At a time when the Bush administration's failures and low approval ratings are drawing comparisons to the dark days of the Nixon White House, it turns out Mr. Thompson has a direct and more damaging connection to the ugly politics of the Watergate era: It has been reported that as a young staff aide on the congressional committee investigating Watergate, he was secretly funneling information to President Richard Nixon and his henchmen.
Mr. Thompson first became a minor celebrity 34 years ago this week when, during a televised questioning session of the Senate Watergate Committee, he asked Alexander Butterfield if the White House aide was aware of any taping devices used in the Oval Office. Mr. Butterfield's affirmative answer was a key moment in a chain of events that led to Mr. Nixon's resignation.
In his book about Watergate, At That Point in Time, Mr. Thompson admits he already knew the answer to his fateful question, and that he gave White House counsel J. Fred Buzhardt warning that the committee was aware of the taping system after having questioned Mr. Butterfield privately.
Scott Armstrong, who was an investigator for Democrats on the committee, says Mr. Thompson repeatedly leaked information about the committee's activities to Mr. Nixon's team. "Thompson was a mole for the White House," Mr. Armstrong told the Boston Globe last week. "Fred was working hammer and tong to defeat the investigation of finding out what happened to authorize Watergate and find out what the role of the president was."
Mr. Thompson's Watergate shenanigans are not his only image problem. He has at least two other background issues haunting him, the first of which is his murky record on reproductive rights.
During his long, lucrative but rarely mentioned career as a Beltway lobbyist, one of Mr. Thompson's clients was the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, a pro-choice group whose mission includes supporting "reproductive freedom for all."
Former Maryland Rep. Michael D. Barnes was a lobbying colleague of Mr. Thompson's at Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin and Kahn, the firm hired by the family planning organization to lobby against the "gag rule" that prohibits abortion counseling at federally funded clinics. "I talked to him while he was doing it, and I talked to [the group's president, Judith DeSarno] about the fact that she was very pleased with the work that he was doing for her organization," Mr. Barnes told the Los Angeles Times last week.
Also, his home state newspaper, The Tennessean, uncovered documents showing that Mr. Thompson indicated in a 1996 Christian Coalition survey that he opposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution "protecting the sanctity of human life," a position he clarified by writing that he did "not believe abortion should be criminalized."
Mr. Thompson's other problem is his lobbying behavior itself.
His close ties to former Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. - the fellow Tennessean was Mr. Thompson's mentor, and hired him for the Watergate committee - paid off handsomely for Mr. Thompson when the Republicans captured the Senate in 1980. Mr. Thompson later parlayed his connection to another Senate majority leader from his home state, Bill Frist.
And on behalf of what sorts of clients has Mr. Thompson used his savvy skills and partisan connections? The tobacco industry, a British reinsurance company fighting against asbestos lawsuits, and the Tennessee savings and loan industry. That's quite a trifecta.
Mr. Thompson, who has managed dual careers in Washington and as an actor in movies and on television's Law & Order, is rising in Republican primary polls. Though he has not officially declared yet, in some surveys, Mr. Thompson is ahead of all the announced candidates except former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
With a furtive Watergate legacy, some duplicitous behavior on abortion and a history of black-hat lobbying, he makes a perfect heir to the Republican Party mantle.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.