Actor's dramatic exit may open door for Gore

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 March, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 March, 2002, 12:00am

FRED THOMPSON has had a quintessentially American career. He parlayed television political fame in the 1970s into a life as a Hollywood bit player, only to use that to propel him to a successful return to the capital as a senator for Tennessee.

On Friday, the 59-year-old closed that last chapter with the surprise announcement that he would not be running for re-election later this year, adding a characteristic touch of drama to the Republicans' bid to reclaim the Senate.

'I simply do not have the heart for another six-year term,' he said. 'I hope my friends and supporters who may be disappointed will understand.' His future is undecided, but don't bet on him leaving the stage quietly. His heavy looks and slow southern drawl, often punctuated with a sly wink, have graced 18 films - including The Hunt for Red October, In the Line of Fire and Die Hard II.

He was always a classic character actor, adding a touch of weight to offset the glamour of a Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood or Kevin Costner. One of his most memorable roles was alongside a young Costner in the under-rated spy thriller, No Way Out. He plays a defence official well schooled in the rough and corrupt art of Washington backroom politics. One of his aides suggests that he hopes an ambitious, if effeminate, rival 'rots in hell'. He leans back in his fat chair and remarks: 'Well he certainly will if you believe the Old Testament.'

After an early divorce, Senator Thompson also occasionally popped up in the gossip columns, cutting an unlikely dash as one of Washington's more eligible bachelors.

With the happy, if rare, knack of not taking anything - Washington or Hollywood - too seriously, he has always seemed somehow to be playing himself.

Not that he has lacked ambition.

As a senator, he has taken key roles on the powerful Governmental Affairs and Intelligence committees - among the most sought-after positions on Capitol Hill.

He cut his political teeth as a relative youngster. As an ambitious lawyer, he served the Republicans during the Watergate hearings in Congress in the mid-1970s - ground-breaking events that led to the downfall of president Richard Nixon. Televised live nationwide, the then 33-year-old seemed to relish the role of counsel, puffing on a big pipe as he delivered his ever-slow one-liners.

Far to the right on security issues, he has in recent years proven a fierce critic of China's military expansion and difficult to convince of the need for closer trade and economic ties.

At one point last year, he even suggested blocking access to New York's debt and equity markets by Chinese state-owned firms - a move that would have had a sweeping international impact. 'We can't turn a blind eye to the ambitions of Red China,' was one constant refrain.

He has also toyed with the idea of a presidential bid or a vice-presidential slot, knowing the increasing importance fame and name recognition plays on the cluttered political stage.

Some reports suggest he was knocked sideways by the emergence of George W. Bush, which made him realise he was probably too old now to ever have a chance of serving in the White House, particularly as Mr Bush looks on course for a second term. Others suggest the death in January of an adult daughter caused considerable reflection, despite claims that he was determined to serve his nation in the wake of September 11.

President Bush was quick to pay tribute to Senator Thompson, issuing a statement that he had served Tennessee with honour, distinction and class.

'He has worked tirelessly for Tennessee's interests, as well as for the national interest,' Mr Bush said.

His departure throws fresh doubt over the Republicans' chances of winning Tennessee, one of 34 of the Senate's 100 seats up for grabs in polls later this year. Democrats are now eagerly eyeing the opportunity and are already talking of another of the state's favourite sons - failed presidential candidate and former vice-president Al Gore. There could not be a greater contrast.

Greg Torode is the Post's Washington correspondent