Fred Thompson: a maverick conservative who loves the law
The GOP presidential hopeful has often defied his party and colleagues to chart his own course.
Just a couple of weeks after the 1999 shooting massacre at Columbine High School, with emotions still raw and bipartisan calls for tougher action against crime, Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee convened a hearing whose title, "Federalism and Crime Control," sounded like a law class.Skip to next paragraph
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In his opening remarks, Senator Thompson pointedly noted his vote a few years earlier against a school gun ban. It should not have become law, he suggested, nor should Washington enact new laws now. "It's a deeply rooted constitutional principle that the general police power belongs to the states," he said, before calling a parade of scholarly witnesses to buttress his argument.
It was an odd time for a dispassionate look at federalist theory. Fifteen people had been killed in one of the worst school shootings in US history. Even the National Rifle Association had scaled back its annual meeting.
But in many ways, it was signature Thompson: a defiant faith in his own judgment, an indifference to political fallout, and a near zealotry about the limits of government. A few days after his hearing, he not only opposed a juvenile-justice overhaul backed by his own party but was one of just three senators to vote against funds for a set of antiviolence programs.
"In all of the years I worked for him and all the vote memos and summaries I wrote for him, he never once wanted to know what the [party] leadership wanted him to do," recalls Bill Outhier, a former Senate aide. "It stemmed from a larger view of his role in the Senate, which was not to do things for political reasons but to do them because he thought they were right."
Thompson traces his political values to the 1960 book "The Conscience of a Conservative," the small-government manifesto by Barry Goldwater, the blunt-spoken senator who founded the modern conservative movement but never won the presidency.
Thompson read the book in college, and found himself drifting away from the Democratic politics of his parents. Associates say that as a young man, he was fascinated by historical figures who seemed to put principle before politics, like John Adams, who represented the British soldiers implicated in the Boston Massacre.
"That influenced him," Fred Ansell, another former aide, says of a book on Adams Thompson spoke of reading in his younger days. "Here was a courageous thing to do, and it was not done for calculated political gain. But by being courageous, it helped John Adams politically."
That temperament has suited Thompson, who in his years on Capitol Hill found himself at odds with own party and, at times, the entire Senate.
An analysis by the Washington Times found that Thompson was the sole "no" vote on more bills and amendments during his eight years in the Senate than any other Republican, even though his party was in power for much of that time. One measure he opposed encouraged schools to adopt zero-tolerance policies for drugs and violence. Another shielded volunteers from lawsuits.
The lonely votes flowed from an often doctrinaire belief that statehouses and town halls should set most policy, not Washington.
His distrust of the one-size-fits-all approach is as much personal as it is political. From his deliberately late entry into the presidential race to his refusal to talk about his faith, Thompson has rarely paid heed to conventional wisdom about how to run campaigns or win elections.
"I'm going to do it the way I want to do it," he recently told a reporter who asked about his light campaign schedule. The remark could well be a personal credo.
Thompson's celebrity owes less to his Senate years than his career as a Hollywood character actor, most notably as District Attorney Arthur Branch in the NBC drama "Law & Order." But on the campaign trail, Thompson, with his Southern patter and imposing physique, seems to promise nothing so much as authenticity.
"Fred is Fred," he said at a South Carolina campaign stop in November. "He may not be everybody's cup of tea, but that's who he is and that's not going to change."