Newsweek, June 25, 2007
Away From the Cameras;
The right has a crush on Fred Thompson, but his own papers suggest he is less conservative than they think.
By Holly Bailey; With Eve Conant
SECTION: POLITICS; Pg. 33
Fred Thompson has a gift for knowing just what to say to anyone, in any situation. In 1998, when Thompson was a Republican senator and a single man about town, New York socialite Georgette Mosbacher invited him to accompany her on an overseas trip. Thompson couldn't go, and summoned the full measure of his Tennessee charm in letting her down. "I am sitting here with a long face and broken heart as I contemplate sunsets on the Mediterranean, which I will not see," he wrote to Mosbacher on his official Senate stationery. "We must remember the unspoken vow that all United States senators take upon entering the Senate: I shall have no money, and I shall have no fun. I, of course regarding myself as an unconquerable soul, am still determined to break the second part of that vow.”
The Monica Lewinsky scandal was dominating Washington that year and Thompson, like every other Republican, was critical of Bill Clinton in public. But away from the cameras, he quietly reached out to the president in a letter sent through Clinton's chief of staff. "If the President is going to have any good cigars left over," he relayed to Clinton, who had once sent him a stogie, "in the spirit of bipartisanship I might be willing to help him out.”
Intimate correspondence like this usually doesn't see light until long after a politician is dead and gone, or at least done with politics for good. Thompson apparently believed he had forever traded Washington for Hollywood when he agreed to put his eight years of Senate records, including personal correspondence, in a public archive at the University of Tennessee. The papers, which have gone largely unnoticed, offer an unusual glimpse at his life as a Washington fixture, and clues about how he might lead as a president--hints that might not please conservative voters who are intrigued by him but who know little about him.
Charismatic and down to earth, a baritone with an LBJ-like command of his large frame, Thompson was a natural leader in the Senate. Now some Republicans, underwhelmed with the current lineup of 2008 contenders, have latched onto him as something of a political messiah, a latter-day Ronald Reagan who can lead their party out of the wilderness. In the latest Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, Thompson, who isn't officially running yet, came in a close second behind the current leader, Rudy Giuliani--and beat everyone, including Giuliani, among self-described "religious right" voters. "Fred Thompson is a Southern-fried Reagan," says the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land. "He has the same appeal.”
But is he the conservative pillar Republicans hope him to be? So far, the former senator's personal magnetism and his celebrity as a star of "Law & Order" have been the source of the fascination surrounding his possible candidacy. He has avoided the kind of scrutiny his rivals have faced. (And he declined to be interviewed by NEWSWEEK.) But as he prepares to step onstage, and his record in Washington is given a closer look, conservative voters may be disappointed to find that Thompson has been on the other side of some of their most important issues, including abortion and campaign fund-raising.
Thompson built his first Senate campaign, in 1994, on a typical theme: bringing change to Washington. He tried to stay clear of the culture wars, focusing instead on term limits and fiscal discipline. But no Republican running in the South could avoid the inevitable litmus-test question--where did he stand on abortion?
Thompson was more moderate on abortion than most Republican candidates. In his archive, there are several files on Thompson’s campaign strategy on the subject that could roil his 2008 bid. The records include multiple surveys from the Christian Coalition and other groups in which he took positions that could be viewed as supporting abortion rights.
On a 1994 Eagle Forum survey, Thompson said he opposed criminalizing abortion. Two years later, on a Christian Coalition questionnaire, he checked "opposed" to a proposed constitutional amendment protecting the sanctity of human life. He struggled with the question of when life begins. "I do believe that the decision to have an early term abortion is a moral issue and should not be a legal one subject to the dictates of the government," he wrote in a campaign policy statement filed in the archives.
Stapled to the paper was a January 1994 interview that Thompson gave to the Conservative Spectator, a Tennessee newspaper. Thompson said he was "certainly pro-life." But he told the paper, "I'm not willing to support laws that prohibit early term abortions ... It comes down to whether life begins at conception. I don't know in my own mind if that is the case so I don't feel the law ought to impose that standard on other people." The file also includes a copy of answers provided in 1994 to another newspaper. "The ultimate decision on abortion should be left with the woman and not the government," he answered.
But if Thompson was conflicted about the issue, his voting record didn't show it. He joined with conservatives to block federal funding for abortions and supported a partial-birth-abortion ban. National Right to Life, an anti-abortion group, gave him a 100 percent rating. Recently, Thompson has suggested a personal shift on the issue. He told Fox News that he's always been against abortion, but that the issue has "meant a little more" since he saw the sonogram of his 3-year-old daughter. "I'll never feel that same way again," Thompson said. "Not only is it in my head, it's in my heart now.”
That is apparently enough for many GOP activists. Conservatives have mocked Mitt Romney, whose views on abortion have also changed over the years, as a flip-flopper on the issue. But Thompson has escaped that sort of criticism. "He has a good record on core social issues," says Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council. "He made those statements before he was in the Senate. Once he was in, he was 100 percent pro-life.”
Thompson has also avoided the conservative backlash that John McCain, his friend and close Senate ally, is now suffering. The Arizona senator hasn't been able to shake a bad reputation with many Republicans for his crusade to limit campaign fund-raising, an effort they despised as government interference. But so far, they have been willing to overlook that Thompson was a strong supporter of McCain's bill. Thompson’s files show that he was closely involved in helping to write the law, and pushed colleagues to sign on. When the bill passed in 2001, its Democratic sponsor, Russ Feingold, sent Thompson a thank-you note. "You were essential to our success," he wrote.
Like McCain, Thompson showed he was willing to buck his party, even if it meant making enemies. In 1997, he was appointed to lead hearings into Democratic fund-raising abuses in the 1996 campaign. It was a starring role for a first-term senator and a nod at his popularity within the GOP. But the warm feelings didn't last. When Thompson broadened his investigation to look into alleged abuses by Republicans, he became an enemy to his party. "Fred was under considerable pressure to turn up and publicize evidence of wrongdoing [by Clinton], but his goal throughout was to be thorough and fair, and that didn't endear him to either side," says Sen. Susan Collins, a friend of his.
Thompson’s probe--which concluded without a splash--left him on the outs with GOP heavyweights. His archives show he repeatedly requested a seat on the Senate intelligence committee. But Majority Leader Trent Lott, once a close ally, snubbed him.
If some Republicans still have hard feelings about the episode, Thompson is working to repair the damage. He says he is a changed man who now questions some of the campaign-reform laws he helped pass. Asked earlier this month if supporting the McCain-Feingold bill was the "right decision," Thompson told Fox News, "Part of it was, and part of it wasn't." He said he would now repeal limits on spending by outside groups--the limits Republican activists hate most--because "that's not working.”
As Thompson well knows, that is just what his potential supporters want to hear. But there are limits to this kind of political dexterity, as Romney, McCain and Giuliani are all now discovering. Not everyone is willing to grant Thompson unconditional amnesty from his past views. "You can never get all of the stain out, but you can get some of it out," says the American Conservative Union's David Keene, who staunchly opposed the campaign-finance law. "The test is to see if he really means it." It will take plenty of that Hollywood charm to convince some conservatives that he does mean it--and to persuade them to forgive, even if they aren't willing to forget.
GRAPHIC: In Focus: Thompson (right) and costar Sam Waterston. Problem Solver: Conservatives, unsure of McCain, like Thompson