Nation

From the archives | September 30, 2007

Thompson’s early crisis led to a dramatic turnaround

Former US senator and actor Fred Thompson.

Larry Downing/REUTERS/file

Former US senator and actor Fred Thompson.

This story is from the Boston Globe archives. It was originally published on September 30, 2007.

First in a series of occasional articles examining the 2008 candidates for president.

LAWRENCEBURG, Tenn. - “Freddie! Freddie!” came the chant from nearly 3,000 people as towering Fred Thompson entered the final minutes of a pivotal game for his Lawrence County High School basketball team. Grabbing crucial rebounds, Thompson helped win the regional final.

It hardly mattered that the team didn’t survive the 1959 state tournament. Next year, Freddie would be a full-time star.

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But there would be no next year.

Just as Thompson turned 17, his girlfriend became pregnant, and he married her in a small, quickly arranged ceremony. The high school rules were clear: Married students did not play sports. It seemed Thompson’s future was determined: a teenage marriage, no college education, and a career on the assembly line. Thompson had little hope of escaping Lawrenceburg - much less becoming a famous actor and US senator.

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His friends had few expectations.

“He was a class cutup; he was a clown,” said Jimmie Oliver, a teammate on Thompson’s high school basketball team. “I think anybody you talk to would say he was the least likely person that you thought would succeed like he has. He basically didn’t apply himself in school, didn’t make good grades.”

Yet Thompson’s personal crisis wound up turning around his life and - in a twist that still stuns some of those who remember him as lackadaisical Freddie - put him on the path to being a contender for the Republican presidential nomination. The teenage wedding thrust Thompson, the son of a little-educated used-car dealer, into the middle of his wife’s erudite family. Searching for a way forward, Thompson began to listen to his wife’s grandfather, Pap.

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Pap was a small-town lawyer with a patriarchal Southern manner. He also had one of the most unusual affiliations in town: He was a Republican.

Over the next year, Thompson started viewing himself not as the class cutup, but as someone who wanted to be like Pap, the respected problem-solver and father-figure. It was Pap and others in his wife’s family who inspired Thompson to go to college and law school and eventually to work in politics.

Today, there’s still some of the earlier Freddie in Thompson. Reminded that his high-school yearbook staff once wrote in a photo caption “Freddie Dalton Thompson. The lazier a man is, the more he plans to do tomorrow,” the presidential candidate grinned widely.

“I didn’t write it,” Thompson said in an interview, “but I totally subscribe to it.”

Thompson’s embrace of the laid-back side of his personality is partly strategic: His campaign portrays him as easygoing enough to rise above the normal political squabbles. Nonetheless, his air of detachment clearly has worried many potential supporters, who think he lacks the diehard commitment necessary to make it all the way through the nominating process.

But those who remember Thompson’s rise from Lawrenceburg to Nashville to Washington to an acting career on TV’s “Law & Order” aren’t surprised by either his late entry into the presidential race or his unruffled demeanor: Thompson never showed his ambition, but was shrewd enough to take advantage of opportunities that fell into his path.

William H. “Pap” Lindsey presented one kind of opportunity. Later in Thompson’s life, another Tennessee lawyer, Howard Baker, engineered a Republican revolution in the state and later tapped Thompson as his political protege, picking him for a series of key posts. A bright line can be drawn from the teachings of these two mentors to Thompson’s eventual careers as a lawyer, US senator, and White House aspirant.

“I wanted to measure up,” Thompson recalled of his long-ago entry into the Lindsey family. “Circumstances and life and obligations and things like that got my attention ... New things were opening up: the world of ideas ... It was all fascinating to me and something I’d never applied myself to.

“I was 17 years old, and my life was changing rapidly.”

MODEST, RELIGIOUS UPBRINGING

The Thompsons of Lawrenceburg were modest country folk. Thompson’s grandparents, Edgar and “Maw” Gertie, were sharecroppers before they opened a restaurant called the Dixie Grill. They survived the Depression with help from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. “Roosevelt had saved their lives,” Thompson remembers being told.

Thompson’s parents, the tall, jovial Fletcher and the sturdy Ruth, stopped their schooling at the eighth grade. They farmed and then made a decent living by opening Fletch’s Used Cars out on North Locust. Their son, named Freddie Dalton Thompson, was born Aug. 19, 1942. The family moved through a series of small homes during Freddie’s childhood, while the youngster earned money by working as a car hop at the Dairy Dip and later as a bouncer at a drag-racing strip owned by his Uncle Mitch.

“They had food on the table but they were not wealthy people - they had to watch the pocketbook,” said Thompson’s cousin, Anne Morrow, who still lives in Lawrenceburg.

The Thompsons belonged to the First Street Church of Christ, tucked into a neighborhood of modest homes. The church taught a literal interpretation of the Bible. Musical instruments were banned, and the ministers preached against what they called “modern ballroom dancing” because of the close contact between men and women. A constant theme of sermons was the danger of immorality.

Thompson, who attended services three times a week, decided at about age 14 that he wanted to be baptized, a step taken only when a person felt mature enough to commit himself to the church’s teaching. The strict teachings, Thompson said, “had a tremendous influence on my life.”

Thompson’s childhood world was a blip on Highway 43, a city of about 10,000 people scattered among the rolling landscape of south-central Tennessee, north of the Alabama line. The self-described “Crossroads of Dixie,” Lawrenceburg had more in common with the old Deep South than the New South that was emerging. Lawrence County High School gave students two weeks off each fall for what was called the “cotton picking vacation,” during which Thompson occasionally worked the fields.

Thompson’s social life centered on the city square, where an elaborate 1905 county courthouse was surrounded by businesses including his grandparents’ diner and a movie theater. The city’s farm economy gradually was supplanted by a bicycle plant that opened in the mid-1950s and eventually employed 4,500 workers, helping Thompson’s father to sell more used cars.

The town, like many others around it, was strictly segregated. While Thompson walked a block or so to high school, black students were bused nearly an hour away to the town of Mount Pleasant. The local newspaper, The Democrat-Union, ran a regular column of news about the black community called “From The Colored” right next to one called “From The Scouts.” Blacks drank from separate drinking fountains at the bus station, and were required to sit in the balcony at the Crockett Theater, where Thompson watched his favorite Roy Rogers and Gene Autry films.

In Thompson’s freshman yearbook, an essay happened to appear on the same page as his picture, addressed to all students. It was titled, “Are You Prejudiced?”

“Stop and think for a moment,” the essay said. “Are you prejudiced without a justified reason against a minority group, such as the colored race? ... Didn’t our Declaration of Independence grant ALL men equal rights?”

But Thompson doesn’t remember any discussion about the absence of blacks in his school or their unfair treatment in town.

“I was totally oblivious to it as a kid,” Thompson said. “I didn’t know any black kids my own age. It is remarkable, and I look back on it somewhat in amazement that ... [racial prejudice] never was the subject of discussion. It never was an issue. We were totally oblivious to what was going on.”

In his all-white high school, Thompson, at 6 feet 5 inches, was literally the big man on campus. During his junior year in 1959, his Lawrenceburg Wildcats basketball team electrified the city by going to the semi-finals. With “L’Burg” emblazoned on their uniforms, the Wildcats were discussed in seemingly every living room, church hall, and diner, and dominated the pages of the local newspaper.

Thompson was only the team’s sixth-leading scorer, with 131 points, far behind the team leader, who had 640. He did not start most games. But with his height and his occasionally sharp elbows, Thompson was the team’s enforcer, the player brought in to intimidate opponents.

The stands were packed when Thompson took the court for the final minutes of the regional championship game. The coach believed that the center on the opposing team couldn’t hit a foul shot. So, with two minutes to go, he barked orders to Thompson: “Foul! Foul!” The strategy worked as the opposing center missed his free throws and Thompson grabbed the rebound, enabling his teammate, Oliver, to hit a jump shot that won the game by one point.

Thompson was ecstatic. So were the girls of the town, especially a smart, dark-haired young woman one year older than Thompson, Sarah Lindsey. The quote under her yearbook picture was mischievous: “I want to be bashful, but the boys won’t let me.” They seemed like an odd couple, with Freddie physically towering over Sarah, but Sarah towering over Thompson academically.

At the time, some friends wondered about the attraction between the two. In retrospect, the friends say, it was forged by the same attribute that would propel Thompson in politics and Hollywood, a charismatic warmth and palpable presence.

Few in town realized how serious the relationship was - and even fewer knew that Sarah was pregnant - until they saw a wedding announcement in the Democrat-Union. Just three weeks after turning 17 years old, Thompson was married. The newspaper photo showed a slim, towering Thompson in dark pants, white jacket, and bow tie, alongside Sarah, a college freshman who wore a ballerina-length gown of white Cortecelli silk.

Sarah’s brother, Oscar Lindsey, said there had been some discussion in the Lindsey family about whether she should go through with the wedding, with some relatives questioning whether it was a good idea.

“She was the one who spoke up and said she appreciated the advice and that she wanted to marry him,” Oscar Lindsey said. “Then Pap spoke up and said, `If that is what Sarah thinks, I think we should go along with it.”‘

The service, attended by a handful of friends, took place on Sept. 12, 1959, at Sarah’s church, Coleman Memorial Methodist Church. Friends say it was held at the Methodist church to please the Lindseys - not because Thompson’s far stricter church would have shunned them. Such early marriages were relatively rare, explained Thompson’s former minister at the First Street Church of Christ, Andrew Brown, but people “appreciated him for not running out on her.”

At the time, the policy of the Lawrenceburg school system was that a married person could not participate in school team sports. The policy apparently was intended as a deterrent against early marriage, which often led to dropping out of high school. But in retrospect, Thompson’s friends say, it served as a perverse penalty for Thompson’s decision to “do the right thing” by marrying and fulfilling his obligations as a young father. The couple’s child, Fred Jr., was born April 26, 1960.

Indeed, it was the second time in a matter of months that the school administrators had penalized him. Earlier that year, his classmates had voted him “most athletic,” which Thompson called “one of the most proud moments of my life.” But school officials took away the title because he had so many behavioral demerits in addition to poor grades. When he complained to his parents, they backed they school. The experience was “not pleasant,” Thompson said.

Now, with the marriage and the absence of basketball, “it was obvious that my life was changing and had to change ... my focus of attention shifted,” Thompson said.

HE `JUST KNEW IT’

Shortly after they got married, Sarah returned to college at Florence State University in Alabama, while Freddie labored to finish high school. In his wife’s absence, Thompson spent a lot of time with his new in-laws. He had little conversation with Sarah’s father, whom Thompson called “a man of very, very few words” who ran a business making church pews.

But he was drawn to her grandfather. Pap had a shock of white hair and a regal bearing that prompted townspeople to call him “Judge” even though he did not serve in the courtroom. When the town was debating whether to allow alcohol sales, it was Pap who volunteered to argue the no-alcohol position during a decisive debate, and his position prevailed.

Pap Lindsey was “very influential ... the first person besides [Sarah] to see something in me that I didn’t see myself at the time,” Thompson said, referring to his future potential.

The Lindsey household became an intellectual and political feast for Thompson. Pap engaged Thompson in conversations about the nation’s state of affairs, with Pap defending the positions of the Eisenhower administration. One day, Pap gave Thompson a book: “The Story of My Life,” by Clarence Darrow. It was an autobiography of the lawyer who was famous for his role in the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tenn., in which he argued against a state law forbidding the teaching of any theory at odds with the Bible’s story of divine creation.

Darrow was the foremost trial lawyer of the day, and his passion - and dramatic courtroom flair - deeply impressed Thompson. Influenced both by the book and the fact that Pap was a lawyer, Thompson suddenly knew what he would do: He would try to emulate Darrow’s career, if not his strict defense of evolutionary theory.

“I just knew it, I was 17 and I wanted be a lawyer, it’s the only thing I considered for five minutes,” Thompson said. “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 wasn’t sure what he would do as a lawyer, but he liked “the idea of standing up against strong odds and government and taking the case of an underprivileged person and fighting a courageous battle.”

POLITICAL STIRRINGS AT HOME

The following fall, in 1960, Thompson joined Sarah and their infant son in a public housing project near Florence State University in Alabama. Finances were tight and Thompson had to leave for a semester and return to Lawrenceburg to earn more money. He held three jobs - the graveyard shift at the growing bicycle plant, a day job delivering mail, and a weekend job at his uncle’s drag strip.

“It was about 3 o’clock one morning at the Murray assembly line that it dawned on me I was destined to be a scholar,” Thompson quipped, recalling the machinery’s deafening roar. As a parent of a young child, he was given a deferment from possible military duty, which he retained until he was too old to be drafted.

The Thompsons decided to leave Florence State and transfer to Memphis State University to be near where one of Thompson’s uncles lived. In addition to his studies, Thompson worked at a shoe store and helped to take care of his family, which now included a daughter, Betsy.

Thompson double-majored in philosophy and political science, which he viewed as preparation for becoming a lawyer. Already leaning toward the Republican Party because of Pap Lindsey’s influence, Thompson solidified his allegiance through regular reading of National Review magazine and the manifesto of 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, “The Conscience of a Conservative.” Thompson campaigned for Goldwater, who lost in a blowout to Lyndon Johnson.

By the time he graduated from Memphis State, Thompson’s grades were good enough to earn him a scholarship to the prestigious Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville. With his deep voice and imposing physical presence, he excelled at moot-court exercises. But at the end of his first year, he returned to Lawrenceburg for the summer.

One of the worst strikes in Tennessee history had erupted at the bicycle plant where Thompson had once worked and where many of the city’s breadwinners were employed. Organizers wanted to unionize the plant, and the clash became violent, with strikers massing outside the plant seeking to prevent anyone from getting inside.

A company history says that “transformers were shot out; a gas line leading up to the plant was blown up; farmers’ fences were cut to allow cattle to roam free; animals were shot; and houses were fired at.” The governor of Tennessee, Frank Clement, declared, “All law and order has broken down in Lawrenceburg.”

Thompson empathized with management, which portrayed the union organizers as out-of-towners trying to stir up trouble. Like many locals, Thompson was temporarily deputized by police to help deal with violence if it got out of hand, but he doesn’t recall confronting the strikers. Still, the turmoil had a deep impact on Thompson, who supports “right to work” laws that enable employees to reject union membership and avoid paying dues, and he has criticized union ties to the Democratic Party.

When the strike ended, in a flurry of lawsuits between workers, unions, and the company, 900 people had lost their jobs, causing lasting anger.

Largely untouched by the bitter feelings, Thompson returned to Lawrenceburg after graduating from law school and joined the Lindsey family firm, working alongside Sarah’s uncle A.D. Lindsey on divorce cases and other local disputes. As he put down roots, Thompson became involved in local politics, asking his childhood friend, Tom Crews, to help form a new organization in Lawrence County.

“He and I put together the first Young Republicans we had in this county,” Crews said.

Thompson also managed the 1968 campaign of the local Republican nominee for Congress, even though there was little chance of winning in the heavily Democratic area. The highlight of the campaign for Thompson was a visit by a former movie star: California Governor Ronald Reagan.

“I was backstage and Reagan had come in for several candidates in the area,” Thompson recalled. “We sat there, got to talking, and he asked me my views on things. He said, `I don’t know your guy, but what do you think I ought to say about him?’ And I said a few things and Reagan went out and said exactly what I told him. He had me there from then on ... He paid attention to me as a young lawyer ... of course I started following him more closely from a political standpoint.”

REPUBLICANS ON THE RISE

The election of 1968 was good for Republicans. Richard Nixon won the presidency and carried Tennessee. Thompson joined the Justice Department as an assistant US attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, based in Nashville. There, he got to know other rising young Republicans such as Lamar Alexander, a future governor and senator.

It was Alexander who introduced him to the man who would shape the second half of his life: Senator Howard Baker.

“We were just young guys in our 20s attracted to Howard Baker,” recalled Alexander. “We had basically had a one-party system in Tennessee until Baker was elected to the US Senate [in 1966]. It was exciting to break the old politics; I was involved in East Tennessee, and [Thompson] was involved in West Tennessee.”

Thompson and Alexander were given a target for 1970: defeat the incumbent Democratic US Senator Albert Gore Sr. Republican nominee William Brock sought to tie Gore to the “East Coast establishment” and the Kennedy family. The Brock campaign also pilloried Gore for urging a withdrawal from Vietnam.

Gore lost. In the span of four years Tennessee had gone from having had no Republican senators since Reconstruction to having both seats held by the GOP.

When Baker ran for reelection in 1972, Alexander recommended Thompson, then 30 years old, to be the Middle Tennessee campaign manager. Baker recalled in an interview that he instinctively liked the “awfully young and awfully big” Thompson.

After coasting to reelection, Baker became the ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee, which was investigating the Nixon administration’s alleged misdeeds. Thompson came along as the committee’s minority counsel. Baker said he didn’t want “some luminary I didn’t know” for the job and decided it was better to “pick somebody you know and trust, and that is how I came to choose Fred.”

Baker said he and Thompson believed that the Watergate scandal “was all a Democrat dirty trick and it wouldn’t amount to anything.”

Over time, their feelings changed. Thompson eventually was credited with a big break in the case - a Clarence Darrow-style examination of White House aide Alexander Butterfield that uncovered the existence of the president’s taping system. (Later it emerged that another committee aide had elicited the news of the taping system from Butterfield in closed-door testimony prior to Thompson’s public questioning.)

The national platform of the Watergate hearings made Thompson a sought-after attorney. He returned to the limelight in 1979, when Alexander, Tennessee’s newly elected governor, asked him to look into allegations that former governor Ray Blanton had sold pardons.

Thompson’s investigation led him to represent a former chairman of Blanton’s parole board, Marie Ragghianti, who had been fired after she refused to approve the release of some prisoners. Thompson won back pay and job reinstatement for Ragghianti.

The story of her courage in standing up to public corruption became the subject of a 1985 movie, “Marie.” Struck by Thompson’s Southern drawl and gruff charm, the producers asked him to play himself. Once again, a twist of fate proved lucky to Thompson: His surprisingly effective performance began a long career as a movie and television actor.

By the time of the movie, however, Thompson’s life was changing in other ways. He and Sarah had grown apart, according to friends of both. Thompson was away from home for work much of the time, and their three kids were grown. They had been married 26 years, from high school through his legal career to his suddenly promising acting career.

The ensuing divorce led to a period of hard feelings between Thompson and some of the in-laws with whom he had lived and worked for decades. But he and Sarah remained on good terms, even after she remarried. And, gradually, his friendships with other members of Lindsey family also revived.

By the early 1990s, Thompson was earning hefty payments for movie and television roles. But Alexander, who had become secretary of education in the first Bush administration, had other ideas for him. After Tennessee Senator Albert Gore Jr. was elected vice president in 1992, creating a special election to fill the remainder of his Senate term in 1994, Alexander - who was laying the groundwork for his own run for president - implored Thompson to run for the Senate.

The start of the campaign was a disaster for Thompson. He was down by more than 20 points in the polls to his Democratic challenger, Representative Jim Cooper, who called Thompson a “Gucci-wearing, Lincoln-driving, Perrier-drinking, Grey Poupon-spreading millionaire Washington special-interest lobbyist.”

Thompson was miserable, complaining about having to fly across the state to campaign in every corner. His long-time friend, Tom Ingram, asked Thompson what he would do if he could run the campaign exactly as he wanted.

“I’d go down to Lawrenceburg, get a pickup truck off my Dad’s lot, and drive a pickup across the state,” Thompson responded, according to Ingram. The strategy worked. Thompson won the Senate seat with 61 percent of the vote, and was reelected to a full term two years later.

Thompson proved to be a popular senator, but produced little legislation. He didn’t hide his disdain for sitting through endless debates and hearings. He is best remembered for his chairmanship of a panel that produced a report about Washington fraud and waste called “Government On The Brink.”

While Thompson was pondering another reelection effort, his daughter Betsy died on Jan. 30, 2002, at age 38, from an overdose of prescription drugs. Returning to Lawrenceburg for her burial, Thompson drove by his old stomping grounds, going down the hill where he biked as a child, and proceeding around a bend to the town’s cemetery.

Shortly thereafter, he announced that he did “not have the heart for another six-year term,” and focused on being an actor and lobbyist. The same year, after having dated a series of glamorous women, from Hollywood stars to country music singers to political insiders, Thompson married Jeri Kehn, a Republican Party official 24 years his junior. They have two young children.

Earlier this year, Jeri began encouraging Thompson to run for president. Then he got a phone call from his old mentor, Howard Baker. “Now, Fred, I think you ought to run for the presidential nomination,” Baker told Thompson, according to Baker’s account. “I want you to know that I will send up some trial balloons and that I will keep on sending up these trial balloons until you tell me to stop.”

As had happened so many times in Thompson’s life, a mentor had opened a door for him. As Thompson pondered what to do, Baker kept on floating the trial balloons, saying of his protege: “He never told me to stop.”

FROM HIJINKS TO HIGH PLACES

In Lawrenceburg, friends and neighbors have grown acclimated to Thompson’s celebrity. At first, it was the subject of amusement for many, who loved to compare their memories of his high-school hijinks with the high places he has attained.

Thompson’s former teammate, Jimmie Oliver, recalled that in the days of the Watergate hearings some classmates flat-out refused to believe that the man on television with the long sideburns was the same Freddie Thompson who went to Lawrence County High School.

“Fred is a man of Providence,” concluded his childhood friend, Jerry Hughes, who recently opened a store called Thompson Station, filled with Thompson pictures and political paraphernalia. “If you go back and check his life, he has always been at the right place at the right time.”

Thompson seems to agree, writing on his campaign website: “Occasionally, doors have opened to me, and I had sense enough to see that they were opening, and I would walk through them.”

Sept. 6, Thompson officially declared his presidential candidacy on the Tonight Show. Nine days later, he returned to Lawrenceburg, speaking from the same town square that he roamed as a child. Accompanied by Baker, childhood friends, and family members, Thompson went out of his way to pay tribute to his ex-wife and her family, saying, “Sarah Lindsey is an important part of my life and one of the reasons I’m here today, and I want to thank the Lindsey family for being here tonight.”

Looking around the square, finding a memory “every 30 feet,” he made a promise to the townspeople. The lessons he learned here, he said, have “never been far from me and never will be, and I want to thank you for that, Lawrenceburg.”

Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com

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