Nation & World

Profile: Family ties helped shape Thompson's political career

Editor's note: With the Iowa caucus set to kick off the primary election season Jan. 3, the Telegraph will present profiles of the major presidential candidates. New profiles will appear each day through Jan. 3.

Fatherhood and ambition. In Fred Thompson's life, they rise and fall together, a recurring couplet in the nostalgic story of a Tennessee fella who's guided more by life's surprises and others' expectations than he is by any master plan.

Consider:

The small-town jock called "Freddie" and "Moose," who, at 17, upon getting his high school girlfriend pregnant, married her, heeded her politically connected family and made something of himself.

 The unlikely 65-year-old comeback kid, now remarried with a 4-year-old girl and a 1-year-old boy, who's running for the Republican nomination for president.

On the campaign trail, Thompson treats criticism that he doesn't have enough fire in the belly with a father-knows-best attitude.

"I've had the worst thing that can happen to a father, and the best thing that can happen to a father," Thompson told retirees this fall in South Carolina, in the drawl that's central to his persona. "I think you come out from the other end of that with a sense of what's important and not important."

Two of Thompson's most important experiences played out in the public eye: The Watergate hearings and his 1985 movie debut, "Marie." But with voters, he talks about parenting as much as he does about politics and acting.

Seeing daughter Hayden's sonogram — the first time he'd glimpsed any of his children in the womb — strengthened his anti-abortion views, he says. Wanting a stable world for his second family helped nudge him to audition for a part that would be less fun than TV shoots, but more consequential.

His wife, Jeri, a former Republican consultant, said that one night while they were still mulling whether to make the race, they sat at their kitchen table in Northern Virginia and saw their little girl perched at the top of the staircase.

"He had this very strange look on his face," she recalled of her husband. "I said, 'What are you thinking?' and he said, 'a lot goes through my mind from the time she's at the top step to the time she's at the bottom.' It's when he decided, I think. In his mind, there was a decision made."

Thompson has children older than his wife, 41, and younger than his grandchildren. His progeny span two generations, bookends like the Vietnam and Iraq wars to the major societal, economic and global changes that have rocked America in his lifetime.

Thompson was born in Alabama and raised in Tennessee by parents whose formal education ended with junior high school. He graduated from Memphis State University and the Vanderbilt University law school while working and raising children.

He read Barry Goldwater's "The Conscience of a Conservative," started a Young Republicans group and worked on a congressional campaign as a federal prosecutor and for the re-election of Tennessee Republican Sen. Howard Baker Jr.

Baker became a powerful mentor. He gave the young Thompson, whom Richard Nixon once called "dumb as hell," a job as chief Republican counsel on the committee investigating Watergate.

Thompson got national exposure; a book deal and an anti-corruption reputation that drew clients, including state parole official Marie Ragghianti, to his new law practice.

Ragghianti exposed a cash-for-clemency scheme under Tennessee Gov. Ray Blanton, lost her job and hired Thompson to clear her name.

"He's personable and straightforward, and he was just what I needed at a very dark hour in my life," Ragghianti said in an interview.

Celebrity eased Thompson's election to an open Senate seat; he replaced Tennessee's Al Gore, who became Bill Clinton's vice president.

Serving from 1994 through 2002, Thompson got mixed reviews. He was a reliable Republican vote, but critics said he lacked the appetite for the long hours and tedium and didn't leave much of a legacy.

The final year of Thompson's Senate career, his daughter Betsy, who had bipolar disorder, died from what was deemed an accidental overdose of painkillers.

"That basically took all the proverbial wind out of his sail," said Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., who attended the funeral in 2002 and began pushing last year for Thompson to run for president. "It took his heart right out of his body."

Thompson went back to acting, and making money, as fictional District Attorney Arthur Branch on TV's "Law & Order." He also gave up the single life, marrying Jeri, whom he'd met years earlier while grocery shopping. Then they had children.

"I saw him completely get a second lease on life with Jeri and the kids," Wamp said.

When retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said last year that he wouldn't seek the presidency, Wamp pressed Thompson to get in.

No other Republican had an easy lock on the nomination. Wamp thinks that Thompson's image and message are selling points, and so is his personal experience of "raising a second family in a different generation than the first."

"I remember when Bush 41 didn't know the price of a gallon of milk," Wamp said, referring to a much-hyped 1992 campaign incident when the first President Bush was reportedly surprised by grocery store scanners, and his critics seized on that to charge that he was out of touch with ordinary Americans.

Thompson, on the other hand, has a campaign bus with a diaper-changing table.

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