WASHINGTON -- Fred Dalton Thompson, the one-man hall of mirrors who portrayed politicians in the movies and then became one, is fighting to hold on to his latest starring role.
As chairman of the Senate committee that is to examine the fund-raising thicket of the past election, the craggy-faced Tennessee Republican is expected to step into the spotlight next week to argue for hearings, now threatened by a grab bag of political agendas.
Democrats were angered by Thompson's audacious $6.5 million price tag for the investigation (reduced by Republican leaders yesterday to $4.7 million) because it would focus primarily on the Clinton-Gore campaign. They have threatened to filibuster a vote on Thompson's budget.
Even some Republicans have flinched at the thought of hearings so expensive -- and thus extensive -- that their own fund raising could be examined along with that of the Clinton administration. Republican leaders also fear the hearings could pave the way for a campaign finance reform bill, which is opposed by all Republicans except Sen. John McCain of Arizona -- and Thompson.
"He's being grumped at by Democrats and Republicans," said Thompson's friend and mentor, Howard H. Baker Jr., the former Tennessee senator. "In my experience, that's not always bad."
Indeed, the hot seat could turn into a high-visibility launching pad for the 54-year-old senator, one of his party's most promising properties and a likely prospect for a presidential run in 2000.
Since joining the Senate two years ago, the bearish 6-foot-6 Southerner has been the glamour of the place. Star quality, his colleagues call it. That old Ronald Reagan thing. It didn't hurt that Thompson, a divorced father of three, dated such celebrities as country music star Lorrie Morgan, that he was often spotted around town having dinner with the likes of Kevin Costner and that he appeared as some variation of a tough guy -- he says he just played himself -- in 18 feature films.
Republicans wasted no time trading on Thompson's camera appeal. Days after he took office in late 1994, he was tapped to deliver the televised rebuttal to a major Clinton budget speech. Last year, he was called on to help Bob Dole by playing the role of President Clinton as the Republican nominee prepped for the debates.
But lately, it has been rough going for the lawyer-turned-actor-turned-senator, who first gained notice as the 31-year-old side-burned Republican counsel for the Senate Watergate committee.
A meeting of his Governmental Affairs Committee last month exploded into a partisan firefight over the fairness of the proposed hearings.
And as Thompson plunges into the investigation -- planning on a staff of 80, including 35 lawyers -- his own campaign fund raising has come under scrutiny.
The senator, who has raised large sums from political action committees, including tobacco interests, recently returned a $3,000 contribution from one of the questionable donors who attended Clinton's coffees. And he has profited from hot initial stock offerings -- in 1995 he turned a $7,700 profit in one day -- that are available only to an elite group and that are now shunned by most lawmakers.
Last week, Thompson's name turned up in a Republican Party memo that was among documents released by the White House. The memo suggests that if contributors help retire the campaign debt of several senators, including Thompson, it could be "very beneficial in advancing their short-term and long-term political participation goals." There is no evidence that Thompson knew such a pitch was being made, in part, on his behalf.
Thompson declined to be interviewed for this article. But his allies defend his fund raising as the norm on Capitol Hill. They say such practices illustrate why it is so difficult for lawmakers who benefit from the campaign finance system to vote to reform it.
The senator's fans say he will be aggressive, but fair-minded, with gavel in hand, drawing on his experiences at the side of Baker, who was the senior Republican on the Watergate committee.
"Fred's got good training," says Samuel Dash, who served as the Democrats' chief counsel for the Watergate committee. "I think he'll try to reproduce as much as he can the way the Senate Watergate committee behaved."
In those historic hearings, Thompson asked the question of Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield that revealed the existence of a White House taping system.
"Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?" Thompson asked.
Butterfield had revealed the existence of the taping system in an earlier private interview with one of Thompson's staff lawyers. Dash said that although he, as chief counsel, routinely opened the public questioning of witnesses, Thompson had requested that he be the one to question Butterfield.
"Of course, he knew how historic it would be," Dash says. "But he wanted to establish that this was not just a Democratic investigation, that the Republicans had just as much interest in getting evidence out as the Democrats."
Thompson had been an assistant U.S. attorney in Nashville and a campaign worker for state Republicans when Baker chose him chief counsel to the minority Republicans on the panel.
The son of a car salesman, Thompson grew up in the small town of Lawrenceburg, married his high school sweetheart at age 17 and worked his way through Memphis State University and Vanderbilt law school as his family grew to include three children. (He was divorced 12 years ago.)
Much in demand after Watergate, Thompson built a lucrative law and lobbying practice, with offices in Washington and Nashville, and represented such clients as Westinghouse, General Electric, Toyota and the Teamsters union pension fund.
Along the way, in 1977, he represented Marie Ragghianti, head of the Tennessee Parole Board, who had been fired by Gov. Ray Blanton for blowing the whistle on the Democrat's selling of pardons and other abuses.
Hollywood turned the story into a movie ("Marie") and, impressed by his lawyerly demeanor, asked Thompson to play himself. His imposing presence and bluegrass drawl made him an ideal character actor, and he moved on to meatier parts in such films as "The Hunt for Red October," "Die Hard 2" and "In the Line of Fire."
As his profile grew, Baker and another Tennessee friend, former Gov. Lamar Alexander, urged Thompson to run for the Senate. When an election was held in 1994 to fill the seat vacated by Al Gore, they told him, "Now or never."
His fledgling campaign against Rep. Jim Cooper, a wonkish moderate Democrat and Rhodes scholar, surged once Thompson, by then a Washington insider, decided to rent a red pickup truck, put on a pair of jeans and travel the state as "ol'
"Fred drives a big Lincoln Continental," says M. Lee Smith, a Tennessee publisher and law school classmate. "He had not been in a pickup truck in a long time. But when he did that, he was able to do that very naturally because of his personality and demeanor. Obviously, it was a campaign gimmick, but it was a good one and one that worked for him."
Bill Lacy, Thompson's 1994 campaign manager, who worked for the Dole campaign last year, calls the Tennessean "the best candidate I've ever worked with."
In the Senate, he has emerged as a consistently conservative vote, despite holding some moderate views. For instance, although those close to him say he has always favored abortion rights, he has voted with the anti-abortion rights forces on every reproductive rights bill.
But, displaying an independent streak attractive to today's electorate, he has embraced such reform-minded measures as term limits, campaign finance reform and the reining in of congressional pay and perks.
Thompson has a lot riding on the fund-raising hearings, and friends say he is preparing for them with fervor.
"He's shut down for this investigation," says Deborah Steelman, a friend and former adviser to George Bush. Translation: He's stopped dating.
Supporters say the hearings, if they get off the ground, could be Thompson's ticket to higher office. Lost on no one is the fact that the investigation will likely cast a spotlight on the fund-raising practices of Vice President Al Gore, thus pitting two Tennesseans -- and two possible presidential contenders -- against each other.
"This is going to be a rather fascinating scenario, especially for us Tennesseans," Smith says.
Pub Date: 3/06/97