WASHINGTON — Fred Thompson is a large, jowly man, 6 feet, 6 inches tall. His face is usually fixed in a scowl that seems to represent singleness of purpose, not scorn.
This visage has helped the sometime-actor land serious roles in movies, such as a CIA director and an admiral. Now his authoritative demeanor will be tested in one of nation's biggest real-life dramas - Washington's campaign-finance hearings.
Senator Thompson chairs the Government Affairs Committee, which, early this summer, will start hearings on reforming the complex system of campaign-spending laws.
The topic is explosive because it focuses on how politicians - from President Clinton to little-known congressmen - raise vast sums of money needed for campaigns. Thompson will be at the center of the hearings.
If they unearth and demolish unseemly or illegal practices, Thompson could emerge as a fresh face among Republican leaders - and maybe, just maybe, in the instant world of Washington celebrity, become a presidential contender in 2000.
Thompson is no happy-go-lucky actor-turned-politico. His movie career is a sideline (though a lucrative one). Law and politics are the core of his life.
The public first saw Thompson's image on TV in 1973. In the crowded Senate Watergate hearing room, it was Thompson, the minority legal counsel, who asked former White House aide Alexander Butterfield if he knew of "any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?"
Butterfield's affirmative answer brought to light Richard Nixon's secretly taped conversations, which eventually demolished his presidency.
When the public next saw Fred Thompson on the screen it was in the movie "Marie" in 1985. Since then he appeared in more than a dozen films including "The Hunt For Red October," "No Way Out," and "In The Line Of Fire."
While it's been easy to see Thompson on the screen, it's tougher to locate him on the Senate's political spectrum.
He voted against abortion rights, for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, and for term limits. But he also embraces liberal issues. He's against "corporate welfare" and, above all, he was an early advocate of campaign-finance reform. He co-authored the major bill now pending on the issue.
During wrangling over the scope of the campaign-finance reform probe, Thompson doggedly stuck by his view that the investigation should include both the White House and Congress, both Democratic and Republican illegalities and improprieties. He and his supporters won.
His early advocacy is Thompson's answer to those who argue a freshman senator has neither the clout nor the experience to run this congressional probe.
"Thompson," says a senior aide, "was on board this issue before all the current hot stuff - the Asian campaign contributions, the Lincoln bedroom, the White House coffees - hit the fan."
But Washington's man of the moment has become an elusive presence since he got the campaign-finance assignment.
He declines to give interviews. In his office suite of muted blue-gray carpeting, the white walls are sparsely decorated with political cartoons and a few innocuous scenes of rural Tennessee.
The visitor senses a curious blandness. Secretaries and receptionists speak with the studied politeness that goes with their Tennessee accents. Senior staff members are almost extravagantly courteous and evade difficult questions about their boss with the dexterity of rainbow trout slipping past fly fishermen in the Tennessee river.
In fact, it is this long river that joins together the eastern and western halves of the politically divided state. The eastern half was pro-Union in the Civil War. It is still Republican. Central and western Tennessee sided with the Confederacy - and are still Democratic.
Today, state politics include two dynasties - the Democratic Gores and Republican Bakers. Albert Gore Sr. is a much-loved ex-Senator. Howard Baker, Jr. is the patriarch of the Tennessee GOP.
Thompson wasn't born into the state's political elite. But after marrying as a teenager and earning a Vanderbilt University law degree, Thompson, his wife, and three children settled in his home town of Lawrenceburg. It was there that the young lawyer attracted the attention of then-Senator Baker who, in 1973, chose him as the minority counsel of the Watergate committee.
Born poor, Thompson became rich after Watergate with a law practice in Nashville and Washington. In 1993, he ran for Vice President Gore's vacant Senate seat and ran again in 1996, winning a full, six-year term.
Some of Thompson's GOP colleagues resented his being chosen to deliver his party's reply to Clinton's 1994 tax-cut plan. Thompson had been a senator for only one day, but his acting and courtroom skills made the speech a sensation.
Thompson for president?
Now there's even talk of a presidential bid in 2000.
Such speculation raises an interesting possibility: If Mr. Gore and Thompson become the major parties' candidates, the nation would have two presidential nominees from the same state.
Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, another of the state's leading Republican lights, is unfazed by such a prospect.
"At one time, Andrew Jackson was in the White House, Sam Houston was governor, Davy Crockett was in the US House of Representatives, and James Polk and Andrew Johnson were waiting in the wings," Alexander says. "If Tennessee could handle all that, I think it could handle this."