How Fred Thompson Learned To Rev Up

Posted on September 10, 2007

Before his campaign had even really started, Fred D. Thompson replaced two managers, disappointed supporters excited about his prospects and gave sometimes rambling speeches that made some wonder if his Hollywood experience simply didn't translate to the stump. It's a description that could apply to Thompson's sputtering presidential exploratory efforts this summer, but it was also the reality he faced as a Senate candidate in Tennessee in May 1994. And while rivals and critics are eager to paint the often chaotic walk-up to the official announcement of his presidential bid as a sign of things to come, they may be missing the lesson of the 1994 campaign, when Thompson shook off his early troubles and cruised to victory. His comeback in 1994 happened in part through a dramatic recasting of his image. A lawyer who had become a wealthy lobbyist and actor ditched his suit and Lincoln Continental to campaign across Tennessee in jeans and a leased Chevy pickup. The truck is not expected to make a return for the Republican presidential primaries, but he and his aides - including his newest campaign manager, Bill Lacy, one of many veterans of that first Senate run - have repeatedly said they will employ "nontraditional" methods of campaigning in the quest for the GOP nomination. "I don't think what worked the 1994 Senate race will translate verbatim to a presidential race," said Tom Ingram, a political strategist who worked on Thompson's 1994 race and has been involved in some of the discussions about the presidential race. "The point is thinking of things differently and creatively." Consistently reluctant about seeking elective office, Thompson has been mentioned since 1996 as a possible presidential candidate, but begged off until now. It was the same way in 1994. Throughout the 1980s, after Thompson was hailed for his work on the Senate committee investigating Watergate, Republicans in Washington and Tennessee would repeatedly talk to him about running for Congress or governor. But Thompson seemed content, particularly as he took up acting. "I thought that standing on the Senate floor, engaging in a great debate and making a difference was the pinnacle of political activity," he told People magazine in 1985. "The more I've seen it, the less interested I am." In 1993, an opportunity opened up that he couldn't ignore. A Republican Party desperate for a conservative standard-bearer encouraged him to run. Sen. Al Gore, a Tennessee Democrat, had been elected vice president, creating an election in 1994 for the last two years of his term. At the same time, the state's other senator, Democrat Jim Sasser, was up for reelection, meaning both Senate seats would be contested. While six Republicans vied for Sasser's seat, including eventual winner Bill Frist, the field was largely left clear for Thompson to target the Gore seat. But in 1994 Thompson faced a Democratic opponent with considerable advantages. Rep. Jim Cooper, whose district was based in Nashville, was the son of a former governor and was a Rhodes scholar and considered a political rising star. By April 1994, Cooper had significantly out-raised Thompson and led in polls. "Some of his best friends went to see him and said, 'Fred, you're going to lose,' " said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the former governor who recruited Thompson to run. Thompson pushed out his second campaign manager and begged Lacy to run the race and Ingram to assist. Ingram agreed and a few weeks later the two met at the Cracker Barrel restaurant in Cookeville, a small town in the middle of the state. Ingram asked a frustrated Thompson how he would run the campaign. Thompson didn't hesitate: He would get a pickup truck in his home town of Lawrenceburg and drive it around the state. Thompson said the staff had told him it was a bad idea. Lacy, in a July column he wrote about Thompson for the Knoxville News-Sentinel, acknowledges he vetoed the truck idea. "Too clever, I said," Lacy wrote. "Too much of a gimmick." Ingram told Thompson that the idea could work "if you do it right." The campaign took some time to find the right truck. Red was important for visibility, but they didn't want it overly flashy or "macho," Ingram said, so they insisted that it be used and have single wheels in the back rather than double. In television spots, many of which he ad-libbed, Thompson leaned against the truck and said: "Congress is more the problem than the solution; they're out of touch and we're out of patience." Said Alexander: "The thing to watch is: Does he have the same effect on national television as he did in the Tennessee race? In the Tennessee race, people saw him and they liked him and he was better than everybody else on television." Cooper called him on the homespun approach. At one point his campaign dubbed Thompson a "Gucci-wearing, Lincoln-driving, Perrier-drinking, Grey Poupon-spreading millionaire Washington special interest lobbyist." It didn't matter. Thompson, for all his wealth, was able to sell himself as an outsider country boy. His win was resounding: In a great year for the GOP, he outpolled all of the party's statewide candidates, won 19 of the 22 counties in Cooper's district and collected 61 percent of the vote. In his op-ed, written before being tapped to run Thompson's campaign, Lacy detailed some of the challenges. "Fred isn't Superman," he wrote. "He has some similarities to President Reagan, but he hasn't been around long and proven himself as much. . . . He has no national campaign experience and hasn't been through that large-scale rough and tumble." But he added that Thompson has some experience that may help. "In the darkest hours of his political career, when the wheels were about to come off his first campaign, he figured out how to scoop them up, put them on a red truck and drive off into the sunset."