Fred Thompson Cast as Villain by Both Sides
Tennessee movie star turned politician takes heat over how he runs inquiry on fund-raising.
WASHINGTON — These were to be the hearings that catapulted Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee onto the national political stage and into the cast of Republican presidential candidates. He has captured the limelight, but little else during his inquiry into campaign fund-raising irregularities has gone according to script.
Instead, the lawyer-turned-actor-turned-politician finds himself in an uncomfortable role - squeezed between Democrats on his Senate Government Oversight Committee, who accuse him of being too partisan, and fellow Republicans, many of whom believe he hasn't been partisan enough.
Republican dissatisfaction recently emerged from behind the scenes. "Thompson's conduct has led to divisions in the GOP cloakroom greater than any seen since the 1990 budget hearings," charged the widely read conservative Weekly Standard magazine last week.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Republicans thought the 6-foot, 5-inch Tennessean, with his combined movie-actor and special-prosecutor experience, would make the perfect chairman to investigate fund-raising improprieties. Still a relatively junior senator, Thompson won election in 1994 to fill out Vice President Al Gore's term. The son of a used-car dealer, he first gained prominence as Republican Sen. Howard Baker's chief counsel on the 1973 Senate Watergate committee. After Richard Nixon's resignation, Thompson returned to Tennessee, where then-Gov. Lamar Alexander tapped him to investigate clemency-selling by Governor Alexander's predecessor, who went to jail.
Shortly thereafter, Thompson played himself in a movie about the case, beginning his acting career. He's since appeared in such hit movies as "In the Line of Fire," "Die Hard II," and "The Hunt for Red October." He also practiced law in Nashville and served as special counsel to two Senate committees.
Thompson is known for his folksy style: In his 1994 campaign he drove around the state in a red pickup truck; his Internet Web page shows it parked in front of the Capitol. The page also features his mother's recipes for coconut cake and coconut cream pie.
"He has the ability to merge the Tennessee down-home-style presentation with being a smart and articulate individual," says John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. It obviously plays well: In his reelection campaign last fall, Thompson won the most votes in Tennessee history.
Despite his qualifications, however, Thompson's committee inquiry has been hamstrung from the beginning by the two parties' conflicting political imperatives. Republicans want an investigation that spotlights Democratic violations of current law, damping Vice President Gore's prospects for the 2000 elections, and cementing GOP control of Congress. Democrats, eager to avoid these consequences, press instead for a broader look at fund-raising in general, hoping to gin up public demand for reforms such as the stalemated McCain-Feingold Senate bill.
Thompson has ended up caught in the middle. "He's tried to have it both ways," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "He wants to get across the partisan message, but also seems to want to satisfy [Sen.] John Glenn and the Democrats. You can't do both."
Thompson also has a strained relationship with Senator Glenn of Ohio, the astronaut-hero who serves as the committee's top Democrat. The two men not only don't connect, they have very different models of how the committee should operate. Thompson thinks Glenn should behave like his mentor, Senator Baker, and join the majority in a bipartisan search for the truth about alleged Democratic wrongdoing. Glenn, on the other hand, believes Thompson should cast a wider net and share budgets and decisionmaking with him, as was done during the Iran-contra investigation.
Thompson bucked the GOP leadership in supporting a broader investigation; then angered Glenn by approving subpoenas aimed almost entirely at Democrats. But many Republicans were beside themselves recently when the hearings suddenly veered off into "Phase II," a discussion of possible campaign-finance reforms.
"I was disappointed when it looked like the Government Affairs Committee was basically shutting down a couple of weeks ago...," majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi told C-SPAN Radio last week. But he added that revelations of White House videotapes and fund-raising irregularities during the recent Teamsters Union elections had "reinvigorated" the committee.
The inquiry has been hampered by witnesses taking the Fifth Amendment or fleeing the country. In addition, Thompson bitterly complains that the time limit on the investigation that Democrats demanded is working against him as several subpoenaed organizations refuse to respond. "By the time we get through the contempt proceedings and into court our cutoff date will have arrived," he says.
Still, the hearings have yielded important results. They have confirmed attempts to funnel foreign money into the Democratic National Committee and a Chinese government plan to influence congressional and state elections. They have showed how big contributors can buy access to the president and other officials through large, unregulated contributions to political parties.
"I don't think the committee hearings have been the great boon for him for a presidential race that they were supposed to be, but they haven't hurt him any," Professor Geer says. "If the Republicans are giving him heat, he's probably done a pretty good job," Geer says. "He's a formidable character. People should not underestimate him."