- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 17, 2002

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Sen. Fred Thompson isn't all that different from Arthur Branch, the character he plays on television's "Law & Order."
Both are conservative, no-nonsense Southerners who like to take care of business quickly.
That's not a problem for Branch, a district attorney in the fast-paced NBC drama. But for Mr. Thompson, the Senate's pace has often been frustrating, which is partly why he is leaving after eight years to return to acting.
He says too much time is spent on unimportant matters and partisan bickering.
"On important stuff, where the interests are really dug in on both sides, it's extremely difficult to get anything done," Mr. Thompson, Tennessee Republican, said during a recent interview.
For example, Mr. Thompson helped lead the effort to pass campaign finance reform, which involved a decadelong fight before it finally passed this year. A court challenge to the law worries him: "It may be long before that's over with."
Mr. Thompson's frustration also was evident in 1997 when he led hearings into fund-raising abuses during the 1996 presidential election. He criticized the Clinton administration for not cooperating and disagreed with members of his own party over a time limit on the investigation and some of the hearings' content.
The proceedings ended without proving as Mr. Thompson had charged that China plotted to influence U.S. elections with illegal money. As a result, Mr. Thompson's political star dimmed.
"They ran me for a while and then they took me out of the race, and all the time I was kind of a bystander," Mr. Thompson said of speculation over his presidential prospects.
He says that departing the Senate his term ends in January will give him more control over his finances and time with his family.
Mr. Thompson's daughter, Elizabeth Thompson Panici, died at age 38 in January. A medical examiner's report and toxicology tests attributed her death to an accidental prescription drug overdose.
In June, Mr. Thompson married political and media specialist Jeri Kehn.
Senate rules allow Mr. Thompson, who joined "Law & Order" in August, to earn no more than $22,500 from acting while in office. Mr. Thompson says he will make more once he leaves but will not say how much.
Reviews of Mr. Thompson's performance have been mixed, but most critics agree that "Law & Order" producers brought extra attention to the show when they hired the senator in August. "It's one more piece of free ink," said David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily News.
Mr. Thompson says dream parts would include a role in a western, or a film about Sam Houston, president of the Republic of Texas, or college football coach Bear Bryant.
But he says he does not plan to devote his post-Senate career to acting. He is planning to hit the lecture circuit and may teach part time.
Before winning a special election in 1994 for Al Gore's Senate seat, Mr. Thompson, 60, appeared in nearly 20 films, including "In the Line of Fire" and "The Hunt for Red October."
Mr. Thompson, who is 6-foot-6 and has a booming voice, did not get his start in Hollywood in a typical way.
A lawyer, who was chief minority counsel on the committee investigating Watergate, Mr. Thompson got his break while representing Marie Ragghianti, the head of the Tennessee Parole Board who was fired after exposing a pardon-selling scheme. Mrs. Ragghianti was reinstated, and her story became the 1985 movie "Marie." The producers asked Mr. Thompson to play himself.
Mr. Thompson says he will not rule out returning to elected office.


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