Q&A: Fred Thompson

Auditioning for His Biggest Role

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"There's a feeling that maybe the right decisions aren't being made for the future welfare of the country."

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As a campaigner, Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson is known for bucking convention. The former senator from Tennessee entered the race so late that people wondered whether he was serious, and he prefers limited "meet and greets" to town hall meetings. But that style is perhaps expected in a man whose career has been anything but ordinary. Thompson, 65, entered public life as an assistant U.S. attorney and, at 30, became minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee. He's had a second career as a television and film actor, perhaps best known as a district attorney in TV's Law and Order. Later elected to the Senate, Thompson served on the intelligence, finance, and judiciary committees. He talked recently with U.S. News. Excerpts:

You talk of cynicism about Washington. Is that an implied critique of President Bush?


I would just say the perception "of all things Washington" is not a good one. To what extent it is [Bush's] own fault or his adversaries' is another question. It's probably a mixture. Congressional ratings now are probably at a historic low, so it's across the board. Where do you think that sense about the wrong direction comes from?


I think there's an underlying feeling that maybe the right decisions aren't being made for the future welfare of the country, and I think that's right. We continue to kick certain problems down the road for the next generation. We continue to spend money on projects that appeal to certain constituencies but are not good for the country. We continue to run up our national debt. What distinguishes you from the other Republican candidates?


I think that I have a good understanding of the world we live in and what we need to do to preserve our security and prosperity. I have dealt with it from the inside and from the outside. I think I have a depth and breadth of experience that gives me an understanding of the world and what our role is and should be. And that trumps the other candidates?


A person wouldn't run for office if they thought that they were the second- or third-best qualified guy in the race. Clearly, no one except John McCain has much in the way of experience dealing with the national issues I've described. Polling suggests that Iraq might be fading as a priority for voters and that maybe the economy is gaining. What do you think?


The news is much better coming out of Iraq, and there's some troubling news with regard to the economy, so I think what you're seeing is a natural reaction to that. But it's certainly a good development in Iraq. And I think we need to understand the successes that we have had with our economy and how to keep it that way. We've had a good run due to sound tax policies. And we need to continue those and improve on the spending side. With the revision of the intelligence estimate on Iran, do you have faith in our intelligence departments?


Not as much as I wish I had. We're seeing a large community preparing a report of which we're getting just a peek. And I'm not at all sure that our analysis can be correct when it was so diametrically different just a couple of years ago. I think maybe the wrong conclusions are being drawn from it. Even if the analysis is correct, I think that we're making a mistake. The things you have to do for a peaceful nuclear program are the same kinds of things that you have to do for a weapons program. There's no assurance that even if [the Iranians] temporarily stepped away from their program that they would not ratchet it up later. I'm also wondering if [this] is an indication of the intelligence community being somewhat politicized. So this revision doesn't affect your view on Iran?


[The Iranians] could change their policy on a dime. We need to continue monitoring, we need to continue to work for sanctions until they totally open up. We also need to not do anything to prevent the people from Iran from getting rid of their oppressors. Does celebrity make it easier for you or does it complicate things?


It's a mixed bag. Most people who bring it up [do so] in a favorable way, but at the end of the day it doesn't mean much. It lets your detractors try to paint you in as [an entertainer]. And it requires you to remind them that that is only about 5 percent of what I have done.