With 24 film-acting credits to his name, Fred Dalton Thompson has portrayed a White House chief of staff in In the Line of Fire, a CIA director in No Way Out, an admiral in The Hunt for Red October, head air traffic controller in Die Hard 2, and himself, a defense attorney in Marie. The 58-year-old Republican senator from Tennessee became a real-life star as a chief minority counsel to the Watergate Committee from 1973 to 1974. He won a special election to finish Al Gore’s Senate term in 1994 and was re-elected in 1996. He’s now ranking minority member on the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs.
THE SHUTTLE SHEET: Senator, you’ve had three high-profile, very successful careers — law, film and politics — when many people barely have one. What is the secret of your success?
SEN. FRED THOMPSON: The inability to keep a job [Laughs]. I try to work hard, and things just seem to happen. Doors open. I’ve just had to decide when to walk through them. It’s fortuitous. I was cast in a movie role, yet I was never even in a high school play. If Al Gore hadn’t been on the presidential ticket, I wouldn’t be in the Senate.
SS: Before we get to your role in movies, let’s talk a little politics. With the Democrats controlling the Senate, will there be more oversight of the White House?
FT: Yes, you can’t keep dogs from chasing cars. That’s what we do around here. If one party controls the Congress and the other controls the presidency, you’re more tempted to look into matters. And that’s totally appropriate. It’s part of our checks and balances.
SS: Who is to blame for Sen. Jeffords jumping ship and leaving the party? Is it Leader Lott or the White House?
FT: I think a lot of people are getting the blame, and nobody should. I personally sat in on meetings where Sen. Jeffords prevailed over the majority of the Republicans in the meeting because his vote was needed to get a matter out of committee. The tax bill is an example: I didn’t like it, but I didn’t resent it. I find myself in the minority sometimes, and I exercise as much authority as I can. I understand Jeffords leaving the party and becoming independent. But I have a hard time understanding his making that second decision, to caucus with the Democrats. That deprived all his friends of their long-awaited chairmanships and changed the entire agenda of the Senate, thereby changing the president’s agenda. A lot of people were caught unaware because nobody thought that he or anybody else would do that. He changed the whole elected framework overnight.
SS: Do you think that your star appeal — in movies, politics and as a trial attorney — affects your ability to govern either positively or negatively?
FT: The word “star” was only connected with me after I got out of the movie business. It seems that the further I’m removed from it, the bigger the star I am! I guess it’s helpful to get attention if your business is trying to have an impact on public opinion. Anything in this fractured, hurly-burly existence we all have that would cause a person to stop for a moment and listen to you is good.
SS: How do you think you can use that — in office or out of office — to help the most people or do the most good?
FT: There are a lot of avenues that can have an impact. There’s nothing like going down to the Senate floor and using that bully pulpit to make a point. But that’s not the only avenue. I work with the Boys & Girls Clubs in Tennessee, and I get a lot more attention from them because of the films than because of my position on the Patients’ Bill of Rights. I find that people from all walks of life are generally more interested in movies than they are in public policy. At first I resisted that notion, but now I understand that I need to use it in order to have some influence, especially with young people.
SS: Intially you said you wouldn’t seek more than two terms in the Senate, and you haven’t announced whether or not you’ll seek re-election for a second full term when this term is up next year. Is there a career No. 4 down the line?
FT: I don’t foresee an additional career, but one of these days — the Lord willing — I’ll be doing a lot of different things, including writing, acting, maybe practicing some law, maybe something in the area of public policy and maybe some speeches — all of which I enjoy.
SS: You’ve ruled out a gubernatorial race in 2002. Would you leave that door open in the future?
FT: I doubt if I’ll run for office again, but circumstance can turn on a dime — we’ve certainly seen that around here lately — so there’s no need to pin yourself down.
SS: What about the rumors that if he ever steps down, you may be tapped to replace Jack Valenti as head of the Motion Picture Association of America?
FT: That’s the kind of fascinating phenomenon that would occur only in Washington, New York or Hollywood — a rumor that has such wide play but apparently is based on absolutely nothing. I feel very confident that a decade from now Jack Valenti will still be holding that job!
SS: What if you were not in the Senate, and Steven Spielberg was directing a film and you were producing or starring in it, what kind of film would you want it to be and what role would you want to play?
FT: Any role would be fun as long as they pay me enough money, but I hope it would be a part of a quality product that would leave a good message, either uplifting or insightful about the human condition. I did not mind getting out of the movie business when I did because it was getting harder and harder to find roles I wanted to play. I would like to see more movies that deal with the human condition, movies based upon some of the great writers — Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald.
SS: Do you have an all-time favorite film?
FT: Casablanca, and some of the classic Westerns.
SS: Do you have a personal favorite that you’ve played in?
FT: The Hunt for Red October. It was the last Cold War movie when the Soviet Union was still the bad guy. It fit my criteria: a quality movie, no obscenity, no cheap attempts to get attention, just a great story with great actors — Sean Connery is one of my favorites, and Alec Baldwin — we have political differences, but I think he’s a quality actor. They paid me pretty well, and I got to spend a couple of days on the USS Enterprise, sleep in officers’ quarters and play a role that was fun.
SS: Moving back to the political arena, what do you think are the Senate’s notable accomplishments this year?
FT: We passed the tax bill, an education bill and a Patients’ Bill of Rights, which to me is not entirely good news. The federalization of this important part of health care is not necessarily a good thing. Nothing is a freebie. You have to balance the additional rights that a patient might get to sue with the additional healthcare costs and the employers who will drop out of the healthcare business. Allowing additional lawsuits is not going to improve health care. But the Senate and the Congress should not be judged totally on the number of bills they pass. Sometimes it’s like a baseball trade — sometimes the best ones you make are the ones you don’t make.
SS: What do you consider the most important issues?
FT: Medicare, Social Security and national security. Those things are important to the long-term well-being of our country. And good fiscal policies. Most of the rest is window dressing.
SS: How do you view the future of the Republican Party?
FT: I think it’s going to be nip and tuck for some time now. A little could mean a lot. A seat or two here or there could mean the difference in control. I think a lot depends on the economy, how well the president does and the quality of candidates we have. Issues are important, but most issue battles wind up being trade-offs. It gets down to the quality of the candidate, and we need to have better-quality candidates.
SS: Do you see a challenge to the Senate GOP leadership, to Sens. Lott and Nickles, within the next half-dozen years?
FT: They’re not going to be there forever, because nobody is, but I don’t see a challenge on the horizon. The idea of overthrowing the leadership is basically inside the Beltway, media-generated.
SS: Do you think President Bush is doing a good job so far?
FT: Nothing is more important to the president than his credibility and leadership. The success of his presidency depends on that. I think he will succeed even against a hostile Congress. That’s any president’s ultimate test. When he makes a decision he has to believe in it. What matters is leadership and credibility, and the ability to develop that.
SS: Who do you see as up-and-coming stars in the Republican Party?
FT: [Tennessee senator] Bill Frist. [Nebraska senator] Chuck Hagel.
SS: Does camaraderie exist in the Senate the way it used to, or is it following the partisan lead of the House?
FT: We’re becoming more like the House, in a perpetual campaign just like the House. I think it probably has more to do with the pace of our activities than anything else. We’re on airplanes every weekend. We’re consumed with raising money. We have more and more issues to deal with, and media scrutiny, as well as media opportunities on talk shows every weekend. All that leads to a more hectic, fractured, on-the-go existence. People don’t take a lot of downtime.
SS: Is downtime something you miss?
FT: Yes, I do. I think we’d be better off it were different, but I think it’s part of modern life. We’re not pacesetters around here. We’re followers of the rest of the country.
SS: Is that frustrating to you?
FT: There’s so much legislation and so many complexities involved with the issues that we deal with that I find there’s not enough time to adequately deal with every issue that comes along. There’s just too much, and that’s frustrating.
SS: What do you feel is the greatest lesson you’ve learned in the Senate?
FT: Don’t get between your colleagues and the television cameras [Laughs]. I think we’re probably a microcosm of society. We have all the good and all the bad qualities that you find in society.
SS: Do you feel you’re making a difference?
FT: There hasn’t been a revolution since I’ve been here.