Fred Thompson, U.S. senator, Watergate committee counsel, and movie actor, was born August 19, 1942, in Sheffield, Alabama. He grew up in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, the son of a used car dealer, and attended Lawrence County High School. He graduated from the University of Memphis in 1964 and took his law degree from Vanderbilt University in 1967. Thompson opened his law career in his hometown where he practiced until 1969, when he was named assistant U.S. attorney for Middle Tennessee. In 1972 he managed the Middle Tennessee portion of U.S. Senator Howard Baker Jr.’s successful reelection campaign against Democrat Ray Blanton. The following year Baker asked Thompson to leave Tennessee for the nation’s capital and serve as minority counsel on the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activity, better known as the Watergate committee.
Thompson played an important role in the committee’s affairs, and it was his and his staff’s work that uncovered the existence of a taping system in Nixon’s White House. In a dramatic moment in the televised proceedings of the committee, Thompson asked White House aide Alexander Butterfield about the existence of a taping system and whether tapes of key conversations survived. Butterfield’s affirmative answers proved to be a turning point in the course of the Watergate investigation. Thompson later described his role in the proceedings in the book At That Point in Time (1975).
After Watergate, Thompson took up private practice in Nashville but returned to the state political limelight in 1977 when Marie Ragghianti, the recently dismissed chair of the State Parole Board, asked Thompson to serve as her counsel in a lawsuit against the administration. Supported by Thompson and his staff’s legal work, Ragghianti provided testimony that brought to light a scandalous cash-for-clemency system within the administration of Governor Ray Blanton. The scandal eventually helped to force Blanton from office and led to the successful prosecution of several Blanton aides.
Ragghianti later worked with author Peter Maas to write the book Marie, a True Story. Hollywood producers decided to make a film about Ragghianti’s story, titled Marie (1986), and chose Sissy Spacek to play Ragghianti. They then asked Thompson to play himself in the movie. The film’s success led to other significant movie offers to Thompson. He has appeared in numerous television productions and eighteen major Hollywood films, including such notable successes as In the Line of Fire, No Way Out, Die Hard II, Cape Fear, and The Hunt for Red October.
During these years Thompson’s acting, despite its success, took second place to his legal and political career. He established a distinguished record as a Nashville attorney and remained politically active within the Republican Party. He served as special counsel to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee and its Foreign Relation Committee. In 1994 he easily won the Republican nomination to serve the remaining two years of Vice-President Albert Gore Jr.’s seat in the U.S. Senate and decisively defeated his Democratic opponent, Congressman Jim Cooper, in the general election. Two years later Thompson won a full term in the U.S. Senate in a landslide victory over Democratic opponent Houston Gordon. Thompson plans to campaign for a second full term in 2002.
Thompson has accepted a major role in the Senate’s affairs and is best known for his 1997 investigation into and public hearings about campaign funding irregularities in the 1996 presidential election. He has supported a balanced budget and actively pushed for term limits. He has served as a member of the Senate committees of Judiciary, Government Affairs, Foreign Relations, and on the Special Committee on Aging. In 1997 he was appointed chair of the Government Affairs committee. He also has chaired the Subcommittees on Youth Violence and on International Economic Policy, Export and Trade Promotion. A resident of Nashville, Thompson has developed an interesting career that balances success in his chosen profession (law) with state and national success in politics and entertainment. He is the father of three grown children: Tony, Betsy (Hollins), and Daniel.