Meet FredAsk a Republican

Fred Thompson threw away the script when he ran for the Senate; he may do it again trying for the White HouseWhat were they thinking whenâ? We ask, so you donâ't have to

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Feature Story

by Frank Cagle

It was a scorching summer day in 1993 at the Sevier County fairgrounds. I was standing around with four other political junkies with nothing better to do and we were laughing about Congressman Don Sundquist's ardent pursuit of the goodwill of Congressman Jimmy Quillen.

Quillen, the boss of the heavily Republican First District, had torpedoed the candidacy of Winfield Dunn, the last serious Republican candidate for governor. Quillen was playing hard-to-get that summer with his back bench colleague, Sundquist, who would be running for governor in 1994.

Quillen and Sundquist were inside a big tent and the crowd was whooping it up, in anticipation of capturing the governor's office after eight years of Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter.

We looked over the fairgrounds to see a tall fellow we recognized from the movies wandering around like he was lost. He evidently didn't get the memo about it being a casual event. He had left his suit coat and tie in the car and had rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt. He wandered up, sweating like a pig.

I was then the assistant managing editor of the News Sentinel. Lloyd Daugherty was and is chair of the Tennessee Conservative Union. Kelvin Moxley was the editor of a conservative student newspaper at the University of Tennessee. Mike Alder ran campaigns for legislative candidates and was a some-time lobbyist. Frank Niceley was a former and future Republican legislator.

Fred Thompson, on his first campaign appearance in East Tennessee, assumed (not incorrectly) we were a group of local rednecks. We surrounded him like a bear in a ring and started peppering him with questions. The death penalty. Abortion. Taxes. Gun Control. To each question Thompson replied with a long, carefully guarded lawyerly answer. He took our abuse good-naturedly for a while until he figured out the action was in the big tent. He excused himself and went inside.

As I recall it was our consensus opinion that Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper, a pretty good conservative, would eat this guy alive in the upcoming Senate race. Thompson's answers sounded like Belle Meade cocktail party chit-chat, rambling and evasive and politically correct. We were naturally suspicious of him anyway; he was U.S. Sen. Howard Baker's protégé. You know Bakerâ"the guy conservatives say enabled Jimmy Carter to give away the Panama Canal. The Tennessee Conservative Union has a reputation as an anti-income tax group, but the organization was originally formed to fight the Panama Canal decision.  

The myth has arisen that Thompson has never had a hard political race. At the beginning of the 1994 Senate campaign he was down 20 points to Cooper, and East Tennessee conservatives were just not that impressed. Tennessee had had two Democratic senators in Al Gore and Jim Sasser; it appeared that would not change. What people remember at the end of the campaign is that Thompson led the ticket, won with 61 percent of the vote. The TCU endorsed him. Moxley would go on to join his Senate staff. We would all become solid Thompson supporters. But it didn't happen overnight.

Over the fall and winter I was to see Thompson often at various Lincoln Day Dinners in the surrounding counties. These annual party fundraisers get good attendance in a gubernatorial election yearâ"you could sense 1994 would be a good year for Republicans and they were excited about it. At the first of these events it was obvious the crowds were there to see Sundquist, the party's hope to regain the governor's office and control of patronage. They would usually seat Thompson down on the end of the dais, and he usually got to speak last. Sundquist and the local congressman would get first dibs. His speeches were OK, but not spellbinding. They tended to be a little too abstract, too much from his background as a Senate staffer, a federal prosecutor and an attorney. But he got better as he went along. His problem was his attitude. He generally looked miserable and had the air of a man who wondered why he was there.

After the Knox County event at which Newt Gingrich had fired up the crowd with his Contract with America, Thompson and some of the locals repaired to the hotel bar to get something to drink that would kill the taste of rubber chicken . It was obvious Thompson was uncomfortable in his new role. He couldn't find his rhythm. He had been watching Sundquist and Quillen and Congressman Jimmy Duncan, who had had years of party banquets behind them and could deliver a banal homily at the drop of a hat. It just wasn't Thompson's style.

Thompson had entered the race as a conventional candidate, doing what conventional candidates do, and he hated it. He also wasn't making any progress in catching Cooper.

Somewhere in the course of the conversation Thompson became â“Fredâ” and it got down to candid talk. Someone at the table offered the opinion that people didn't really want those long-winded answers. They just wanted to know one thing: â“Are you one of us, or are you one of them?â” Thompson threw back his head and laughed at that.

He reminisced about his first job out of high school, the night shift at the Maury Bicycle plant in his home town of Lawrenceburg. Lawrenceburg is a typical small town in Tennessee, a backwater too far from an interstate. Despite the growth in Middle Tennessee in recent years the town still numbers about 10,000 people. It didn't take Thompson long at the bike plant to decide to go to the University of Memphis and Vanderbilt Law School and get on with a career.

As the campaign wore on that spring and summer Thompson seemed to begin to remember that bike plant and the people he worked with and grew up with. He began to set aside the lawyer and Senate staffer persona he had taken on over the years. His speeches became shorter. More to the point. He started to connect with people.

I think the turning point came at Mule Day in Columbia, in the spring of 1994. He put on jeans and boots and got on a horse and rode in the parade. He was a huge success; the crowd went wild. He kept the cowboy boots, and often, the jeans. He famously mounted up in a red pickup truck and toured around the state. The stuffy lawyer disappeared. Instead there as an assured public persona that connected with people on a very personal level.

Given Thompson's movie roles and his role on the current television series Law & Order , his critics might say he was just an actor who finally got into the good old boy role. His friends would point outâ"he ain't that great an actor.

Lamar Alexander wore a plaid shirt and walked across Tennessee, but no one ever confused him with a good old boy.

The red truck has been derided as a gimmick since Thompson had spent his adult life as a Washington lobbyist and an attorney. The Cooper campaign suggested a limo was more his style. But if the truck had not been authentic it would have been about as successful as Michael Dukakis in a tankâ"the photo op that came to symbolize a losing 1988 presidential campaign. Fred fit in the truck. Dukakis didn't fit in the tank.

At another political event in early summer 1994 I noticed that the crowds that used to come to cheer on Sundquist were still enthusiastic for him, but the crowds went nuts for â“Fred.â” He was now the focus of political gatherings, and he got mobbed afterwards.

Major Garrett is now a reporter for the Fox cable news channel. In 1994 he was a political reporter for the Washington Times . He came down and followed Fred on a tour of East Tennessee. After a hard day of campaigning we were sitting on the front porch and I asked him what he thought.

He described an incident from that afternoon. They stopped at a convenience store in Sevier County. They left the red truck in the parking lot; there was no one else there. They got soft drinks and Fred spent some time talking to the store clerk. When they came outside, cars and trucks were pulling into the parking lot and people were gathered around the truck. Fred pulled the tail gate down, got up and gave a short speech, and everyone hooted and hollered.

Garrett said he had covered political campaigns all over the country that summer and the usual problem for politicians was trying to find a crowd and jump in front of it. He was amazed that Fred could conjure one up in an empty parking lot in rural Sevier County.

It was that rock-star quality that led Thompson to win the Senate seat. As a quote from a book about that election had it: â“People in Tennessee liked Jim Cooper. But they loved Fred.â”

The lawyer we had dismissed the previous summer as hopeless had become a natural. His frustrations with the conventions of political campaigning led him to just cast them aside and do it his way. The question now becomes whether he can cast aside the traditional method of running for president and invent his own way of doing it. The probability now is that Thompson will enter the presidential race, possibly by next month. It is not likely Thompson would put Baker, Bill Frist, Zach Wamp, Jimmy Duncan and Beth Harwell out there on a limb heading a Draft Fred movement were he not serious about running.

So what has changed to bring him back, not only into politics but also into the biggest political race possible?

In 1996 and in 2000 Thompson's fellow Tennessean Lamar Alexander was running for president. Until very recently fellow Tennessean Bill Frist was an all but declared candidate. Thompson has the same base, the same political supporters and the same financial network. His path to running for president has been blocked since he entered public life. That's not true any more.

But the key to Thompson's hesitation may lie elsewhere: It's what presidential candidates have traditionally had to do to get elected. You go hat in hand and you beg money from people who have had enough success in life to give them a sense of entitlement. If you've had the ability to make millions selling plumbing fixtures, shouldn't you have some input on the next Secretary of State?

It is this sort of system that produces a George Bush as a presidential candidate. I had a conversation with a rich young man, more thoughtful than most, who has had some success in politics. He had been in one of those rooms with Bush, everyone there just like him, just like Bush. He wondered if Bush ever met anyone other than the people just like himâ"wealthy, confident and privileged. Is this a system that produces a president that has any idea how most of the people in America live?

The worst time running for president is in the early months, going door to door like a condo salesman, asking the guys with check books to invest in your campaign. Mitt Romney is great at it. Thompson hates it. His strategy may be to come in in the middle of this campaign, capitalize on the discomfort Republicans have with the field and gamble on good poll numbers to create excitement. If that happens, the money will come.

But what are the odds it can happen? Romney raised $23 million during the first quarter of 2007. But Thompson just announced he was considering a run for president and his poll numbers jumped Romney to put him in third place behind John McCain and Rudy Giulianiâ"with no announcement, no organization and no campaign.

The internet and the power of average people to raise huge sums for candidates has been demonstrated, by Howard Dean in 2004 and by Barack Obama this last quarter. Thompson may finally be able to see how he can get there with small contributors and build a grassroots organization without the inevitable compromises that big money campaigns dictate. Go to Google and type in â“Draft Fred.â”

Conservatives have rightly criticized McCain's campaign finance reform, and they criticize Thompson for being McCain's friend and supporting it as well. The support seems puzzling unless you understand Thompson. The boy from Lawrenceburg has made it this far on his ability. He sees the money-raising machine that is modern American politics and it makes him mad. He sees McCain's bill as an attempt to change things.

Can Thompson win? Since 1976 four out of five presidents have been from the South: Georgia, Arkansas and Texas. Can he win the Republican nomination, with primaries dominated by conservatives?

If Thompson can convince anti-Baker Tennessee conservatives of his conservative credentials, he shouldn't have any trouble with national conservative groups. The Tennessee Conservative Union, for example, has spent a lot of time in New Hampshire during presidential primaries campaigning. Campaigning against Tennessee candidates like Howard Baker and Lamar Alexander. Should they go to New Hampshire this presidential season they will be campaigning for Thompson.

National conservative groups gave Thompson high marks during his Senate career, giving him better credentials in Republican primaries than McCain or Giuliani. Business groups gave him 90 to 100 point ratings, the Christian Coalition gave him a 92, the American Conservative Union gave him an 85. The National Taxpayers Union gave him an A rating. The NRA, which has problems with Giuliani, McCain and Romney, has consistently supported Thompson.

Thompson's only black marks with conservatives have been support for McCain's campaign reform bill and his refusal to sign on to the Chamber of Commerce's campaign for â“tort reform.â” Thompson is an attorney and he refuses to support efforts to limit the ability of poor people to seek legal remedies through class action lawsuits and contingency fee lawyers. But â“tort reformâ” is more of an issue for big business and the Wall Street Journal editorial page than movement conservatives.

Fred Thompson's campaign in Tennessee demonstrated that he does not consider conventional campaigning as a strait-jacket from which he cannot escape. If he chooses to run for president he will do it on his own terms. It is a risky strategy. If he fails he can expect the political establishment to pillory him for his deviation from orthodoxy. The â“Fred is lazyâ” tag will come back. He may lose the nomination. But nine out of 10 of the current GOP candidates, running conventional campaigns, will lose as well.

The problem with our politics is that the people who can get elected president are the people we wouldn't want as president. If there is anybody who can upset the status quo, create a new dynamic and overcome the process it would be Fred Dalton Thompson.

by Leslie Wylie

Even no-count liberal rags like Metro Pulse understand that bipartisan mudslinging is counterproductive, not to mention stupid and mean. Open-mindedness, on the other hand, is progressive, and that's one reason why we decided to publish our first-ever Republican Issue. We here at the paper might not necessarily appreciate our Republican friends' taste in presidents all the time, but hey, we don't really understand multivariable calculus, either. That doesn't mean we don't respect it, or that we won't try to learn.

It is in that spirit that we invite three of our favorite local Republicansâ"Immediate Past Chair of the Knox County Republican Party Brian Hornback, 1st Vice Chair of the Knox County Republican Party Corey Johns, and Chair of the Knox County Young Republicans Stephanie Hundleyâ"to enlighten us to the Republican way. Enjoy!

Metro Pulse : What makes a Republican a Republican?

Brian Hornback: A Republican is someone that supports the concept of smaller government, lower taxes and keeping the government out of our everyday lives. A Republican is someone that believes the answers are not found in the government bureaucracy but within the community. The community of neighbors helping neighbors and the church encouraging and helping to lend a hand when needed.

What makes a Republican a Republican? When they don't vote for a Demo or anything other than a Republican.

Corey Johns: The Republican party is a big tent party that encompasses Americans from all walks of life. However, Republicans, by and large, are Americans who believe in personal responsibility and the power of ingenuity. A Republican believes that the answers to society's problems typically lie in creative thinking and entrepreneurship, not in higher taxes and government programs. A Republican believes that you know best how to spend your family's hard-earned money, not the Washington politicians. A Republican believes in faith, family and community, and that these pillars of civilization must be protected. A Republican believes in equality of opportunity and in evaluating a person by the content of their character. A Republican believes in being a good steward of God's creation. A Republican believes that we must resolve to remain strong in a world where our enemies seek to harm us. And a Republican has a good memory... after all, elephants never forget!

Stephanie Hundley: A Republican is an individual who prefers small government and conservative spending.  

MP : When did you know you were a Republican?

BH: In August of 1984, I turned 18 and registered to vote immediately; I haven't missed an election since. At 16 I volunteered in the Robin Beard for U.S. Senate campaignâ"Robin was Jim Sasser's first opponent. I knew that I was a Republican when my choice in 1984 was the tax-and-spend liberals of Mondale/Ferrarro or Reagan/Bush. Reagan and Bush won my vote and I forever have been a Republican.

CJ: My mother's side of the family is very Republican (my grandfather was named after Ulysses S. Grant) and my father's side is southern Democrat (my grandmother in middle Tennessee voted for Kerry despite the fact that I was managing the Bush campaign here in Knox County), so I grew up considering myself an American with no real allegiance to either party... until the Lewinsky scandal. What really got me more than the scandal itself was the reaction from the Democrat party. Early on, I saw a few Democrats I respected (like Joe Lieberman) come out and condemn Clinton's actions. But within a few days, the Democrat leaders had circled the wagons and suddenly the party mantra became that it wasn't any of our business. No longer would any Democrat even acknowledge that what Clinton had done was wrong. It was through those events that I came to realize that I could not reconcile my personal beliefs with the things for which the Democrat Party stood.

SH: When I saw how much of my paycheck I didn't receive and realized I was funding useless government programs.

MP : Did you vote for George W. Bush? If yes, would you vote for him again?

BH: Yes, I voted for him in the general election of 2000 (November 2000) and in the primary (February 2004) and general (November 2004) of 2004. I would be violating the law to vote for him again. As a Republican I do not violate the law.

CJ: In both 2000 and 2004, a solid majority of Knox Countians voted for George W. Bush and I was among them. I don't agree with my mother or best friend 100 percent of the time, and I haven't agreed with every decision made by the administration. Nevertheless, I would gladly and without question vote for him again over Al Gore, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and the like.

SH: Yes. That depends on the other options.

MP : How would you handle the issue of illegal immigration?

BH: Require that they have work visas and are registered. If not, send them back.

CJ: I agree with Senator Fred Thompson who said that, â“A sovereign nation loses that status if it cannot secure its own borders and we [must] do whatever is necessary to do so.â” He further suggests partly making it a problem for the Mexican government by challenging them on their left-of-center policies, which are only escalating the dilemma. I think Senator Thompson is right on this issue.

SH: I would enforce the laws already established by our government.

MP : Why is the Republican party largely opposed to gay marriage?

BH: Because it violates the sanctity of marriage. Marriage was ordained as one man and one woman and is the only legally recognized unity of marriage. In addition a child needs a mother and a father.

SH: It is unfair to categorize the Republican party as opposed to gay marriage. Some Republicans are opposed because of their moral and ethical beliefs. Marriages traditionally in all cultures throughout time have been men and women, and some would like to adhere to that tradition. Other Republicans believe that gay marriage would be an infringement upon the separation of church and state. These are the same people who are not opposed to civil unions for homosexuals.

CJ: Most Republicans (like most Americans) believe that the traditional nuclear family is the ideal building block for a strong and healthy society. Sadly, that is not always the reality in the world in which we live. The issues of gay marriage and abortion, however, are so divisive primarily because of the way they are handled by activist courts. Most of the free world has dealt/is dealing with these issues legislatively through the elected representatives of the people. In America, however, some judges seem intent on superceding constitutional boundaries and forcing their personal moral agendas on the unwilling majority. Republicans, however, prefer dealing with these issues the old fashioned way... at the ballot box.

MP : Abortion?

BH: Because it is the murdering of a life.

MP : True or False: Global Warming.

BH: Today it was warm, it is a bit chilly tonight. If Al Gore says it, it is wrong.

CJ: Available science strongly supports the case that the earth is warming. However, there seems to be less consensus as to how much mankind is actually contributing to this. Regardless, we all need to be good stewards of our environment by making a personal commitment to take the steps we can to care for God's creation.

SH: Neither at this pointâ"it's a theory. However, this does not mean that we should not take care of our earth.

MP : Win, Lose or Draw: The War in Iraq.

BH: As long as there is not another terrorist attack on American soil, it is a win.

CJ: We're in it, now we have to win it. Regardless of how one feels about the status of Iraq or whether the war was justified, nothing can change the past so we must do everything within our power to leave Iraq a free and stable country.

SH: Win.

MP : What do Republicans do for fun?

BH: We play with our kids in youth recreational sports, we go to the movies as a family, we eat dinner together, we worship together at our church.

CJ: Other than beating Democrats?? I can really only answer for this Republican. I enjoy traveling, spending time with friends, reading, movies, sports, church and the outdoors. And, of course, the Metro Pulse !

SH: The same thing as everyone else! Go out for happy hour!

MP : What kind of beer do Republicans like to drink?

BH: Some Republicans do not drink beer or any form of alcohol. The last time I checked the RNC has not endorsed an adult beverage. I request that Republicans that do drink, do not drive.

CJ: On average, I'd guess that Republicans who choose to drink are probably Coors Light people. The Coors family has a reputation for being big supporters and donors to Republican candidates and causes. This seems to be pretty well known among Republican activists. In fact, Pete Coors was the Republican nominee to the U.S. Senate in 2004.

MP : Do Republicans eat tofu?

CJ: Eat what?? Just kidding. None that I know, but I'm sure they're out there!

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