Examining Fred Thompson's Political Record

Americans best know Fred Thompson, who is soon to jump into the Republican presidential contest, as an actor. But he is also a former lobbyist and served eight years in the Senate.

PETER OVERBY: I'm Peter Overby in Washington, where the rumors of Fred Thompson's laziness appear to be somewhat exaggerated. Here's Washington Analyst Norman Ornstein.

Mr. NORMAN ORNSTEIN (Author; Political Analyst): No, I did not find him lazy. It is true that when six o'clock rolled around and if there was nothing going on but symbolic stuff around the Senate, he didn't hang around.

OVERBY: Critics say Thompson could stay silent on big issues. Ornstein says he worked quietly but effectively on important matters of how government works.

Mr. ORNSTEIN: He worked hard. He did his homework and drew some lines that didn't always please his own partisans because he thought it was the right thing to do.

OVERBY: Thompson's biggest Senate achievement was in the investigation of fund raising abuses in the 1996 presidential campaign. He started out as Republican leaders had hoped, alleging that the government of China had pumped money into President Clinton's war chest. But when that theory fizzled, Thompson took a new turn. Soon, he was grilling Haley Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, about GOP efforts to collect money in Asia.

Mr. FRED THOMPSON (Former Republican Senator, Tennessee): When you're sitting on a boat in Hong Kong harbor talking to a gentleman who's a citizen of Taiwan, I mean, that does raise certain other potential implications in terms of appearances. But it's an appearance business that we're both in, isn't it?

Mr. ORNSTEIN: Thompson later bucked his party leadership and co-sponsored the bill that became the McCain-Feingold law of 2002. Here he is during the final debate.

Mr. THOMPSON: I have no problem with us stepping up to the plate as we did in 1974, and saying we're going to place some limitations on contributions.

OVERBY: That contrasts with his position now, opposing the law's limits on TV advocacy ads by independent groups.

When Thompson's out talking to groups nowadays, he has a standard joke about D.C.

Mr. THOMPSON: People ask me why I left the Senate and I always say that after eight years in Washington, I long for the realism and sincerity of Hollywood.

(Soundbite of laughter)

OVERBY: That phrase, eight years in the Senate, slides by 25 years of working off and on as a lobbyist. Critics depict him as a big-time powerbroker. Not so, he told conservative talk show host Mark Levin last week.

Mr. THOMPSON: I had about a half a dozen lobbying clients. They haven't pointed out yet who I represented that did not deserve representation under our Constitution, but I'm sure that'll come.

OVERBY: His clients included Westinghouse, with a nuclear power project in Tennessee, and the Tennessee Savings & Loan League. In the early 1990s, he did lobbying for the pro-abortion rights National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. When the Los Angeles Times revealed that recently, his campaign at first denied it. Since he left the Senate, Thompson has had just one known client - Equitas, a British reinsurance fund enmeshed in the incredibly complex issue of asbestos litigation.

Martin Baach, who led the lobbying team, recalls that when Thompson came onboard, he asked them incisive questions that spotlighted the holes in their arguments. Baach adds this.

Mr. MARTIN BAACH (Coordinator, Equitas Lobbying Team): He obviously had a professional's grasp of drafting legislation. And because of his service in the Senate, he understood what considerations individual senators were likely to feel were important.

OVERBY: So far, Equitas has paid Thompson $724,000 for that kind of Washington expertise.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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Ex-Sen. Fred Thompson (TN)

Fred Thompson

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson Getty Images hide caption

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At a Glance: Fred Thompson

First Campaign

Read about Fred Thompson's first campaign.

For someone who is one of the last to jump into the presidential race, former Sen. Fred Thompson has stood out for his ability to command attention in national polls. Some surveys show the Tennessee Republican in second or third place — despite the months of campaigning by the other GOP hopefuls.

Thompson's focus right now is raising enough money to show he can mount a viable campaign for the nomination. He has been constantly badgered by press reports that he is running a lethargic campaign. And while his appearance in the debates was widely anticipated, he has not stood out at all.

But from the beginning, he has operated on a different stage. Thompson has acted in more than 30 films, including The Hunt for Red October, and he is well-known for playing the character Arthur Branch on the highly rated Law and Order television program. Thompson has played up his on-camera charisma by waging much of his early campaign on the Web through blogs, podcasts and video.

Thompson was first elected to the Senate in 1994, winning the seat vacated by Vice President Al Gore. He ran as a Washington outsider, a common-sense economic conservative, traveling the state in a red pickup and wearing a flannel shirt — all the while underplaying his background as a Washington lobbyist. He won a second term with more than 60 percent of the vote in 1996.

Thompson quickly vaulted to chair the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, where he later led the investigations into allegations of improper fundraising by the Clinton-Gore campaign. His interest in overhauling the campaign-finance system continued with his support of the McCain-Feingold Senate bill, which introduced bans on soft money to national parties.

While Thompson may have strayed from the party line on that issue, he is generally regarded as a mainstream conservative. Thompson says he's pro-life, calling the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision "bad law and bad medical science." He often touts the fact that he was tapped by President Bush to usher John Roberts, now the U.S. chief justice, through the Supreme Court nomination process. Thompson also says that he is against embryonic stem-cell research, and he has a 100 percent rating from National Right to Life.

Thompson has described the stalled immigration legislation backed by Sen. John McCain as a "legislative pig," and he is against proposals that grant what he says would be amnesty to illegal immigrants. He speaks of immigration issues in terms of national security, demanding secure borders. On foreign policy, he supports the president's decision to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Thompson, 64, is the father of a 3-year-old daughter and 7-month-old son with his second wife, Jeri Kehn. He has a son from a previous marriage. His oldest daughter, Elizabeth Thompson, died in 2002; her death is widely believed to have contributed to his decision not to seek another Senate term that year.

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