Thompson fights to keep star role Politics: A man who portrayed politicians in the movies, then became one, is expected to step into the spotlight to argue for his Senate commit- tee's hearings into 1996 fund raising.

March 06, 1997|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Fred Dalton Thompson, the one-man hall of mirrors who portrayed politicians in the movies and then became one, is fighting to hold on to his latest starring role.

As chairman of the Senate committee that is to examine the fund-raising thicket of the past election, the craggy-faced Tennessee Republican is expected to step into the spotlight next week to argue for hearings, now threatened by a grab bag of political agendas.

Democrats were angered by Thompson's audacious $6.5 million price tag for the investigation (reduced by Republican leaders yesterday to $4.7 million) because it would focus primarily on the Clinton-Gore campaign. They have threatened to filibuster a vote on Thompson's budget.

Even some Republicans have flinched at the thought of hearings so expensive -- and thus extensive -- that their own fund raising could be examined along with that of the Clinton administration. Republican leaders also fear the hearings could pave the way for a campaign finance reform bill, which is opposed by all Republicans except Sen. John McCain of Arizona -- and Thompson.

"He's being grumped at by Democrats and Republicans," said Thompson's friend and mentor, Howard H. Baker Jr., the former Tennessee senator. "In my experience, that's not always bad."

Indeed, the hot seat could turn into a high-visibility launching pad for the 54-year-old senator, one of his party's most promising properties and a likely prospect for a presidential run in 2000.

Since joining the Senate two years ago, the bearish 6-foot-6 Southerner has been the glamour of the place. Star quality, his colleagues call it. That old Ronald Reagan thing. It didn't hurt that Thompson, a divorced father of three, dated such celebrities as country music star Lorrie Morgan, that he was often spotted around town having dinner with the likes of Kevin Costner and that he appeared as some variation of a tough guy -- he says he just played himself -- in 18 feature films.

Republicans wasted no time trading on Thompson's camera appeal. Days after he took office in late 1994, he was tapped to deliver the televised rebuttal to a major Clinton budget speech. Last year, he was called on to help Bob Dole by playing the role of President Clinton as the Republican nominee prepped for the debates.

Under scrutiny

But lately, it has been rough going for the lawyer-turned-actor-turned-senator, who first gained notice as the 31-year-old side-burned Republican counsel for the Senate Watergate committee.

A meeting of his Governmental Affairs Committee last month exploded into a partisan firefight over the fairness of the proposed hearings.

And as Thompson plunges into the investigation -- planning on a staff of 80, including 35 lawyers -- his own campaign fund raising has come under scrutiny.

The senator, who has raised large sums from political action committees, including tobacco interests, recently returned a $3,000 contribution from one of the questionable donors who attended Clinton's coffees. And he has profited from hot initial stock offerings -- in 1995 he turned a $7,700 profit in one day -- that are available only to an elite group and that are now shunned by most lawmakers.

Last week, Thompson's name turned up in a Republican Party memo that was among documents released by the White House. The memo suggests that if contributors help retire the campaign debt of several senators, including Thompson, it could be "very beneficial in advancing their short-term and long-term political participation goals." There is no evidence that Thompson knew such a pitch was being made, in part, on his behalf.

Thompson declined to be interviewed for this article. But his allies defend his fund raising as the norm on Capitol Hill. They say such practices illustrate why it is so difficult for lawmakers who benefit from the campaign finance system to vote to reform it.

'Good training'

The senator's fans say he will be aggressive, but fair-minded, with gavel in hand, drawing on his experiences at the side of Baker, who was the senior Republican on the Watergate committee.

"Fred's got good training," says Samuel Dash, who served as the Democrats' chief counsel for the Watergate committee. "I think he'll try to reproduce as much as he can the way the Senate Watergate committee behaved."

In those historic hearings, Thompson asked the question of Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield that revealed the existence of a White House taping system.

"Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?" Thompson asked.

Butterfield had revealed the existence of the taping system in an earlier private interview with one of Thompson's staff lawyers. Dash said that although he, as chief counsel, routinely opened the public questioning of witnesses, Thompson had requested that he be the one to question Butterfield.

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