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Examining Fred Thompson's Political Record

PETER OVERBY: I'm Peter Overby in Washington, where the rumors of Fred Thompson's laziness appear to be somewhat exaggerated. Here's Washington Analyst Norman Ornstein.

Mr. NORMAN ORNSTEIN (Author; Political Analyst): No, I did not find him lazy. It is true that when six o'clock rolled around and if there was nothing going on but symbolic stuff around the Senate, he didn't hang around.

OVERBY: Critics say Thompson could stay silent on big issues. Ornstein says he worked quietly but effectively on important matters of how government works.

Mr. ORNSTEIN: He worked hard. He did his homework and drew some lines that didn't always please his own partisans because he thought it was the right thing to do.

OVERBY: Thompson's biggest Senate achievement was in the investigation of fund raising abuses in the 1996 presidential campaign. He started out as Republican leaders had hoped, alleging that the government of China had pumped money into President Clinton's war chest. But when that theory fizzled, Thompson took a new turn. Soon, he was grilling Haley Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, about GOP efforts to collect money in Asia.

Mr. FRED THOMPSON (Former Republican Senator, Tennessee): When you're sitting on a boat in Hong Kong harbor talking to a gentleman who's a citizen of Taiwan, I mean, that does raise certain other potential implications in terms of appearances. But it's an appearance business that we're both in, isn't it?

Mr. ORNSTEIN: Thompson later bucked his party leadership and co-sponsored the bill that became the McCain-Feingold law of 2002. Here he is during the final debate.

Mr. THOMPSON: I have no problem with us stepping up to the plate as we did in 1974, and saying we're going to place some limitations on contributions.

OVERBY: That contrasts with his position now, opposing the law's limits on TV advocacy ads by independent groups.

When Thompson's out talking to groups nowadays, he has a standard joke about D.C.

Mr. THOMPSON: People ask me why I left the Senate and I always say that after eight years in Washington, I long for the realism and sincerity of Hollywood.

(Soundbite of laughter)

OVERBY: That phrase, eight years in the Senate, slides by 25 years of working off and on as a lobbyist. Critics depict him as a big-time powerbroker. Not so, he told conservative talk show host Mark Levin last week.

Mr. THOMPSON: I had about a half a dozen lobbying clients. They haven't pointed out yet who I represented that did not deserve representation under our Constitution, but I'm sure that'll come.

OVERBY: His clients included Westinghouse, with a nuclear power project in Tennessee, and the Tennessee Savings & Loan League. In the early 1990s, he did lobbying for the pro-abortion rights National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. When the Los Angeles Times revealed that recently, his campaign at first denied it. Since he left the Senate, Thompson has had just one known client - Equitas, a British reinsurance fund enmeshed in the incredibly complex issue of asbestos litigation.

Martin Baach, who led the lobbying team, recalls that when Thompson came onboard, he asked them incisive questions that spotlighted the holes in their arguments. Baach adds this.

Mr. MARTIN BAACH (Coordinator, Equitas Lobbying Team): He obviously had a professional's grasp of drafting legislation. And because of his service in the Senate, he understood what considerations individual senators were likely to feel were important.

OVERBY: So far, Equitas has paid Thompson $724,000 for that kind of Washington expertise.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.