The Senator From Central Casting Picks Up The Gavel

Fred Thompson's latest star turn will be as head of the committee probing `Donorgate'

He has been a corporate executive, the White House chief of staff, and an admiral--all roles in a film career spanning 10 years. In real life, he has been a lawyer, a prosecutor, and a lobbyist. But all these gigs-- make-believe and actual--don't compare with the high-profile role that Fred Dalton Thompson is about to play.

In January, the newly elected Republican senator from Tennessee is expected to become chairman of a panel digging into the Clinton Administration's alleged ethical lapses. Thompson is especially eager to probe the "Donorgate" affair, in which the Democratic National Committee allegedly set up a foreign fund-raising operation. "The issue of foreign contributions is a serious one," he says. "People don't part with vast sums of money without wanting something in return."

In a city filled with grandstanders, Thompson is about to take center stage. With an imposing six-foot-five-inch frame, reverberating voice, and an ability to exude sincerity in front of a camera, he's central casting's version of a lawmaker. And the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees the executive branch, is the perfect setting for a rising star already seen as a possible Presidential contender in 2000. Says former Senator Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.): "He has real star qualities."

Still, Thompson, 54, might find fewer accolades than in 1974, when he was GOP counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee. This time, Thompson is the one with the gavel--and the burden of keeping the public's attention without letting his probe turn into an inquisition. Even many in the GOP felt that Senator Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) went too far in turning his Select Whitewater Committee hearings into a partisan exercise that turned off voters.

But Thompson has an advantage D'Amato never had: Credibility. He defeated a four-term Democrat, Representative Jim Cooper, in a 1994 special election to fill Vice-President Al Gore's Senate seat. At the time, Thompson drove a Lincoln Town Car and had a house and a lucrative law practice in Washington. Yet he molded his image into that of Farmer Fred by driving a red pickup and wearing jeans and flannel shirts. Cooper attacked him as "a Gucci-wearing, Lincoln-driving, Perrier-drinking, Grey Poupon-spreading millionaire Washington special-interest lobbyist." Thompson won anyway.

And on Nov. 5, Thompson won his first full Senate term after running a made-for-TV campaign. He drove from hoedown to county fair in the same Chevy truck, and ran folksy ads in which he and his Mama discussed the importance of Medicare over the kitchen table. Thompson snared more votes than any politician in Tennessee history, defeating Democrat Houston Gordon 61% to 37%.

GIPPER-ISH? Hollywood aside, Thompson is often compared with Ronald Reagan because of his homespun style. Like the Gipper, he opposes abortion, claims to favor a balanced budget, and wants to reduce the size and role of government. And like Reagan, Thompson is full of contradictions. "We're losing the support of the American people," he laments, because of the cozy relationship between lawmakers and the fat cats who bankroll their campaigns. Yet Thompson accepts donations from political action committees and even earned about $500,000 as a Washington lobbyist from 1975 to 1993.

Thompson's distrust of government stems from his Watergate experience and his work as a trial lawyer in Nashville, where he helped uncover a clemency-for-cash scheme that ultimately sent Democratic Governor Ray Blanton to jail. The case made Thompson a local hero, and a film career was born when he played himself opposite Sissy Spacek in the movie version of the scandal.

Thompson's fame didn't help much in the Senate: He spent his first two years pushing unsuccessfully for term limits, campaign-spending caps, and a balanced-budget amendment. Still, there's no denying that if this good ol' boy performs well in his new role as Clinton's chief nemesis on the Hill, he could heap lots of political damage on fellow Tennessean Gore and perhaps land a new part in four years--as Presidential candidate.

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