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 protÃ©gÃ©. 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