No Hand Raising

Posted: Nov 02, 2015 1:39 PM
No Hand Raising

Fred Thompson died over the weekend.

You've read the obits and know about his rural Tennessee roots, his work as the chief Republican lawyer on the Watergate Committee, his service as a U.S. Senator and, of course, as Arthur Branch, the fictional district attorney of New York on the TV show Law & Order.

I didn't know Fred for most of his life. Like most of us I knewof Fred. But, it was during the brief time of his campaign for President in the 2008 cycle.

I came to the Thompson campaign through long-time friend Mary Matalin who assured me I only needed to spend a few hours a week at the campaign headquarters in McLean, Virginia.

Of course, that quickly advanced to being at the HQ most of every day, and then to getting on the bus for the trips through Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

It was on the bus that I got to know Fred.

I knew him as a very funny, very kind, very smart man. He was also very proud of his small town roots and his Conservative positions.

He was also a remarkably private man for someone who had spent his life in the bright lights of politics and show business. He didn't go in much for chit chat. He often ate his meals alone. When the schedule said he was done for the day; he was.

But, when it came to meeting with people, with doing the hand shaking and the picture taking, he lit up and made every person feel as if the trip to see "Arthur Branch" was worth it.

Speaking of Arthur Branch, I had never seen him in an Law & Order episode prior to my going to work for him.

One night, in some town on the trail, I happened to come across a rerun. Lo and behold, there was Fred.

It was an episode in which Fred, as Branch, was complaining that he had been mentioned in a U.S. Supreme Court decision, but only as a footnote, not in the main body of the decision.

The next morning I told Fred I had seen him and he said that had been the very first episode he had ever been in. He told me that he realized that, because he was a Republican (in the show as in real life) the Hollywood writers wanted to present him as a buffoon.

When he finished shooting the scene, he said, he told the producers he wouldn't play that role and if they wanted him they had to show him making the kinds of close calls and difficult decisions that the DA's office often had to deal with.

One day, sitting in the back of the tour bus that we used for 18 hours a day, he asked, "Rich? Do you agree with anything I say?"

I said I agreed with him on the 2nd and 10th Amendments. "The rest of it, not so much."

If anything, that strengthened our relationship. Underneath it all he was still a lawyer and enjoyed the back-and-forth of those kinds of discussions.

Fred took debate prep very seriously. We spent hours trying to figure out what questions the moderators would ask, and what zingers the other candidates might sling. We would pepper Fred with questions and go over his answers until he was satisfied with his mastery of the material.

I don't believe he was ever flummoxed in the course of a debate. At an MSNBC debate - which I believe was the first one in which he participated - Chris Matthews asked Fred if he knew who the Prime Minister of Canada was.

He did. "Stephen Harper," he answered. I noticed a slight grimace when the discussion moved on. Later I asked him what that was about.

"I wish," he said, "I would have said 'let's have everyone write down on a piece of paper the name of the Prime Minister.'"

Later in the campaign there was a debate in Des Moines. This was the cycle when someone came up with the "let's see by a show of hands …" questions.

That irked Fred, who thought it was a cheap way for both sides to get a question asked and answered.

At this debate the moderator asked at one point, "Let's see by a show of hands …" and as the other seven or eight hands started going up, Fred leaned into his microphone and said in his full voice, "Ain't gonna be no hand raisin' here today," to the delight of the audience.

The other seven or eight hands that were halfway up, quickly came down.

Fred Thompson was a talented man. A good man. We will miss him.

On the Secret Decoder Ring today: The obituary for Fred Thompson from the Nashville Tennessean.

Also a pretty good Mullfoto from the window of an airplane a couple of weeks ago.