John Roberts’ Chaperone

Supreme Court nominee John Roberts flashed a smile, but not quickly enough to obscure his deer-in-the-headlights look as he emerged from a private meeting with Sen. Joe Biden before Congress broke for its August recess.

Having sat through one of the Delaware Democrat’s legendary pontifications _ this one on the role of the judiciary _ Roberts was being swarmed, as he had been for days, by question-hurling reporters.

No worries. The chaperone at Roberts’ side moved him along, a towering, lumbering, fatherly fellow with an investigator’s skepticism, commanding presence and good-ol’-boy wisdom.

“What’s the biggest pitfall you’ve advised John Roberts to avoid?” a reporter called out. The chaperone shot back, “Oh _ the press,” before whisking Roberts down the hallway and into an elevator.

The chaperone is Fred Thompson, the actor who plays District Attorney Arthur Branch on NBC’s hit series “Law & Order.” (Note to conspiracy theorists: Thompson’s character is a “strict constructionist” who believes the Constitution should be narrowly interpreted and that the landmark abortion rights case Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided.)

He’s also had roles in many action movies, including “In the Line of Fire” and “Die Hard 2.” These helped make Thompson a familiar authority figure who can give Roberts credibility with the public by going on TV news shows or appearing with Roberts at his Senate confirmation hearings scheduled to begin next month.

But more substantive credentials also motivated President Bush to tap Thompson, along with lobbyist and former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, to guide Roberts through a bait-laden process.

Thompson, who turns 63 later this month, is a Republican from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s home state of Tennessee who worked as a U.S. senator from 1994 through 2002. He sat on the same panel that will hold hearings on Roberts. And in 1997, as chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, he oversaw months-long hearings into wide-ranging allegations of campaign fund-raising improprieties by President Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.

Long before he was elected to fill the Senate seat Democrat Al Gore gave up mid-term to be vice president, Thompson was a player in Washington. He studied politics before law school and his brief work as an assistant U.S. attorney. His job as an aide to former Sen. Howard Baker helped him land a high-profile gig, by age 30, as minority counsel on the Senate committee investigating the Watergate scandal that felled his own party’s president in 1974.

“If you’ve been through hearings where they are minutely asking every aspect of a person, and one that has political overtones to it, I think you learn a lot,” said Michael Madigan, a Washington lawyer and longtime friend of Thompson who worked as a deputy counsel in the Watergate hearings, and later as Thompson’s chief counsel investigating Democratic fund-raising.

“I don’t want to get into specifics, but by nature he is extraordinarily thorough and extremely prepared, and he’s going to bring those traits to how he helps Judge Roberts prepare for the hearings,” Madigan said.

Thompson has a flair for self-promotion and the dramatic. In the Watergate hearings, it was he who asked the question that forced a White House deputy to admit to Americans watching on television that conversations in the Oval Office had been recorded secretly by the Nixon administration. His Watergate role led to a book deal _ and didn’t hurt as he ventured into private practice. But he also was a digger.

In the late 1970s, Thompson’s work on behalf of a client who sued Tennessee’s governor claiming wrongful termination from a parole board job helped reveal a pardon-selling scheme in Gov. Ray Blanton’s office. Several staffers were convicted. Blanton’s career was ended. And in 1985, a book about the corruption scandal was made into a movie, “Marie,” that launched Thompson’s acting career. He was hired to play himself. His legal work also delved into lobbying, through which he built more contacts and experience that prepared him for office.

In office, the GOP saw him as a potential star. Thompson was easily re-elected but decided not to seek a third term, after the death of his adult daughter turned his attention to his family.

Fans speculated he might run for president, or be tapped for vice president, attorney general or even the Supreme Court. None happened. He went back to acting. A life in politics didn’t seem to hold the same appeal it once had. But by the time he left office, Thompson had won the friendship and trust of many colleagues on both sides of the aisle, including members of the Judiciary Committee.

While Roberts, a federal appeals judge, has charmed many Democrats, his conservative ties, including work as deputy solicitor general under President Bush’s father’s administration, have raised questions about how he might rule on issues that could come before the ideologically divided court. A nominee too forthcoming about his views and allegiances could be as doomed as one who comes across too defensively. As Roberts finesses these straits, Thompson’s insights could be invaluable.

“He’s a good friend and I feel better having him there,” said Biden, an outspoken critic of many of President Bush’s policies, after Thompson escorted Roberts on his courtesy call. “He knows us. I know I trust him completely.”