RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The presidential primary debates this year are drawing record numbers of listeners and viewers. That should be a positive, but Republican candidates are demanding more control of the process after last week's debate on CNBC. Many candidates were furious with the questions they were asked. Last night, representatives from the campaigns met outside of Washington, D.C., to discuss how they want to change the debates. That meeting took place just as word came that a former Republican presidential hopeful, Tennessee senator and TV star Fred Thompson, had died. Joining us now is Cokie Roberts, as she does most Mondays. Good morning.
COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Renee.
MONTAGNE: And I do want to hear your thoughts on Senator Thompson, but first, let's talk about what happened at that very much anticipated meeting, a meeting that all the candidates insisted on having.
ROBERTS: Yeah, well, the representatives of campaigns met without the Republican National Committee, which had been in charge of the debates, and the candidates agreed to show up at next week's Fox Business channel debate and said they'd release a joint letter by tomorrow. But all, as you said, are angry over the debate last week on CNBC. But also they're angry over the format, the size of the debates, all of that, and they're trying to figure out a way to control them better.
MONTAGNE: Well, is it likely to happen that they'll be able to do that, to change the process?
ROBERTS: Well, Ted Cruz is out on the campaign trail saying that nobody should be able to moderate the debates who hasn't voted in a Republican primary, which is getting great applause lines of course. But that's not likely to be the case. But the campaigns just wanted - the candidates want the candidates to be better protected and to inject themselves more into the process. The one change that has already happened is a big shakeup at the Republican National Committee. But there is a good deal of anger among the candidates at their organization, the RNC.
MONTAGNE: Well, Cokie, let's turn to Fred Thompson and first hear a little bit of tape.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FRED THOMPSON: My friends, I come to you today to tell you that I intend to run for president. I feel deeply that I'm doing it for the right reason. I love my country and I'm concerned about its future.
MONTAGNE: That, of course, former Senator Fred Thompson. He died last night, as I've just said. Cokie, what do you think?
ROBERTS: Well, you know, Fred Thompson, we got to know him first when he came as a very young man as a counsel to the Watergate Committee. His mentor, Tennessee senator Howard Baker, was the highest-ranking Republican on that committee. And it was Fred Thompson who asked the key question - are there any tapes? And of course, it was those tapes that brought down Richard Nixon. But he was a larger-than-life - literally - man. He was funny. He was a presence in any room that he was in. And when he came back as a senator in Baker's seat, he really followed his mentor's example working across the aisle and was very well-liked.
MONTAGNE: Well, I think it's fair to say that he was much better known as an actor. Here he is in "Law & Order."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW & ORDER")
THOMPSON: (As Arthur Branch) If I wanted a yes man, you'd have been out on your butt a long time ago. I need someone who can tell me when my britches are unbuttoned.
ROBERTS: Well, of course everybody thought that his popularity on TV and in the movies would propel him into the presidency. And he declared for president, as we've just heard, in 2008. But it fizzled pretty quickly. And, you know, Renee, that happens every cycle. There's somebody who everyone thinks is the natural - think John Glenn for instance. And then they fizzle out. This year is a different year. His TV appearances seem to be - still be helping Donald Trump. We'll see what happens in the long run.
MONTAGNE: All right, Cokie Roberts joins us most Mondays. Thanks so much.
ROBERTS: Thank you, Renee.
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