Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Fred Thompson Cast as Villain by Both Sides Tennessee Movie Star Turned Politician Takes Heat over How He Runs Inquiry on Fund-Raising

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Fred Thompson Cast as Villain by Both Sides Tennessee Movie Star Turned Politician Takes Heat over How He Runs Inquiry on Fund-Raising

Article excerpt

These were to be the hearings that catapulted Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee onto the national political stage and into the cast of Republican presidential candidates. He has captured the limelight, but little else during his inquiry into campaign fund-raising irregularities has gone according to script.

Instead, the lawyer-turned-actor-turned-politician finds himself in an uncomfortable role - squeezed between Democrats on his Senate Government Oversight Committee, who accuse him of being too partisan, and fellow Republicans, many of whom believe he hasn't been partisan enough.

Republican dissatisfaction recently emerged from behind the scenes. "Thompson's conduct has led to divisions in the GOP cloakroom greater than any seen since the 1990 budget hearings," charged the widely read conservative Weekly Standard magazine last week. It wasn't supposed to be this way. Republicans thought the 6-foot, 5-inch Tennessean, with his combined movie-actor and special-prosecutor experience, would make the perfect chairman to investigate fund-raising improprieties. Still a relatively junior senator, Thompson won election in 1994 to fill out Vice President Al Gore's term. The son of a used-car dealer, he first gained prominence as Republican Sen. Howard Baker's chief counsel on the 1973 Senate Watergate committee. After Richard Nixon's resignation, Thompson returned to Tennessee, where then-Gov. Lamar Alexander tapped him to investigate clemency-selling by Governor Alexander's predecessor, who went to jail. Shortly thereafter, Thompson played himself in a movie about the case, beginning his acting career. He's since appeared in such hit movies as "In the Line of Fire," "Die Hard II," and "The Hunt for Red October." He also practiced law in Nashville and served as special counsel to two Senate committees. Thompson is known for his folksy style: In his 1994 campaign he drove around the state in a red pickup truck; his Internet Web page shows it parked in front of the Capitol. The page also features his mother's recipes for coconut cake and coconut cream pie. "He has the ability to merge the Tennessee down-home-style presentation with being a smart and articulate individual," says John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. It obviously plays well: In his reelection campaign last fall, Thompson won the most votes in Tennessee history. Despite his qualifications, however, Thompson's committee inquiry has been hamstrung from the beginning by the two parties' conflicting political imperatives. Republicans want an investigation that spotlights Democratic violations of current law, damping Vice President Gore's prospects for the 2000 elections, and cementing GOP control of Congress. Democrats, eager to avoid these consequences, press instead for a broader look at fund-raising in general, hoping to gin up public demand for reforms such as the stalemated McCain-Feingold Senate bill. …

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