Fred Thompson Colbert County native Fred Thompson (1942-2015) is well known for his acting career, appearing on the long-running Law & Order television series franchise and in such notable thrillers as The Hunt for Red October and No Way Out, but he also had a notable legal and political career. Thompson began his professional life as an attorney and played a significant role in the Watergate scandal hearings of 1973. He later represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate from 1994-2003 and ran for president in 2008. Thompson was generally centrist in his political views but supported many conservative viewpoints on issues such as gun control, abortion, and climate change. He was in favor of pathways to citizenship for illegal immigrants, same-sex marriage, and campaign finance reform.
Freddie Dalton Thompson was born on August 19, 1942, in Sheffield, Colbert County, to Ruth Inez Bradley Thompson and Fletcher Session Thompson, a car salesman. Thompson attended public schools in Sheffield, but his family moved to Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, by the time Freddie was of high-school age, and he attended Lawrence County High School there. The 6’5″ Thompson played football and basketball for the school. Thompson married Sarah Elizabeth Lindsey in 1959 while still in high school, resulting in Thompson being banned from participating in school sports. The couple had one daughter and two sons. They would divorce in 1985.
In 1960, Thompson moved his family to Alabama so that he could attend Florence State College (present-day University of North Alabama), in Colbert County, but he transferred to Memphis State University two years later, graduating in 1964 with a double major in political science and philosophy. Thompson then earned a law degree from Vanderbilt University and was admitted to the Tennessee State Bar in 1967 and shortened his name to Fred. He credited his uncle’s gift of the autobiography of the Scopes “monkey” trial lawyer Clarence Darrow with inspiring him to attend law school.
Fred Thompson, 1973 In 1969, he took a job as an assistant U.S. attorney, with a focus on felony theft including bank robbery. Three years later, he was named campaign manager for the successful re-election bid of Tennessee Republican senator Howard Baker. When the Watergate scandal erupted during the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, Baker was named the ranking minority party member of the Senate Watergate Committee, and he appointed Thompson as minority legal counsel to the committee. Several sources claim that Thompson crafted Baker’s now-famous “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” question in the hearings. Thompson was later accused by some scholars of feeding information regarding the investigation to the White House, including warning Nixon aides that the committee knew of the existence of Nixon’s recordings of Oval Office conversations. Both Thompson and Baker worked with the White House behind scenes to assist Nixon’s defense. But, Thompson revealed the tapes to the public when he questioned aide Alexander Butterfield about his knowledge of them in the hearings. The tapes would become the center of a Supreme Court case and important to impeachment proceedings prompting Nixon’s August 1974 resignation. In 1975, Thompson published his personal account of the Watergate scandal in the book At That Point in Time: The Inside Story of the Senate Watergate Committee, which earned generally positive reviews.
Thompson’s acting career began through a 1977 case in which he represented Marie Ragghianti, chair of the Tennessee Board of Pardons and Paroles, in her successful wrongful termination suit against the state governor’s office. Ragghianti was fired for refusing to release prisoners pardoned by Gov. Ray Blanton after she discovered that they had paid bribes to his aides in return for parole. Her experience was recounted in the 1983 book Marie: A True Story by journalist Peter Maas and the 1985 film version Marie, with Thompson playing himself in the role of her attorney opposite Sissy Spacek as Ragghianti. A natural in front of the camera, Thompson earned a role in the Kevin Costner/Gene Hackman film No Way Out (1987), which led to additional film roles and television guest spots on popular shows such as Roseanne and China Beach. In 1990, he starred in three of the year’s highest-grossing films: The Hunt for Red October, Days of Thunder, and Die Hard 2. By 2002, he had earned role as a regular on the legal procedural series Law & Order and its spinoffs, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Trial by Jury, which would continue until 2007. He continued to act in film and television until his death.
In addition to his legal practice, Thompson worked as a lobbyist from 1975 until he began his Senate campaign in 1993. His clients included manufacturer Westinghouse, the Teamsters Union, and the Tennessee Savings and Loan League. His efforts on their behalf helped gain the passage of the federal Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982, which deregulated the savings and loan industry and led to many failed financial institutions beginning in the mid-1980s.
In 1993, Tennessee senator Al Gore resigned from the seat to serve as vice-president in the administration of Pres. Bill Clinton. Thompson mounted a campaign for the seat and garnered media attention for renting a red pickup truck to take on the campaign trail. In the 1994 election, he defeated the Democratic candidate, Congressman Jim Cooper, in a landslide. Thompson was re-elected to a full term two years later. During his time in the Senate, Thompson was a proponent of campaign finance reform, nuclear disarmament, and reducing government waste and inefficiency. During the 1999 vote to impeach Pres. Clinton, Thompson was one of 44 senators who voted against the measure. He served on the Committee on Governmental Affairs, being named chair in 1997, as well as on the Judiciary Committee, the Foreign Relations Committee, and the Special Committee on Aging, and he chaired the Subcommittee on Youth Violence and the Subcommittee on International Policy, Export, and Trade Promotion. In 2000, he was co-chair of the committee to elect Arizona senator John McCain president and was among those considered as a running mate by George W. Bush after he won the Republican primary.
Fred Thompson, 2007 In 2002, Thompson decided not to run for re-election to the Senate and instead became a regular on the hugely popular legal drama Law & Order, playing district attorney Arthur Branch. That same year, Thompson married political consultant Jeri Thompson, with whom he had a daughter and a son. He also founded the Federal City Council, a political action committee focused on economic development in the District of Columbia, and chaired, until 2007, the non-partisan International Security Advisory Board, advising the U.S. State Department about emerging international threats to the United States. In 2004, he headed the behind-the-scenes group that steered circuit judge John Roberts through his nomination and confirmation process as Supreme Court Chief Justice. He also variously hosted a radio show and was a columnist for the conservative Heritage Foundation publication Townhall, sharing his views on politics and culture.
In 2007, announced that he would be a Republican candidate for president in the 2008 election cycle and also disclosed publicly that he had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2004 but was in remission. He never earned higher than third in polling and dropped out in January 2008. He then threw his support behind John McCain once again. He was one of the featured speakers at the Republican National Convention in September of that year. After the election, he returned to radio and television, becoming the national spokesman for reverse-mortgage lender American Advisors Group. In 2010, he published a memoir, Teaching the Pig to Dance: A Memoir of Growing Up and Second Chances.
Thompson died on November 1, 2015, of complications related to cancer. He was buried in Mimosa Cemetery in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee.