Fred Thompson, Former Senator, Actor and Presidential Candidate, Dies at 73
Mr. Thompson had an unusual career, moving back and forth between national politics and mass-market entertainment.
by Liam Stack
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FILE – In this Oct. 5, 2007, file photo, Republican Presidential hopeful, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, pauses while addressing the Americans for Prosperity Foundation in Washington. Thompson died, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn., after a recurrence of lymphoma, his family said in a statement. He was 73. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
Actor Charlton Heston, right, and senate candidate Fred Thompson greets guests at Big Springs Sports Club in Murfreesboro, during Thompson’s trap/skeet fund-raising shoot. Heston joined friend Thompson for a two-day campaign blitz in Tennessee. (Photo: Mike Dubose / The Tennessean)
Fred D. Thompson, a former United States senator, actor and Republican presidential candidate, died on Sunday in Nashville. He was 73.
The cause was a recurrence of lymphoma, his family said in a statement.
Mr. Thompson had an unusual career, moving back and forth between national politics and mass-market entertainment. He left a regular role on the hit NBC drama “Law & Order” to run for president in 2008.
Mr. Thompson was known for playing authoritative characters on television but was sometimes described as ambivalent in his political aspirations. He brought gravitas to the screen but sometimes struggled on the campaign trail, especially during his unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination.
Mr. Thompson compiled a solidly conservative voting record in the Senate, though aides said he showed little enthusiasm for divisive battles over abortion and other issues that motivated the religious right. In a 2007 interview, he told The New York Times that he had always felt that the Senate “was never meant to be the place where I would stay for my entire career.”
“You are either going to do the right thing, or you’re not,” he said. “If you are politically tacking all the time, it makes life too long and too complicated.”
His ambivalence was evident in 2007 when The National Review asked him to name his most important accomplishments on Capitol Hill. “You mean besides leaving the Senate?” he replied.
Mr. Thompson began his life in public service with a lucky break when his mentor, Senator Howard H. Baker Jr., chose him over more experienced candidates to serve as Republican counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee at the age of 30.
His tough questioning of Alexander Butterfield, a former aide to President Richard M. Nixon, led to the revelation of recording devices in the Oval Office, a turning point in the investigation that ended in the president’s resignation. After the committee concluded its work, Mr. Thompson embarked on a lucrative legal and lobbying career.
Mr. Thompson began acting when he was tapped to play himself in a movie about a lawsuit involving a clemency-selling scandal that brought down the Tennessee governor. By the time Mr. Baker talked him into running in a special election for Vice President Al Gore’s Senate seat in Tennessee, Mr. Thompson had 18 movie credits to his name.
Mr. Thompson served eight years in the Senate before deciding to leave a safe Republican seat in 2002 for a role on “Law & Order.” He played Arthur Branch, a Manhattan district attorney.
Mr. Thompson believed his biggest role was yet to come, however, and in 2007 he asked the producers of “Law & Order” to release him from his contract so he could explore a bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
His supporters hoped that his on-screen charisma and small-town roots could make him into a modern-day Ronald Reagan, another conservative actor turned politician, but it was not to be. Mr. Thompson’s campaign was often languid and failed to attract significant support in the primaries, and he withdrew from the race for the nomination in January 2008.
“Fred Thompson lived life to the very fullest,” said Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader and formerly one of Mr. Thompson’s Republican colleagues in the Senate. “The first in his family to go to college, Fred would go on to become Watergate lawyer, Senate colleague, presidential candidate, radio personality, and icon of silver and small screen alike, who didn’t just take on criminals as an actor but as a real-life prosecutor, too.”
Mr. Thompson was born on Aug. 19, 1942, in Sheffield, Ala., and grew up in the small town of Lawrenceburg, Tenn.
In a statement on Sunday, his family said that growing up in a small town in Tennessee “formed the prism through which he viewed the world and shaped the way he dealt with life” and reinforced for him the values of hard work and a belief in American exceptionalism.
“Fred was the same man on the floor of the Senate, the movie studio, or the town square of Lawrenceburg,” his family said.
About the Author
Liam Stack is a breaking news reporter for The New Times. a former Cairo reporter (2005-2012), and now lives in NYC.
Fred Thompson, former U.S. senator, dies at 73
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