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.
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."
Early on, basketball over books
Growing up in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., a factory town near the Alabama border, Thompson wasn't anyone's idea of an up-and-comer. His father, Fletcher, ran a used car lot, and his mother, Ruth, kept house; both were high-school dropouts. A strapping 6-foot-5, Thompson was a class clown better at basketball than books. The staff of his high-school yearbook captioned his photo, "The lazier a man is, the more he plans to do tomorrow."
"If you'd have lined up everybody in the high school and said one of these will be a presidential candidate one of these days, he'd have been the last one picked," recalls Bobby Alford, president of the Lawrence County Historical Society, who coached Thompson at summer youth baseball.
As a boy Thompson prayed twice a week at the First Street Church of Christ and went to a Wednesday Bible class, recalls Jan Clifton, a friend since childhood. He was baptized there in his early teens.
Churches of Christ have their origin in a principle that would become a signpost for Thompson's secular beliefs: a suspicion of central authority. Rooted in the 19th-century Restoration Movement and concentrated in the South, the churches are nondenominational, have no headquarters, and teach the Bible as the only source of faith.
"They were trying to restore what they perceived as first-century Christianity," says Kevin Lewis, a theologian at Biola University, a Christian college in La Mirada, Calif.
Musical instruments and candles are banned from services, because, a church-affiliated website says, "there is no authority for engaging in acts of worship not found in the New Testament."
"They didn't put up with a lot," Mr. Alford says.
Thompson's faith remains a prickly subject, and to the dismay of some conservatives he has declined to discuss it during the campaign. He has said that he attends church when he visits his mother in Tennessee but does not go regularly at home in McLean, Va.
"I have no apologies to make about my religion or my relationship to Jesus Christ or God," he said with characteristic frankness in a CNN interview earlier this month. "I'm OK with the Lord and the Lord's OK with me, as far as I can tell."
Thompson happened into a great deal of his success.
He was about 17 years old when his girlfriend, Sarah Lindsey, a schoolmate from one of the town's prominent Republican families, told him she was pregnant. Thompson asked her to marry him, and, despite some doubts, the Lindseys arranged a ceremony.
"It definitely changed him," Ms. Clifton recalls. "He stepped up and took on a lot of responsibility."
Two more children came quickly. To pay for college, he worked odd hours sorting mail, assembling bicycles, and selling shoes. (He divorced Lindsey in 1985 and was remarried in 2002 to Jeri Kehn, with whom he has two children.)
His association with the Lindseys moved him into a higher social circle, and hearing his wife's uncle and grandfather talk about their law careers raised his aspirations. "A lot of people along the way oftentimes saw more in me than I saw in myself," Thompson told a hometown crowd in Lawrenceburg in September, soon after announcing his bid for the GOP presidential nomination.
He graduated from Memphis State University with good enough grades for a scholarship to Vanderbilt Law School.
Thompson was a Republican in the Democratic South, and being in the minority paid almost immediate dividends. Richard Nixon was elected to the White House a year after Thompson's graduation from Vanderbilt. The administration quickly hired Thompson as an assistant US attorney in Nashville.
When Howard Baker Jr. – Tennessee's first popularly elected GOP senator – was searching for a manager for his 1972 reelection bid, Lamar Alexander, then a Baker aide, recommended Thompson. "The first thing was, he was a Republican, and there weren't many Republicans in Middle Tennessee at the time," Mr. Alexander, now Tennessee's senior senator, said in a phone interview, describing what he saw as Thompson's chief asset.
Baker won reelection and invited Thompson, just 30, to serve as minority counsel to the Senate Watergate committee. Investigating a GOP president – the man who effectively gave him his first government job – Thompson was in a position few Republicans would envy.
But Thompson turned it to his advantage. At a hearing, he asked the question that exposed Nixon's secret taping system to the public. He emerged as a minor celebrity, the levelheaded lawyer willing to follow facts wherever they led.
It was another turning point. It deepened his distrust of federal authority, proved both parties were vulnerable to corruption, and hardened his belief in the value of principles.
"In [Nixon], as with so many others, I could find no underlying philosophy by which all things could be measured," Thompson wrote in his 1975 book on Watergate. "In the end, I think that this, more than any other factor, caused his undoing. There was no anchor there; no roots."
election to senate
After a career as a lobbyist and actor, Thompson was swept into the Senate in 1994 with the so-called Republican revolution, filling the seat Al Gore vacated when he became vice president. For the first time in 40 years the GOP controlled both houses of Congress, and it was a heady time for ideologues. Yet just a year into office, Thompson was going out of his way to highlight differences with his party.
"Attached is a [paper] noting your independence from 'the party line,' " a senior aide wrote in a January 1996 memo titled "Breaking from the Republican Pack." The memo catalogued a long list of votes against the GOP majority on campaign finance reform, consumer protection, and states' rights.
Before making policy choices, associates say, he'd often pore over the Constitution, the law, and the writings of the Founding Fathers. "He's a lawyer's lawyer," said Powell Moore, a former Senate chief of staff. "He's risen to the top of three professions: politics and law and movies. But the one he reveres, and is most dedicated to, is the law."
Before leaving the Senate in 2002, Thompson pushed for term limits, a Congressional pay freeze, and a raft of measures to make government leaner and more efficient. But in the end, he was better at standing firm than getting results. He compiled a slim record of legislative achievements, beyond his advocacy for the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform, a report on government waste, and an annual cost-benefit analysis of new regulations.
His oversight of hearings into the role of Asian money in the 1996 campaigns of Bill Clinton and Mr. Gore put him in a national spotlight and fueled talk of a presidential candidacy.
But the independence that had served him well as a prosecutor and investigator ruffled feathers in the clubby confines of the Senate. He vexed his GOP colleagues by trying to widen the probe to Republican campaign abuses, and failed to convince Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the alleged Democratic misconduct.
In 1999, he broke with all but a few Republican senators by voting to acquit President Clinton on one of the two articles of impeachment. "The president's perjurious statements concerned matters that the Founding Fathers would not have considered to be impeachable 'high crimes and misdemeanors,' " he wrote in a draft statement.
"A lot of Republicans were upset about" his vote, Mr. Ansell, his former aide, recalled. "He had over 100 calls from people who were very irate."
Ansell said that Thompson consoled himself by quoting Edmund Burke, the 18th-century Irish statesman who defied crown policy by defending the American Revolution: "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."