- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 17, 2002

The 59-year-old Fred Thompson, a used-car salesman's son who worked his way through law school at Vanderbilt University while raising a young family, has had one of the most interesting careers of anyone who has wielded power in the nation's capital. As the Republicans' chief counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973, Mr. Thompson asked the history-making question of White House aide Alexander Butterfield, who, in response, revealed that President Nixon had extensively taped his White House conversations. Nearly a quarter-century later, in 1997, Mr. Thompson was chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee when, in his opening statement in the investigation of the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign-finance scandal, he charged that "high-level Chinese government officials crafted a plan to increase China's influence over the U.S. political process."
Mr. Thompson's Watergate query eventually led to a presidential resignation. His explosive 1997 charge, which was wildly attacked at the time by the Democratic opposition, was later proven to be true, despite the fact that well over 100 witnesses either refused to testify or fled the country. In between, Mr. Thompson proved to be an accomplished character actor, using his imposing 6-foot-5 frame to play authoritative figures in "The Hunt for the Red October," "In the Line of Fire" and "Barbarians at the Gate," among more than a dozen other films.
Having received nearly 1.1 million votes in 1996 more votes in Tennessee than anyone whose name ever appeared on the state's ballot Mr. Thompson's Senate re-election in 2002 was such a foregone conclusion that his only Democratic opponent was a longtime Tennessee political gadfly. However, with the exit of Mr. Thompson, who has become the fourth Republican senator up for re-election in 2002 to announce his retirement, Tennessee's seat suddenly comes into play.
Currently, Democrats hold a 50-49 edge in the Senate, although Sen. James Jeffords the self-styled Vermont independent whose departure from the Republican Party last year cost Mr. Thompson his chairmanship caucuses with the Democrats. Before Mr. Thompson's announcement, the authoritative Congressional Quarterly ranked four of each party's seats as "leaning" toward the party of the incumbent and one each as having "no clear favorite." Under these circumstances, Mr. Thompson's seat, which will probably be classified as "leaning" Republican, could determine which party controls the "World's Most Deliberative Body."
Lamar Alexander, who served two terms as Tennessee's governor and who later ran two unsuccessful campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination, immediately jumped into the race. So, too, has Rep. Edward Bryant, one of the House prosecutors who argued for Bill Clinton's removal from office during the Senate trial. Like Mr. Thompson, and unlike Mr. Alexander, Mr. Bryant is reliably conservative. Meanwhile, Democrats are recruiting Rep. Harold Ford of Memphis. As for the fans of Mr. Thompson, they have to hope that he won't fade from public sight. Such talent both in Washington and in Hollywood remains in short supply.


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