Are You Ready For Your Close-Up, Fred Thompson? genre: Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation


Fred Thompson and his supporters have done a remarkable job of marketing his wares and positioning him to enter the race for the GOP presidential nomination. His followers like to portray him as a strong former prosecutor, a Washington outsider, and a modern day Ronald Reagan. Thompson first captured the spotlight during the Watergate investigation while working under Senator Howard Baker.

What garners the most attention about that period in Thompson's political life is his association with the revelation that Richard Nixon had a taping system to record many of his conversations in the White House. The Boston Globe gives us a much different perspective on that time period and the activities of Fred Thompson.

WASHINGTON -- The day before Senate Watergate Committee minority counsel Fred Thompson made the inquiry that launched him into the national spotlight -- asking an aide to President Nixon whether there was a White House taping system -- he telephoned Nixon's lawyer.

Thompson tipped off the White House that the committee knew about the taping system and would be making the information public. In his all-but-forgotten Watergate memoir, "At That Point in Time," Thompson said he acted with "no authority" in divulging the committee's knowledge of the tapes, which provided the evidence that led to Nixon's resignation. It was one of many Thompson leaks to the Nixon team, according to a former investigator for Democrats on the committee, Scott Armstrong, who remains upset at Thompson's actions.

"Thompson was a mole for the White House," Armstrong said in an interview. "Fred was working hammer and tong to defeat the investigation of finding out what happened to authorize Watergate and find out what the role of the president was."

The view of Thompson as a Nixon mole is strikingly at odds with the former Tennessee senator's longtime image as an independent-minded prosecutor who helped bring down the president he admired. Indeed, the website of Thompson's presidential exploratory committee boasts that he "gained national attention for leading the line of inquiry that revealed the audio-taping system in the White House Oval Office." It is an image that has been solidified by Thompson's portrayal of a tough-talking prosecutor in the television series "Law and Order."

Thompson, in his 1975 memoir, wrote that he believed "there would be nothing incriminating" about Nixon on the tapes, a theory he said "proved totally wrong."

"In retrospect it is apparent that I was subconsciously looking for a way to justify my faith in the leader of my country and my party, a man who was undergoing a violent attack from the news media, which I thought had never given him fair treatment in the past," Thompson wrote. "I was looking for a reason to believe that Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States, was not a crook."

So the factual picture of Thompson may be far different than the persona his handlers are attempting to sear into the voting public's mindset...a mindset that comes with a less than stellar attention span. No doubt the Thompson team wants to establish a laundry list of positive perceptions before the candidate actually enters the fray and is subjected to the scrutiny that will come with the announcement of his candidacy.

As one delves further into the piece by the Boston Globe, Thompson's image as a Washington outsider begins to evaporate. In fact, one might conclude that he had the full backing of establishment politicians from the outset.

John Dean, Nixon's former White House counsel, who was a central witness at the hearings, said he believed that Baker and Thompson were anything but impartial players. "I knew that Thompson would be Baker's man, trying to protect Nixon," Dean said in an interview.

"Even though I had no authority to act for the committee, I decided to call Fred Buzhardt at home" to tell him that the committee had learned about the taping system, Thompson wrote. "I wanted to be sure that the White House was fully aware of what was to be disclosed so that it could take appropriate action."

Armstrong said he and other Democratic staffers had long been convinced that Thompson was leaking information about the investigation to the White House. The committee, for example, had obtained a memo written by Buzhardt that Democratic staffers believed was based on information leaked by Thompson.

Armstrong said he thought the leaks would lead to Thompson's firing. "Any prosecutor would be upset if another member of the prosecution team was orchestrating a defense for Nixon," said Armstrong, who later became a Washington Post reporter and currently is executive director of Information Trust, a nonprofit organization specializing in open government issues.

Baker, meanwhile, insisted that Thompson be allowed to ask Butterfield the question about the taping system in a public session on July 16, 1973, three days after the committee had learned about the system.

The choice of Thompson irked Samuel Dash, the Democratic chief counsel on the committee, who preferred that a Democrat be allowed to ask the question. "I personally resented it and felt cheated," Dash wrote in his memoirs. But he said he felt he had "no choice but to let Fred Thompson develop the Butterfield material" because the question initially had been posed by Sanders, a Republican staffer.

What we find is that Thompson played a key role in assisting the GOP in their efforts to protect Richard Nixon. Further, as the Nixon defense began to crumble, Senator Baker used his authority to hand Thompson his vaunted role as the man who asked one of the pivotal questions in facilitating the beginning of the end of the Nixon presidency. I think it’s safe to say that Fred Thompson benefited from some strategic hand holding and knows all too well the importance of calculated political grooming.

While none of this information should remotely be interpreted to suggest that Thompson committed any crimes (he did what political operatives do on a daily basis), it does remove some of the luster on the Thompson vita...the one that reads like a Hollywood script...with Thompson as the latest iteration of Jimmy Stewart in Miracle on 34th Street.

I hate to be a cynic, but my current impression is that the GOP would like to craft another "miracle"...though this one would be on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The good news for the GOP is that they have experience in casting actors for their leading roles. Unfortunately, I'm afraid it will take more than a tight script and an actor adept at mouthing carefully worded lines to improve the ratings left behind by their latest "not ready for prime time player."

Daniel DiRito | July 4, 2007 | 1:33 PM
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1 On July 4, 2007 at 8:45 PM, Don Jones wrote —

Well, I find that interesting history reporting but where is the beef? How did one know he made a supposed strategic phone call? He said he did, right? Hmmm, doesn't sound too treacherous to me.

I keep reading these things said about my man Fred, knowing there must be a cow pie somewhere but all I find are bird droppings.
Don Jones

2 On July 4, 2007 at 9:08 PM, Winghunter wrote —

"While none of this information should remotely be interpreted to suggest that Thompson committed any crimes (he did what political operatives do on a daily basis)"


"it does remove some of the luster on the Thompson vita."

Only to the uninformed and of course, the agenda driven politically motivated.

Thought Theater at Blogged

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