Occasionally, doors have opened to me," Senator Fred Dalton Thompson told Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday in a recent interview, "and I had sense enough to see that they were opening, and I would walk through them." Senator Thompson's uniquely American life has been marked not only by recognizing opportunity when it arose, but by answering the call to public service and leadership.
It started in Sheffield, Ala., where he was born to Ruth and Fletcher Thompson on August 19, 1942. Soon after his birth, the tight-knit family moved just across the state line to nearby Lawrenceburg, Tenn., which embraced Thompson as a native son. There, he learned the importance of family, hard work, faith and education. He attended school, including Lawrence County High, during the week and the First Street Church of Christ on Sundays.
Even then, Thompson's sharp sense of humor and knack for the dramatic had begun to show. Friends and coaches recall a football game in which Thompson lay at midfield, recovering from a particularly hard hit. When the coaching staff ran out to check on the prone Thompson, he looked up at them and asked, "How's the crowd taking it?"
Thompson, married while still in high school and graduated in 1960, would be the first member of his family to go on to college. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and political science from Memphis State University in 1964 and his law degree from Vanderbilt University in 1967, working his way through school.
It was at Memphis State and Vanderbilt, Thompson recalls, that he linked the kitchen table politics and issues he'd grown up hearing to the "First Principles" of America's founding embraced by the conservative movement - freedom, free markets, and the rule of law. "I read Sen. Barry Goldwater's book, The Conscience of a Conservative, and the ideas were as clear as a church bell on a cold winter night," Thompson says.
Thompson campaigned for Goldwater and, after graduating from law school, returned to Lawrenceburg to hang his shingle. Along the way, he founded a Young Republican Club, the first in an area of a state that was decidedly Democrat, and earned a seat on the county's Republican Executive Committee.
In 1968, while running a congressional campaign in Tennessee, Thompson would again be influenced by a leader of the modern-day conservative movement, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. "I was 26 years old when I met him in Jackson, Tennessee," Thompson recalls. "Governor Reagan came to help my guy and some others, and I had the privilege to sit back stage with him one-on-one. He was the nicest man I've ever met in politics. He asked me a few questions about the audience, and went out and gave a stirring speech. He had me for life."
A year later, in 1969, Thompson was named an assistant United States attorney in Nashville, where he earned the reputation as a tough prosecutor. Three years later, he would help manage U.S. Senator Howard Baker's re-election campaign. In 1973, at the age of 30, he was off to Washington, where he served under the glaring spotlight of the Watergate scandal as minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee.
Thompson earned attention back home for his counsel work. Friends in Tennessee still recall seeing the boy they'd grown up with on TV, sitting at the Senate hearing-room dais. He gained national attention for leading the line of inquiry that revealed the audio-taping system in the White House Oval Office. Later, he documented his role in the hearings, writing the book, At That Point in Time: The Inside Story of the Senate Watergate Committee.
Thompson would return to Tennessee, where he maintained law offices in Nashville and Washington. His practice varied from pro bono work to representing the state of Tennessee and large corporations, such as Westinghouse.
In 1977, Thompson walked through another door that would change the arc of his career forever. Marie Ragghianti turned to him after being fired from her position as chairman of the Tennessee Parole Board during the administration of Gov. Ray Blanton. Thompson confirmed that her firing was due to her refusal to release from prison felons who had bribed Blanton aides to buy their freedom. Blanton additionally set his media friends on her, smearing her reputation.
Thompson filed a suit challenging Marie Ragghianti's dismissal. Later, she recalled for a reporter, "He told me that it was a real pleasure to represent someone that was the good guy. Which didn't mean that he was convinced we were gonna win. But anyway, he did a fine job, to put it mildly."
In fact, a jury found in July, 1978, that Gov. Blanton had fired her "arbitrarily and capriciously" and ordered her reinstatement with an award of $38,000 for back pay. Ragghianti's case would garner national attention, along with the publication of a book titled, simply, Marie. The book was later made into a film by the same name, in which Thompson was asked by the producers to portray himself.
Marie launched Thompson's longstanding film and television career. Over the years, he's appeared in more than 18 films, including No Way Out, In the Line of Fire, Die Hard II, Days of Thunder and The Hunt for Red October. Recently, he has become known for his portrayal of New York District Attorney Arthur Branch on the hit NBC show, Law & Order.
Between roles, Thompson continued his work as an attorney and public servant. He served as special counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1980 and the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1982. As an attorney, the founding "first principle" of the rule of law had shaped his life. In 1994, however, an opportunity arose that would enable him to utilize his full understanding of the founding principles for the American people.
Thompson ran to fill the remaining two years of an unexpired Senate term. It was a tough race; his Democrat opponent was a 6 term Congressman. Thompson refused to play by the establishment's political rules. Down 20 points in the polls, Thompson undertook what has become a legendary campaign. Driving a red pickup truck, he took to the highways and back roads of the Volunteer State, talking to Tennessee citizens from the back of what became the symbol of his campaign. He said it made him comfortable-taking him back to the days of his Dad's used car lot in Lawrenceburg.
Thompson spoke about the need for a competent and ethical federal government, reminding voters of the importance of self-government and lower taxes. His effort paid off, and the message took. He moved from 20 points down to winning by 20 points. Thompson's margin of victory and his independent approach to campaigning was not lost in a year where the GOP was swept into leadership in "Contract with America" sweep that year.
Two years later, in 1996, the people of Tennessee returned him to office with more votes than any candidate for any office in the state's history. Voters seemed to like the lawmaker they'd elected who had an independent streak that seemed to go with "towering 6-foot, 5-inch frame, basso voice and commanding presence," that the Austin American-Statesman recently described.
His overarching philosophy, was clear from the beginning. "He believes in limiting the jurisdiction of the federal government - and that there are adequate local laws to take care of that problem," a former Thompson chief of staff told a reporter. Thompson recently laid his Federalism ideas out in a long post on the popular, grassroots site, RedState.
During his time in the Senate, Thompson focused on three key areas: lowering our taxes, strengthening national security, and what the American-Statesman called "the unglamorous work of trying to expose waste" and to change the federal government. All have taken on even greater importance today than they had back then. In each of these areas, Thompson accomplished a great deal.
In March 2002, in the aftermath of the loss of his adult daughter, Senator Thompson announced that he would not seek re-election to the Senate. He has two sons who live in Nashville. He retired with an 86% American Conservative Union rating and a 100% rating from National Right to Life.
Divorced in 1985, he remarried in 2001. He and Jeri have a three-and-a-half year old daughter, and a seven-month old son.
In the tradition of President George Washington, a leader Thompson had admired growing up, he walked away from an easy reelection victory to seek new challenges. He joined the American Enterprise Institute as a visiting scholar, traveled the country as speaker and served on a Wall Street advisory board.
In 2005, Thompson was named by President Bush as an advisor to Supreme Court Chief Justice nominee John Roberts, helping to move his nomination through the Senate confirmation process. Thompson continued his public service as chairman of the State Department's International Security Advisory Board.
In all this, Thompson has been a man of the times and a man for the times, adapting his unique abilities and leveraging today's communications technologies to speak to the American people about issues he feels are important to the nation. Whether it's on the radio, filling in for Paul Harvey on the ABC Network with news and commentaries, on his own "Fred Thompson Reports" commentaries and broadcasts, online blog posts or TV appearances, Thompson has focused on the issues of the day viewed through the "first principles" he's stressed throughout his career.
He's talked about big issues and challenges our nation is facing now, and will face tomorrow:
In early 2007, Thompson embarked on what he calls a "dialogue" with the American people, through his various venues, to determine whether there was a desire among American voters for him to enter Republican Presidential race. Along the way, sites such as "Draft Fred Thompson," "Fred Head" and "Fred Facts" proliferated online. In June, Thompson filed papers that would allow him to raise funds to further explore a presidential run.
One can't help but see that Thompson again might be hearing the call to serve. As he discussed less than six months ago, a door is opening and this time Fred Dalton Thompson may lead all of America through it.