WASHINGTON -- Speaking at his $1,000-a-ticket fund-raiser at the J.W. Marriott hotel in downtown Washington Monday night, Fred Thompson began by introducing "my campaign manager -- oh, I mean my wife." That little joke about Jeri Thompson reveals how the prospective Republican presidential candidate regards the attack on his intelligent, beautiful wife.
As the actor-lawyer-politician nears his long-awaited official announcement, Mrs. Thompson is slurred as a "trophy wife" 24 years younger than her husband -- privately by her husband's opponents for the Republican nomination and publicly by the news media. Even Thompson supporters grumble that Jeri, 40, is too alluring, should modify the way she dresses and even then should not practice her skills as a professional political operative on behalf of Fred, 64.
That Thompson made light of this at his fund-raiser reflects the cool reaction to crisis he has displayed as GOP counsel of the Watergate investigation, U.S. senator from Tennessee and many dramatic roles (most recently district attorney of Manhattan).That he is in a commanding position for the nomination may explain the extraordinary attention paid to his wife.
Murmuring about Jeri Thompson hit a peak of attention on Fox News Sunday July 22 when its round table engaged in whimsical contemplation of debate between spouses of Democratic presidential candidates. "Well, first," said Juan Williams of National Public Radio, "I think you should get Jeri Thompson in here, the trophy wife, right?" William Kristol of the Weekly Standard interjected: "That's unfair." Williams: "Unfair, unfair, I know, but -- ." Kristol: "It is unfair."
That ended the discussion. I asked Williams, a respected journalist, whether he had regrets about his "trophy wife" comment. He did not, but explained he got the idea from The New York Times of July 8 in a Style section report by Susan Saulny. "Is America ready for a president with a trophy wife?" she asked. "Subsequent to that," Williams told me, "I heard the same thing in conversation with people in other campaigns -- about her being so young, so attractive and so powerful."
The archetypal "trophy wife" (a phrase coined by Fortune magazine 18 years ago) conjures up the image of a rich corporate executive who tires of and abandons the woman he married when they both were young and has grown old with, and turns to a young, chic new wife, usually seen as a home wrecker. Mrs. Thompson does not fit that mold. Thompson had been divorced for 17 years and was on friendly terms with his first wife when he married Jeri Kehn in 2002. They also have two small children -- not the trophy wife caricature either.
Nor does Mrs. Thompson's background fit the caricature. After working for the Senate Republican Conference and the Republican National Committee, she became a big-time political media consultant in Washington. She has been intimately involved in the planning of her husband's campaign, including last week's staff shakeup. When Tom Collamore left as Thompson's campaign manager, he told CNN that he was "very respectful of the desire of Fred and Jeri to make some changes as they move to the next level." Those comments generated whispers in the political community that whoever ran this campaign would have to answer to the candidate's wife.
Actually, Collamore is a former bureaucrat and tobacco lobbyist with vastly less political experience than Mrs. Thompson. Not even Collamore's friends could conceive of him running a national political campaign. Indeed, Fred Thompson's close associates maintain there was no chance he would be a candidate for president were he not married to Jeri. He tells friends the reason he abandoned what seemed a promising campaign for the 1996 nomination was that he did not feel he could manage that endeavor as a single man.
The spectacle of Thompson's Republican adversaries demeaning his wife in conversations with newsmen suggests how seriously they regard his prospective candidacy. He starts his campaign in the top tier of candidates, and is already the candidate of the South and the favorite of social conservatives. His test is how he will do after Labor Day when his candidacy's phantom stage has been finished. Jeri Thompson will be at his side as an asset, not a liability.