A possible Republican presidential nominee in 2008, a U.S. senator from Tennessee for eight years, an actor on the big and the small screen, and today a host on a talk-radio station, Fred Thompson has been many things. But leave it to Richard Nixon, when he learned that Thompson had been appointed minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee back in 1973, to get the man wrong. Nixon on first hearing of Thompson's appointment: "Oh shit, he's dumb as hell."
Turns out, not so dumb. It was Thompson who brought the existence of tape-recorded phone conversations within the Nixon White House before the committee, which helped lead to the downfall of Richard Nixon.
It's true, though, somewhat: Fred Thompson (born Freddie Dalton Thompson) wasn't the bookish type growing up in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, a town south of Nashville near the Alabama line. And Thompson admits as much — his unbookishness and sheer lack of worldly experience in his new memoir, Teaching the Pig To Dance (Crown Forum). More than admits it, he illustrates it by calling our attention to the time Thompson took his infant son's dirty diapers to a laundromat, filled the machine with quarters, and discovered that the machine wasn't a washer at all. It was a dryer.
Thompson, married and a father by the age of 18, maybe didn't know a washer from a dryer. But he knew one thing. He'd discovered a strategy for success when he attended Florence State College in Alabama: He calls it "studying," which he seriously went on to do at what was then Memphis State University, while selling women's shoes at Lowenstein's in Poplar Plaza. Studying's also what he put his mind to at Vanderbilt law school and beyond. In Lawrenceburg, as a kid in the 1940s and '50s? Not so much.
What Thompson did was learn from the standard set by his father, Fletcher, a used-car salesman, who'd once traveled to a "foreign land" (Cleveland, Ohio) to find work. That work ethic (and Fletcher's sardonic humor) made a lasting impression on his sports-minded son.
How did that son of the South reared in a traditionally Democratic county turn Republican? Thompson covers his growing admiration for Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley in his memoir (and his active dislike of Tennessee's Ray Blanton), but he's light on the politics here, with only sideline mentions of his constructionist reading of the Constitution (tied to Thompson's Church of Christ upbringing) and his opposition to health-care reform (as legislated), term limits, and, what's worse, community organizers. On the very idea of acting and show business, we're to understand that to a guy growing up in Lawrenceburg, acting was for "sissies" (unless it's Fess Parker as Davy Crockett doing the acting). But for the dish on Thompson's fellow actors, you won't find it here. Nor the details of Thompson's divorce from his first wife, Sarah. Nor the death of his daughter Betsy, to whom this memoir is dedicated.
What you will find is an affectionate portrait of mid-century small-town America, a wry sense of humor (much of it self-targeted), and a degree of honesty blessedly free of the heart-warming. Thompson's eight years in the Senate? They made him "long for the realism and sincerity of Hollywood."
On the proverbial town drunk: There wasn't one in Lawrenceburg. As a good citizen reported, "We weren't big enough to have a town drunk, so a few of us had to take turns."
On the driver who was declared not guilty of willful and wanton conduct after he'd clearly pulled out in front of an oncoming truck: The jury decided in favor of Thompson's client, because, as one jury member said after the trial, "The boy was not wantin' to get hurt."
And on the academic limits to Fletcher Thompson's fatherly support: "I told you, son, if you want any help from me, you are going to have to stay in the seventh grade."
Thompson didn't — stay in the seventh grade. But with Teaching the Pig To Dance, he wants us to remember his father as Thompson remembers him: as the man who set the course, the course of Thompson's values.
And remember: Father's Day is the 20th. Dad's the bookish type? A Republican? Hell, even a Democratic? Thompson's memoir might just make a welcome gift, so make it personal. Fred Thompson will be signing copies of Teaching the Pig To Dance at Books-a-Million in Southaven on Thursday, June 10th, at 7 p.m.