I was on a train headed from Munich to Berlin in late August of 2007. My friend Ed had roped me into the trip, hosted by the American Council on Germany. The American delegation, having gotten to know each other, was bound for a rendezvous with our German counterparts. Ed, a friend of Fred and Jeri Thompson’s, did not have to sell me hard on Fred Thompson’s bid for the Presidency and we were reviewing his pending speech formally announcing his candidacy.
The Thompson campaign was my wife’s first foray into Presidential politics. Earlier in the summer, Fred and Jeri had come into Atlanta for a fundraiser. My wife, many of you have noticed, is never at events with me. She gets terrible anxiety in crowds. But Fred and Jeri were insistent I bring Christy with me to the event, which was not a large gathering, but large enough to make Christy uncomfortable. Jeri Thompson, for the entire visit, stood by Christy with her hand on Christy’s arm talking to her as if Christy was the only person in the place. It was the only time I have seen Christy comfortable in a crowd like that.
When the event was over, Fred stood with his back turned to the crowd, between Christy and the source of her anxiety, and chatted with us both about the South, the campaign, home cooking, you name it. He was just that sort of guy, and he and Jeri together could put anyone at ease, including my wife.
Fred Thompson was the first Presidential candidate I developed a friendship with and the first to have a strong relationship with RedState. In 2008, as RedState starting being derisively called “FredState,” I rode through South Carolina on the campaign bus. It was clear the campaign was winding down. Staff were leaking about their discontent and bad mouthing each other in the press. Fred kept his head up, cracked jokes throughout the state, and made sure to visit every “meat and three” he could convince the staff to have rallies at. He went for seconds at a Mennonite restaurant out in the middle of nowhere. Their fried chicken was like “home,” which for Fred Thompson was always Tennessee and never Washington or Hollywood.
After we had our second child at the end of 2008, Fred and Jeri unexpectedly sent a gift — a soft lamb that was also a palette for Gunnar to roll around on. When next I was in Washington, Fred insisted we go out to dinner so he could hear all the details about the baby. He was very insistent I not travel much, but spend time at home. He was very open with me that, having lost a child, I needed to make sure I spent as much time as possible with my children. It was as much a direct order as fatherly advice.
About a year later, Fred let me fill in for him on his national radio show. It was the first time I had done something like that and I was terrible. But it was fun. Jeri and I co-hosted and got exactly one call the whole show. The callers only really called for Fred. They liked to talk to him and he to them. They’d talk politics and life. He had heavy doses of life advice — the kind of advice you only get by really having lived a life that real peaks and real valleys.
The last time we went out to dinner was around Thanksgiving in 2011. Jeri, Fred, Ed, and I sat at the Palm as Ed and I lamented the campaign season and the candidates. Fred chuckled and said he hoped whoever we decided on for 2012 did better than our horse from 2008. “I hear that one got taken to the glue factory,” he laughed, referring to himself.
I haven’t seen Fred Thompson in the past few years. But I think of him often. I catch him on Law & Order reruns or the inevitable showing of Hunt for Red October, Days of Thunder, or In the Line of Fire. I remember the stories he would tell of various actors and the quirks he saw. Fred, you need to understand, was a good actor. He was good enough not to be the lead, but to be the supporting actor who lifted up every scene for everyone else. More than once, scenes rested on his shoulders and he had enough humility to make the scene without making himself the center of the scene.
Fred Thompson would have been a great President. He was a good man and father and husband and friend and Senator and actor. He loved and was loved deeply. He never got the leading role in the United States, but even in politics he played his role well — just off to the side, holding up the scene so the leads could lead before he’d return home to his family comfortable in his own skin without that desire so many politicians and actors have to be more than he knew himself to be.
God bless him and his family. And screw cancer.