Fred Thompson: Hollywood Star, Washington Insider, Radio's Next Generation (08/07/06)
By Joe Howard, Editor-in-Chief
His face is as familiar to fans of television's venerable Law & Order, where he stars as District Attorney Arthur Branch, as it is to political junkies who remember that he served as minority counsel on the Senate committee that investigated the Watergate break-in. That's the versatility of Fred Thompson - a successful attorney and former U.S. senator from Tennessee - who parlayed his real-life victory in a high-profile case against a shady politician into a career in movies and television, an unexpected career detour not unlike the opportunity ABC News Radio recently laid before him.
While he had never planned to pursue a career in radio, Thompson earlier this year was brought on board as special program host and senior analyst, where he's been handed the opportunity to investigate and analyze not only the top issues of the day, but also to delve into stories he believes must be told. He's also filled in a few times for the legendary host of ABC's Paul Harvey News and Comment, and some believe Thompson could one day take over Harvey's beat at the network. It's just the latest chapter in a career that has taken Thompson from the halls of Capitol Hill to the bright lights of Tinseltown, and that now put him in front of a radio microphone.
Radio Ink: You may be a newcomer to radio, but you're probably as well known for serving in the Senate as you are for your acting career. How did you get into acting?
FRED THOMPSON: I spent about 30 years practicing law, and Peter Maas wrote a book about a case that I won. I represented a young woman who was a whistler-blower against a corrupt governor. The movie, called Marie, starred Sissy Spacek, Morgan Freeman, and Jeff Daniels. I didn't realize my character was going to be in the movie, but the next thing I knew, I was reading for a part. It was totally by accident. I'd never been in a high school play or had an acting lesson - which some people say is obvious.
RI: It couldn't have been an easier a part to play…
FT: I assumed that if I was playing myself, they couldn't tell me I was doing it wrong. That was one of many false assumptions I had. When director Roger Donaldson got his next movie, he said, “Let's see if you can do anything besides play yourself.” I played the CIA director in No Way Out with Kevin Costner, shot right here in DC. Later, I did a couple of television shows, including Wiseguy. I was still practicing law, but decided that maybe I should get an agent and make them start paying me for acting. I did about 18 feature films before I got into politics, and kept my law practice the whole time. I finally gave it up when I went to the Senate in '95.
RI: After eight years in the Senate, did you find any parallels between Hollywood and Washington?
FT: They're both in the persuasion business; you have to be able to deliver a message of some kind. And they certainly have an affinity for one another. Hollywood thinks Washingtonians have all this power but, in fact - individually - people have very little. Washingtonians think folks in Hollywood party all the time, and maybe they do, but they never invited me. All I saw was hard work and long hours for those who were really carrying the load on movie projects.
Hollywood has become very important to Washington politically, because of the fund-raising capabilities. The individual contribution limits are very low, but someone who can serve as a draw for contributions is very, very valuable to politicians. And of course, people in Hollywood have a great interest in public issues.
For me, Hollywood is a compartmentalized, wonderful fantasy, but I wish the product coming out of there was better than what it is now. In politics, you're supposed to be shooting with real bullets, not pretending. That's the big difference that I saw.
RI: And now you're entering the radio business. Tell me about the genesis of coming to ABC Radio. How did it get started?
FT: My agent was contacted by folks at ABC about some ways we might work together. One thing led to another over a period of several months.
RI: Is radio something that you always wanted to try?
FT: No, it never occurred to me, just like it never occurred to me to get into show business. What interested me about radio is the ability to draw people's attention to things that are newsworthy, but also important. A million things would qualify as news, and you have to decide what your priorities are in terms of reporting. When you add a little commentary, I guess you'd call it more than news, but that way you can draw attention to certain things. I still don't consider myself a full-fledged newsperson - the kind I dealt with during my political career - but I'm certainly on that side now, and enjoying it very much.
RI: Tell me about your first ABC Radio project, the Memorial Day special when you interviewed injured veterans.
FT: It was done at the Brooke Army Medical Center and, to tell you the truth, I was dreading it - two days with people with the most horrendous kinds of injuries, burn victims, amputees. But I came away uplifted.
RI: In terms of your programming, you have a very unique situation with the contacts you have. What sort of things do you want to bring to radio that may be missing right now? You recently interviewed Donald Rumsfeld, and you may understand him and the challenges he faces perhaps better than anybody who's interviewed him lately.
FT: I used to spend time with Rumsfeld when he would brief us on operations up in the super-secret room over in the Capitol building. People know generally where it is - it's not secret in terms of its location - but once you get in there, it's supposed to be impenetrable in terms of people trying to listen to what you are saying. So now, Rumsfeld and I meet again, wearing different hats and playing different roles. I've always found those kinds of circular phenomenon fascinating, but I didn't think of Rumsfeld - the folks at ABC did. If you can get access to somebody who others may have more difficulty reaching, you're ahead of the game. I think I can ask some interesting questions, and maybe provide a bit of analysis, but I don't have any particular agenda other than to come up with something interesting and informative.
RI: And you're doing fill-in duty for Paul Harvey?
FT: A couple of times so far. That's very special, to be at the same microphone as the legend himself.
RI: Have they talked to you about taking over that role full-time, if Paul Harvey decides to retire?
FT: My deal is to fill in for him, to do specials, and to serve as commentator from time to time. I've gotten a lot smarter since I've gotten out of public office, so I just tell people what's going on now.
RI: How do you feel about coming into the radio industry at a time when, from a business standpoint, many believe the bloom has fallen off the rose?
FT: I don't know that much about the business part of radio, but I do know that even though technology keeps advancing and everybody has to keep adapting to it, much of the world is cyclical in nature. Most of what I would call the permanent businesses are cyclical, and radio is definitely one of those permanent businesses. There's no substitute for radio when you want to listen to someone with no diversion. There's nothing like spoken word to provide a sense of intimacy. And there's still not an awful lot you can do with your hands or your eyes when you're driving an automobile. I don't follow the markets in this area very much, but I don't see radio fading away.
RI: Do you think iPods and satellite radio are threats to radio, or are they just other forms of media out there now?
FT: Probably the latter. You never know what's a threat; nobody's smart enough to figure out all this stuff, and it's kind of irrelevant - it's gonna be what it's gonna be. When I was on Capitol Hill, the motion picture people used to be scared to death of DVDs and video cassettes, and did everything they could to squelch them. It turned out they were a bigger money source than anything else. You never know when the Lord's blessing you. If more people want information and entertainment communicated to them, more outlets can't be bad for anybody. You've just got to concentrate on your product. You've got to say, “I'm in radio. Do I have something that people want to hear?” In a free market and a free country, it forces everybody to strive to be better. I see that as a good thing. If I was in the upper echelons of the radio business, I wouldn't be that worried about it.
RI: Is the media doing a good job of raising people's awareness to the important issues?
FT: I don't think it's the media's job to raise people's awareness on things they ought to already be aware of. It's the media's job to report the news, and I'd be satisfied if it just did a good job of that. In large part it does, but as with any major industry, you have some shortfalls along the way.
RI: Where are those shortfalls right now?
FT: The recent situation with The New York Times is one example. There's still more to be learned about exactly what happened, but it's an unprecedented situation. Here we had an ongoing secret intelligence operation that has been beneficial to us. Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress were aware of the operation, and asked the Times not to publish the story for fear of damage to our country. The Times, nevertheless, went ahead and published the story. They'll have to do more than they've done to convince people they should be the ones to make that decision.
RI: That raises a point about reporters who have agendas. As a politician, how do you control the message tightly enough to guard against some kind of spin, or protect yourself from somebody who will take what you say and use it to put forth their agenda?
FT: There's no way to prevent it. The First Amendment protects that. I've always said that the people in the news business and people in the lawyer business are the only two sets of people protected by a constitutional amendment. That brings about special privileges and special responsibilities. They must be self-monitoring.
RI: And now you're part of the media.
FT: Yeah, some might say I've gone to the dark side.
RI: Are you planning anything with ABC Television, or are you staying strictly with radio right now?
FT: It's funny you should mention that, because they've just come in from George Stephanopoulos' show and asked me to be on the roundtable. That probably portends things in the future.
RI: Do you have any interest in going back to public office?
FT: No, I really don't. The old juices begin to flow every once in a while when something goes on, but having been in it, I know the prices that are being paid. It's like the movie business in a way; you go to the movies and watch what's on the screen, but most people have no idea of the months and sometimes years that go into all of that. From the lonely writer, who has taken years to get something special done, only to have people butcher it all along the way. Then he finally makes the deal with the devil to get it sold, and they put it on the shelf. Finally, the movie gets made, and there are a lot of people - not just the actors, but the crew and the staff - working in the mud in some faraway place, living in tents or something like that. In politics, like any other business, it takes so much to get to the point where you have achieved something, and I'm not willing to pay the price anymore.
RI: Haven't you already paid those dues?
FT: Well, that's kind of the way I feel about it. I guess the presidency might be a little bigger.
RI: Any interest in that job?
FT: I always say “never say never” and I will say “never say never” about that, but it's a minuscule thing. I'm enjoying what I'm doing now. I have the opportunity to shoot my mouth off when I want to, to do some interesting things with interesting people, and to enjoy my life and my family. I've had a late-in-life second family; I have a daughter who is almost three now, and we're expecting another child. My family is the most important thing to me, and I have a hard time reconciling much of anything else with that.
RI: Still, I imagine you are being courted by some people …
FT: No one who can make it happen, but a lot of friends who wish me well and encourage me. That's very gratifying - but you look better after you've gone.
RI: What do you think the next crop of presidential candidates will have to do? We're a pretty divided nation right now; what do both parties need to find?
FT: The overriding issue is going to be the fight against terrorism, and what our country's place in the world will be. How do we deal with it in a dangerous, disorganized world? People will be looking for adult leadership, someone they will feel comfortable and safe with. Of course, the economy will be a major issue. I think it will be a more sober time for a while. As long as we've got people dying in faraway places, and even after that, we will need a president who can inspire people. And when we're in the third and fourth quarter and things are looking down, we've got to remind the American people why we're doing what we're doing, what the costs are, and what the alternatives are. We must remain strong and make sacrifices. We need real, great leadership, even more than we've had in times past, and much shorter wars than the one we're in the middle of now. I refer to the war on terror, which is much broader and greater than Iraq and Afghanistan. It will require special talents and special people to come forward.
RI: What do you think about the flag-burning amendment? It failed; do you think the country needs a constitutional flag-burning amendment?
FT: One of the luxuries of being out of there is that I don't need to have an opinion on every damn fool thing that comes down the pike. I think it's one of those things that a lot of people would rather not see come up - but once it comes up, there's no good way out. Putting that kind of emphasis on a constitutional amendment doesn't make sense to a lot of people. On the other hand, looking at the families of folks whose children have died under that flag, and explaining to them the constitutional law and First Amendment, falls on very deaf ears. The symbolism takes over, rather than the objective legal analysis.
RI: How do you feel about the current political climate? Are lawmakers focusing on the right things?
FT: They haven't been focusing on the right things for some time. It took 9/11 to get our attention drawn to the fact that we've been at war for some time. We let our guard down, and we let our intelligence capabilities wither. We spend much less on our military now than we did even a few years ago. And now, we're trying to recoup, and scrambling to do better things at Homeland Security.
The other area where we are not focused is what to do about an aging population. We've got entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid that we can't sustain. More people are on the receiving end, and fewer people are on the contributing end. Everybody knows it, but it is politically difficult. We spend about 90 percent of our time on the irrelevancies and 10 percent on the real stuff, and it ought to be the other way around.
RI: What can be done about that? Isn't it up to voters to elect the right people?
FT: It's like an old warden in a prison where they're having a lot of prison riots. And he says, “We've tried everything, looks like we're gonna have to get a better class of prisoners.” Maybe we just have to elect some people who will do better. It always falls back on the people; when the people decide that they're ready for a change, it will happen, but not until then. Unfortunately, it may not be until we have a succession of catastrophes - maybe militarily, or economically - that we'll get people's attention. We can look to Europe and some of the problems they're having. They're just a few years ahead of us, and we're going to have some of the same problems in terms of a slowed down economy and higher unemployment unless we change our ways.
RI: You mentioned cutbacks to military. Do you feel that maybe the attention needs to be focused on places like North Korea or China, because the military doesn't have the manpower it needs?
FT: There's a big debate about manpower. To a lot of people, we could address many of our problems with more people - more troops - in Iraq or other places. Really, a lot of people think we are spread thin with the all-volunteer army. On the other hand, it makes a lot of sense to me when I hear people like Secretary Rumsfeld talk about the military of the future. We can't solve our military problems of the future with numbers, the way we did when the Soviet Union was threatening to come into Western Europe with tanks. That won't be the nature of the threat of the future. The answer is a faster, lighter, smarter, more high-tech military, with more special forces and more specialization. We need to do more with less, instead of just throwing more cannon fire at the problem.
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