Former senator Fred Thompson dead at 73

Former senator, actor, and Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson passed away at his home in Tennessee yesterday.  He was 73.

Thompson was a unique politician, easily moving between the hollows and hamlets of Tennessee to Hollywood, where he became known for playing tough but empathetic authority figures.  He was first elected senator in 1994 in a special election to fill Al Gore's seat and then re-elected in 1996.  He declined to run in 2002.

He ran for president in 2007 but failed to inspire.  After disappointing finishes in early primaries, he dropped out in late January 2008.

The Washington Post has some details of his unusual career:

Bouncing from politics to the big screen and back, Fred Thompson played many roles well and those who knew him say the folksy former U.S. senator won’t soon be forgotten for his impact on American life and the arts. He died Sunday at age 73.

A Tennessee-trained lawyer, prosecutor, hard-driving Senate counsel at the Watergate hearings, movie and TV actor and even a fleeting presidential hopeful, Thompson commanded audiences with a booming voice, outsized charisma and a 6-foot-6 frame.

“Very few people can light up the room the way Fred Thompson did,” said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. “He used his magic as a lawyer, actor, Watergate counsel, and United States senator to become one of our country’s most principled and effective public servants.”

Thompson, who appeared in feature films and television, including a role on the NBC drama series “Law & Order,” died in Nashville after a recurrence of lymphoma, his family said.

Thompson appeared in at least 20 motion pictures. His credits include “In the Line of Fire,” ‘’The Hunt for Red October,” ‘’Die Hard II” and “Cape Fear.” By the early 1990s, Thompson said he had become bored with his 10-year stint in Hollywood and wanted to go into public service. That’s when he headed back to Nashville and embarked on a successful run for the Senate.

His rise to the Senate was atypical. He had never before held public office, but he overwhelmingly won a 1994 special election for Al Gore’s old Senate seat after connecting with voters while crisscrossing Tennessee in a red pickup truck. In 1996, he easily won a six-year term.

His family said Sunday that Thompson had stood on his principles and common sense all his life, serving in the Senate was what he considered a privilege. “Fred was the same man on the floor of the Senate, the movie studio, or the town square of ... his home,” the family statement added.

Thompson succeeded in film because he filled up the screen with his presence.  Almost always playing an authority figure, whether a Navy captain of an aircraft carrier on the brink of war with the Soviets in The Hunt for Red October, an air traffic control manager dealing with a winter storm and terrorists in Die Hard II, or "Big John," president of NASCAR in Days of Thunder – these roles and others sat easily on his shoulders, as he never broke a sweat to convince an audience of his strength of character.

That's because he was a principled, thoughtful man – hardly presidential material these days.  His 2008 campaign for the presidency was marked by perhaps the most boring stump speech in recent history.  Thompson firmly believed that entitlement reform was the biggest issue facing the country.  So he went from small town to small town in Iowa, talking up reform of Medicare and Social Security, while audiences fell asleep. 

After a poor showing in Iowa, he seemed to find his voice and his calling; he would attempt to reassemble the old Reagan coalition by stressing tax reform, an increase in defense spending, and reining in the regulatory state.  But by this time, the press and much of the pundit class had dismissed him, and while his numbers improved, he never got close enough to challenge John McCain.

But there was more to this man than a failed presidential race.  Not since Jack Kemp had a politician thought as long and as hard about fundamental issues involving the Constitution, the government, and the governed.  He wrote two books about his musings dense tomes containing significant ideas and proposals.  They were ignored, of course.  But 2016 candidates might want to crack open one or both of those books, because the next president is going to need that kind of direction.

From his stint as counsel for the Watergate Committee through his run for the presidency, his career was defined by integrity, honesty, and a dedication to serving the American people.  His was a consequential life that will be missed by those of us who admired him. 

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