20 Questions: Fred Thompson


Fred Thompson has been a U.S. attorney, senator, actor and presidential candidate, and now he’s written a memoir, Teaching the Pig to Dance. He takes readers back to his hometown of Lawrenceburg, Tenn., where he would watch movies at the Crockett Theater and visit his grandparents’ two diners, Colonial Cafe and Dixie Grill. 

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Thompson delves into his mischievous teen years by introducing readers to his high school Latin teacher, Mrs. Garner, whom he tortured by placing small firecrackers under her chair. “Teaching Latin to someone like me in high school was somewhat like teaching a pig to dance,” he writes. “It’s a waste of the teacher’s time and it irritates the pig.”

Thompson spoke to The Hill about his latest project and what’s in store for him. He will be signing copies of the book Thursday at the Tysons Corner Barnes & Noble; on Monday at the K Street Borders; and June 14 at the National Press Club.

Why did you decide to write this book?

I had thought for some time about writing the story of my adventures, my autobiography, and I got into it and found that the most enjoyable part for me was more about growing up. Instead of writing about things when I left my hometown, I wrote about the things before I left my hometown — how difficult it was to grow up, in some respects, and the lessons I learned back in those days that stood me stead the rest of my life.

Who do you hope will read it?

I think that it’s a good book for people who know young people growing up. One of the things I encourage is: Don’t be too hard on the young rebel without a clue that I was. Maybe that light will come on someday. I was a kid who barely graduated from high school, and, not that I’ve reached the pinnacle, but I certainly went on to do things that would surprise everybody who knew me back then.

Did you learn anything about yourself while writing this book?

Nothing that I didn’t already know. It was a chance to revisit the kid in me and think about it in a little more depth than I had for a long time. It’s almost like another person, thinking about the things I went through. It’s more like a child or a grandchild of mine now looking back on it, and just I rediscovered, I guess you might say, how important all that was to me.

What’s your hometown of Lawrenceburg like now? Do you have any relatives left there?

I don’t anymore. After my father died, my mother moved up to Franklin, Tenn., which is close to Nashville. But my father’s buried [in Lawrenceburg], my daughter’s buried there [Editor’s note: Thompson’s daughter Betsy died suddenly in 2002 after an accidental overdose of prescription drugs]. It’s still very much home to me. It’s the same hometown; it’s just a little bigger.

You’ve had several different chapters in your life. Which chapter has been the most rewarding or interesting for you?

It’s hard to say, because for me, it’s not been a matter of prioritizing those different things in my mind as much as it has been a question of the right thing at a certain time in my life. Different times in my life, different things have been right for me, and I must say, I’ve enjoyed all of them. A lot of them just came about by happenstance. I don’t think people do things that they don’t want to do — much — at least I never have.

I guess from an accomplishment standpoint, I guess getting elected to the Senate is something I’m most proud of. It’s an arduous task to, not having been in elected politics, to get elected to the Senate, and about the only thing I ever set my mind on and said, two years in advance — whatever it was — this is what I was going to do, and made it out of whole cloth, you might say. Other things have kind of just come along.

Would you ever go back to the Senate?

No — just like I would never go back to trying cases again. I think it’s just for a different time in my life. I went in knowing I would only serve a certain period of time, and I felt it was a very meaningful chapter in my life, and I have no need or desire to revisit it.

Do you keep in touch with any of your former Senate colleagues?

Yeah, from time to time. I have some of them on my radio show every once in a while, some of whom are also out of the Senate now, either planned or otherwise.

You mention your former colleague Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) toward the end of your book — his battle with Hodgkin’s disease and his party switch. What do you think about his defeat?

You know, I think clearly there was some opportunism in his party switch, and while I understand it, I hate to see it. But I still wish him well. I served with him, consider him a friend, and I admire his determination. At his age and the things he’s overcome, he’s still vital and out there, and there’s a certain sadness about all of it. And especially now that he’s gotten defeated, I wish him the best.

Do you miss being out on the campaign trail?

No. Campaigns are a lot like life. There are a lot of highlights and high points strung together by a lot of boredom and tedium.

I still get to make talks — more than I want to sometimes. In fact, tonight, I’m here at the New York State Conservative Party dinner, my wife and I, making a talk. And I get to shoot my mouth off in my radio show, so I still enjoy the communication part and still get to do that.

Other than that, I get to make my own schedule and do what I want when I went. You don’t get to do that in campaign.

Are you in the business of endorsing?

On occasion. Usually people I know personally. Not a lot.

What was the hardest thing about the presidential campaign trail?

Losing, I suppose. I don’t know. I think the pace of it is not a whole lot greater than that of a Senate [campaign]. There’s only 24 hours in a day, regardless of what you’re running for, and it’s a full-time job.

From a practical standpoint, the organizational task is extremely difficult, and I didn’t give it enough time, I think. And I underestimated how difficult that would be. I thought I could go against the system and get in a little bit later than normal, but it didn’t work out for me.

How did you feel when you heard about the cancellation of “Law and Order”? 

I was sad to see it. I thought, after 20 years, I thought they’d go for 21 just to beat the record of “Gunsmoke.” I have a lot of good memories from it. Like a lot of things, they pay you for it, it turns out to be work. It was a lot of hard nights. But it was a totally positive experience for me.

Fortunately we’ve got about 100 years of reruns that we could still watch.

Any other acting gigs on the horizon for you?

Yeah, I’ve got a few things I’ve done that are in the can. I guess the one that will probably reach the most people is a Disney movie called “Secretariat,” about the Triple Crown winner.

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What else are you up to these days?

I’m in New York this week and will be in L.A. and various other parts of the country the next couple of weeks promoting my book, and I am doing an occasional movie. I have shot some national television commercials that are in the can now that haven’t been aired yet but will be in the not-too-distant future. And I’m making speeches on the national speaking circuit.

Would you ever run for office again?

I will not run for office again. I just want to continue writing books, doing radio and television and movies. And that ought to take up the time that I have.

To recommend a political personality for 20 Questions, call Kris Kitto at (202)628-8539 or e-mail him at kkitto@thehill.com.

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