Presidential candidates always make a big deal of the advice they get from their wives. Ronald Reagan told voters that Nancy was his closest adviser; Bill Clinton said Hillary was so crucial to his team that electing him would be a "two-for-one" deal. On the trail, John Edwards and Barack Obama showcase their smart, outspoken spouses. Politicians seem to think it humanizes them—and increases their appeal to women voters—to come off as just a little henpecked.
Fred Thompson has his own version of the shtick. Speaking at a fund-raiser last week, he introduced Jeri Kehn Thompson as "my campaign manager—oh, I mean my wife." The line got a laugh, but in Thompson's case, the powerful-spouse bit is no act. Within his still-unofficial campaign, Jeri has emerged as the would-be candidate's top political adviser and de facto campaign manager. She urged her husband to run in the first place. To prepare for the rigors of a campaign, she recruited staff, including a friend, longtime Republican PR hand Mark Corallo, to help as an unpaid spokesman.
As the run got underway, Jeri quietly assumed responsibility for many day-to-day details, say campaign advisers who didn't want to be named talking about internal matters. She oversees her husband's travel and fund-raising events, and has the power to hire and fire staff. She also grooms Thompson's public image. When lefty filmmaker Michael Moore challenged Thompson to a debate on health care last spring, Jeri persuaded him to film a tough-guy video response that became a YouTube hit. Apparently, Jeri has not been shy about using her authority. The campaign advisers say she's smart and tireless—but her spare-no-feelings management style doesn't always have the intended effect. Last month Tom Collamore, a former Reagan aide and tobacco lobbyist hired as campaign manager, quit after what a Thompson associate called "personality conflicts" with Jeri. Three other aides followed.
Those exits, combined with worse-than-predicted fund-raising numbers—Thompson raised $3.5 million in June, less than the $5 million the campaign projected—have caused jitters among key Thompson supporters. They privately question the wisdom of Jeri, who has no experience running a presidential campaign, taking on such an influential role—and are mystified why Thompson continues to stall his official entry into the race. "People are starting to wonder if she's more into this than he is," a Thompson adviser tells NEWSWEEK.
The real Jeri Thompson isn't the one depicted in gossip columns, where she is the occasional subject of catty items dwelling on her good looks and revealing clothing. At 40, she is thin, blond—and 24 years younger than her husband, prompting The New York Times to question if America is ready for a president with a "trophy wife," which is, to be fair, a condescending and inaccurate caricature. Interestingly, though, she has done nothing to change the impression. Jeri turns down all requests for interviews—and the Thompson campaign refuses to discuss her. It would not respond to the most mundane questions posed about the life of the woman who would be First Lady.
It's difficult to see why there's such secrecy. Born in Nebraska and raised in Naperville, Ill., Jeri Kehn was the stepdaughter of the local band director. She attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., and graduated in 1988. The eight years that followed are murky. Public records that NEWSWEEK reviewed strongly suggest she was married to a fellow DePauw grad named Bernard Alvey. (Various property and court records show that a woman named Jeri Kehn Alvey, who has the same birth date and other identifying information as Jeri Kehn Thompson, shared a house in Nashville, Tenn., with Bernard Alvey. He could not be reached for comment.) It's unclear exactly when she may have been married or when she may have gotten divorced. When asked directly about it, the campaign would neither confirm nor deny a previous marriage. In Nashville, court records show Jeri Kehn Alvey was twice sued in small-claims court over unsettled debts.
She met Senator Thompson at a Fourth of July barbecue in 1996. At the time, he was a noted ladies' man in Washington. Friends, who didn't want to be named discussing the Thompsons' personal lives, say they have both spoken of an instant attraction. Jeri moved to Washington, D.C., in 1998. Though she had little political experience, she became a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. "I went with my gut on it," recalls former RNC communications director Cliff May, who hired her. "She was very bright and had the energy and persistence that you need in a job like that ... She quickly became one of the most valuable members of my staff." Within a year, she got a job handling press for Senate Republicans—among them Fred Thompson, whom she was by then discreetly dating. One of her former colleagues tells NEWSWEEK Jeri was initially misjudged by some staffers because of her looks and the rumored relationship with Thompson. "They thought, OK, she got her job because of him," says the former Senate GOP aide, who declined to be quoted on record discussing Jeri's job history. "But she was as tough and smart as any man up there ... She could break balls when she wanted to."
Friends say Jeri nursed Thompson through one of the toughest moments of his life: the death of daughter Betsy after an accidental prescription-drug overdose in 2002. The episode prompted Thompson to retire from the Senate. "I've lost my heart for public service," he told Rep. Zach Wamp, a Thompson friend and campaign adviser. "I've lost my heart." Later that summer, Thompson, who had been divorced from his first wife for 17 years, married Jeri. "Jeri gave him a fresh lease on life, new hope and a fresh start," Wamp says.
Wamp sees more benefits than negatives in Jeri's lead role. "She's a strong-willed, very adept woman," he says. "Does that mean some people will be intimidated? Yes, but she's also a huge asset." Wamp is more concerned that potential supporters will get tired of waiting for Thompson to announce: "People are fired up, but I worry about impatience." If Thompson does decide to run, the attention won't just fall on him. Presidential campaigns are, in part, about storytelling, and Thompson's supporters will want to know the story of the pretty, young woman smiling up at him from the dais. Jeri Thompson may be every bit as great as Fred Thompson says she is. But no one is going to take his word for it.