President. (The civil servant Harlan Matthews had served as a caretaker Senator from Gore’s resignation). He faced Jim Cooper, a six-term Congressman from Shelbyville, and crushed him, 61-39. Two years later he was reelected, by a slightly larger margin, to a six-year term.
But that was enough for him. Thompson, a principled man, often found himself on the short end of one-sided votes. “I believe that Fred is a fearless senator. By that I mean he was never afraid to cast a vote or take a stand, regardless of the political consequences,” Senator Susan Collins (R.-Me.) said after Thompson announced he would not seek a second full term in 2002.
Thompson remains acutely engaged in politics although – except for a brief run for President in 2008 that never really got off the ground – he no longer practices it. He remains a conservative Republican; his view of his party’s present difficulties is unsentimental but hopeful. “The Democrats, in the person of Obama, had a charismatic, very good campaigner….Romney wasn’t as flawed as he was made out to be, but Romney had his problems which the situation exacerbated.” He has a succinct metaphor for those problems. “When the nation had a peanut allergy, he was Mr. Planter’s,” the former Senator says. “He was the perfect whipping boy for the rich vs. poor narrative that Obama developed.”
Advice for Republican Party and for President Obama
His solution for the party is to return to basics. “If we can’t communicate that the free enterprise system is a good thing for the average working man and woman, we ain’t ever gonna win. We’ve got to be able to do that…A person has to believe it in order to communicate it; that’s why Reagan was so effective. You can’t get it off talking points.” Thompson thinks his party will be able to find such a communicator. “We have got a very good bench of young articulate talent – the best I’ve ever seen.”
Perhaps surprisingly, though, Thompson thinks the man in the best position to solve America’s profoundest economic problem is – President Obama. “I would reform entitlements. That’s the only solution. People don’t want to face up to that, but right now we’re retiring 10,000 a day. Can’t be sustained. Everybody knows it,” he says.
“Obama is uniquely positioned to do something on this. If he wants a legacy that lasts, he will take the lead on doing something that will save our country from fiscal disaster. It will hurt him with the left wing of his party, no doubt, just as Nixon going to China hurt him with his right wing, but there has never been an issue which has been clearer.”
Thompson, of course, has his own remarkable legacy, and he has largely gotten through it without earning anybody’s enmity. He’ll have some more to say about it when he sits down with Abbe Lowell, a partner in the DC firm of Chadbourne & Parke LLP, to kick off STC’s new series about the intersection of law and the theater.
Expert Witnesses with Fred Thompson will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, March 18, 2013, at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, order online or call the box office: 202.547.1122.