Alexander: “Very Few People Can Light Up The Room The Way Fred Thompson Did”

  • Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Senator Lamar Alexander on Tuesday paid tribute on the Senate floor to former attorney, actor, U.S. Senator for Tennessee, presidential candidate, and dear friend of 50 years, Fred Thompson, who passed away Sunday.

Sen. Alexander’s remarks follow:

It is my sad duty to report that Fred Dalton Thompson, who served in this body from 1995 to 2003 representing Tennessee, died in Nashville on Sunday.

Honey, my wife, and I and the members of our family—every one of whom valued our friendship with Fred—as well as all members of the United States Senate express to Fred’s family—his wife, Jeri, their children, Hayden and Sammy and his sons by his earlier marriage to Sarah, Tony and Dan, and his brother Ken—our pride in Fred’s life and our sympathy for his death.

Very few people can light up the room the way Fred Thompson did.

The truth is, most public figures have always been a little jealous of Fred Thompson. His personality had a streak of magic that none of the rest of us have.

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. 

National Public Radio later called that session and the discovery of the Watergate tapes “a turning point in the investigation.”

The Thompson magic was evident again in 1985 when Fred was asked to play himself in the movie “Marie.” In real life, Fred had been the attorney for Marie Ragghianti, the truth-telling chairman of the Tennessee Pardon and Parole Board during a scandal in our state when pardons were sold for cash.

After that he was cast in a number of movie roles as CIA director, the head of Dulles airport, an admiral, the President of NASCAR, 3 Presidents of the United States, and District Attorney Arthur Branch in the television series “Law and Order.” 

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.

Fred took on some big assignments during his time in the Senate but sometimes he would become impatient with some of the foolishness around here. A Washington reporter once asked him if he missed making movies.

“Yeah,” he said, “Sometimes I miss the sincerity of Hollywood.”

People sometimes ask me, How could an actor accomplish so much? In addition to those things I have already mentioned, during the 1980s Fred was invited twice to be special counsel to U.S. Senate investigating committees.  

When he retired from the Senate he took over Paul Harvey’s radio show. In 2008 he was for a while a front runner for presidency of the United States. 

For the last several years it has been hard to turn on the television set without seeing Fred Thompson urging you to buy a reverse mortgage. 

I believe there are three reasons for his extraordinary and diverse career.

First, he was authentic, genuine, bona-fide. Insofar as I know, he never had an acting lesson. As he did in “Marie” and in most of his movie roles, he was himself. There was no pretense in Fred Thompson, on or off the stage.

Second, he was purposeful. In 1992 when I was education secretary, I invited Fred to lunch in the White House mess. For years I had urged him to be a candidate for public office. I hoped he might run in 1994. What struck me during the entire luncheon conversation 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. And he was not afraid to cast votes that were unpopular with his constituents if he was convinced he was right.

The third reason for Fred Thompson’s success was that he worked hard. Now, to many, this assertion may come as a surprise. He was notoriously easy going. But he grew up in modest circumstances in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. 

His father, Fletch, was a car salesman. He 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.

Before he was Watergate counsel, he was an assistant United States Attorney. 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, television commercials, and eight years as a United States Senator. 

I have attended a number of memorial services for prominent figures and, as a result, I have added a rule to Lamar Alexander’s Little Plaid Book. It is this: “When invited to speak at a funeral, be sure to mention the deceased as often as yourself.”

I mentioned this rule last year when I spoke at Howard Baker’s funeral, because there came a point in my remarks when I could not continue without mentioning my relationship with Sen. Baker—and I therefore had to break my own new rule.

The same is true with Fred Thompson.

We were friends for nearly 50 years. In the late 1960s, both of us fresh out of law school, we were inspired by Sen. Howard Baker to help build a two-party political system in Tennessee.

Fred’s political debut was as campaign manager for John Williams for Congress against Ray Blanton in 1968. My first political foray was in Howard Baker successful Senate campaign in 1966.

When Sen. Baker ran for re-election in 1972, I recruited Fred to be the senator’s Middle Tennessee campaign manager. 

In 1973, when Sen. Baker asked me to be minority counsel to the Watergate Committee, I suggested he ask Fred instead because as a former assistant United States Attorney he was much better equipped for the job. 

When I lost the governor’s race in 1974, the Thompsons were one of two couples Honey and I invited to go to Florida with us to lick our wounds. 

When I was sworn in early as governor in 1979, without even asking him, I announced that Fred Thompson would fly back to Nashville from Washington, D.C. to review more than 60 pardons and paroles that had allegedly been issued because someone had paid cash for them. I wanted the celebrated Watergate personality to help restore confidence in Tennessee’s system of justice.

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.

During my general election campaign in 2002, an opponent said, “Fred and Lamar are both in Howard Baker’s stable.”

Fred replied, “Stable hell, we’re in the same stall.”

Several times I got a dose of Fred Thompson’s magic during those humbling experiences when I asked him to campaign with me.

Campaigning with Fred Thompson was a little like going to Dollywood with Dolly Parton. You can be sure no one is there to see you.

We have a tradition of scratching our names in the drawers of the desks we occupy here on the Senate floor. When I arrived in 2003, I searched high and low until I found what I wanted: a desk occupied by two predecessors in this Senate seat, my friend Fred Thompson and our mentor Howard Baker. 

During one of those late-night Senate sessions a few years ago I scratched my name after theirs. I am proud that it will remain there as long as this desk does: Baker/Thompson/Alexander

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.

We have lost one of our most able and attractive public servants, and my wife Honey and I have lost a dear friend.  

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