Fred Thompson: Independent & lazy

Fred Thompson, a Hollywood actor turned White House contender, had a reputation while a U.S. senator of being frustrated with the slow-moving legislative process and preferring dining with friends to late-night congressional sessions.

But the 64-year-old Republican, who retired from the Senate in 2003 after serving eight years, was also seen as a charismatic speaker who exuded confidence, battled government waste and abuse and backed campaign finance reform.

"The consensus seemed to be that he didn't like to work real hard, but was good to have on your team," said a Senate Republican aide. "People said the same thing about (former President) Ronald Reagan," another one-time Hollywood star.

But Paul Light of New York University's Center for the Study of Congress, said: "The risk he faces is that people want him so much to be like Ronald Reagan that he can't possibly live up to the test. He needs to develop a persona that's distinctly his."

Yet Light said the 6-foot-6 conservative may fill a Republican void. "There's a search for someone who has the right credentials and presence to take on someone like (Democratic White House hopefuls) Hillary (Rodham) Clinton and Barack Obama."

Before leaving Capitol Hill, Thompson voiced frustration.

"I don't want to spend the rest of my life up here," then Sen. Thompson said. "I don't like spending 14- and 16-hour days voting on 'sense of the Senate' resolutions on irrelevant matters."

Thompson and his advisers made it clear this week that he intends to run and a formal announcement may come soon.

He will join a crowded Republican field, which features three leading contenders — former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — none of whom have been fully embraced by the party's conservative base.

Thompson hopes to do that with the help of his star power while facing tough new scrutiny.

The New York Times offered a glimpse of it this week by citing many of his recent comments. In them, he defended gun rights, opposed abortion, mocked warnings of climate change, said Iraq could become a haven for terrorists and described President John Kennedy, a Democratic icon, as "an astute proponent of tax cuts."


The examination will also include a look at his career in the Senate.

A veteran lobbyist said: "He was viewed as a lazy son of gun who would say at two in the afternoon, 'I'm done.' Can you name one major piece of legislation he authored? I can't."

Another lobbyist said: "I like Fred. But I'm not sure he has the energy to wage a long presidential campaign."

Yet Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, said he saw Thompson as a thoughtful lawmaker able to reach across party lines.

"He worked plenty and he absorbed plenty," said Ornstein.

Much of his work was as chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee where he battled government fraud and waste and took on abuses in campaign finance.

"He was a 'McCainiac,'" a congressional aide said, likening him to McCain. Thompson bucked his party in backing McCain's landmark bill to reduce the influence of money in politics. "Like McCain, Thompson is a conservative with an independent streak," the aide said.

Thompson grew up in Tennessee and became an attorney. He served as Republican counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, which investigated the scandal that forced Richard Nixon to resign as president in 1974.

He was later named special counsel to investigate political corruption in Tennessee, a celebrated case turned into a movie with Thompson portraying himself.

He appeared in more than a dozen other movies before being elected to the Senate in 1994. After he left, he played a lead role in the hit TV series, "Law and Order."