That magic was on display when he was minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973, asking former White House aide Alexander Butterfield the famous question, “Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of any installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?”—thereby publicly revealing the existence of tape recordings of conversations within the White House.
That same magic served him well when he ran for the United States Senate in 1994 for the last two years of Vice President Gore’s unexpired term. It was a good Republican year and Fred’s red pickup truck attracted attention, but he defeated a strong opponent by more than 20 percentage points mostly because when he appeared on television Tennesseans liked him, trusted him and voted for him.
The remainder of his busy life has been filled with law practice, stage and radio shows, counsel to Senate investigating committees, more than 20 movies, and television commercials. For a while in 2008 he was a front runner for the presidency of the United States.
I believe there are three reasons for his extraordinary and diverse career.
First, he was authentic, genuine, and bona-fide. As far as I know, he never had an acting lesson. There was no pretense in Fred Thompson, on or off the stage.
Second, he was purposeful. For years I had urged him to be a candidate for public office. What struck me was that not once did he raise any political concerns. His only question was, “If I were to be elected, what do you suppose I could accomplish?”
And when he was elected, he was serious and principled. He was a strict federalist – never a fan of Washington telling Americans what to do, even if he thought it was something Americans should be doing.
The third reason for Fred Thompson’s success was that he worked hard. He grew up in modest circumstances in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. His father, Fletch, was a car salesman. Fred was a double major in philosophy and political science at the University of Memphis and did well enough to earn scholarships to Tulane and Vanderbilt law schools. To pay for school, he worked at a bicycle plant, post office and motel.
In the spring of 2002 Fred telephoned to say that he would not run for re-election. So I sought and won the Senate seat that both he and Howard Baker had held. I have the same phone number today that both of them had.
We have a tradition of scratching our names in the drawers of the desks we occupy on the Senate floor. When I arrived in 2003, I searched high and low until I found what I wanted: a desk occupied by my two predecessors, my friend Fred Thompson and our mentor Howard Baker.
Tennesseans and our country have been fortunate that public service attracted Fred Dalton Thompson. We will miss his common sense, his conservative principles and his big, booming voice.
Lamar Alexander is the senior senator from Tennessee.