Before Watergate Plaudits, Fred Thompson Began as Nixon Defender

Former Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee speaks at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, in this September 2, 2008 file photo. Thompson, also a Republican presidential candidate as well as a film and television actor, died November 1 at age 73. Rick Wilking/Files/Reuters

As all of the obituaries have noted, former Senator Fred Thompson had the rare, although not unprecedented career straddling show business and politics—there was Ronald Reagan before him, and Al Franken after him, among others, who swam in both waters.

Thompson came to acting when he was a trial lawyer and one of his client's stories was turned into a film—a rather unsuccessful one called Marie, in which the casting director, after searching for someone to play Thompson, went with Thompson himself. Critics called out his performance, and he was off to Hollywood With his imposing frame and Tennessee-tinged baritone, he was always cast as the heavy in films: The White House chief of staff (In the Line of Fire), an aircraft carrier captain (The Hunt for Red October), a NASCAR executive (Days of Thunder). And of course, he was the Manhattan district attorney for years on Law & Order, which given its endless reruns in syndication, means audiences the world over will wonder for years how New Yorkers elected a southern conservative to such a high office.

In politics, Thompson's career never quite lived up to its promise. When he was elected to fill Al Gore's senate seat in 1994, he was hailed as a GOP star. Just a few days after being sworn into office, Republicans tapped Thompson to deliver a stern, TV-ready response to Bill Clinton's budget address—one which seemed as heavy as his film roles. Popular at home in Tennessee and well-liked in Washington, Thompson's biggest Senate moment came when he chaired a committee examining what he had breathlessly billed as a scandal. The investigation centered on possibly illegal campaign contributions to President Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign—but it proved less than met the eye. And when Thompson ran for president in 2008, his campaign quickly fizzled.

In recent years, he's probably been best known as a TV pitchman for reverse mortgages—which was either brilliant or bizarre casting depending on how you looked at it. In one ad, as he walks down an idealized main street, tossing a quarter to the local newsboy, and picking up a thing once known as a newspaper. "Thanks, Jesse," he chirps, before noting that Reagan made getting reverse mortgages easier.

But it was Thompson's first role that may have been his best. In 1973, at 30, he was tapped by Tennessee's Howard Baker, the state's U.S. senator, to come to Washington and serve as Republican counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee.

Over the next year, the committee unraveled the secrets of the Nixon White House and set the standard for what a congressional investigation should be—informative, educational and leading to direct results. In the age of insanely unproductive and partisan committees, the Watergate Committee is remembered, somewhat inappropriately, as a font of bipartisanship and bonhomie. It was, in fact, quite divided behind the scenes, with Democrats accusing Republicans of leaking materials to the Nixon White House to give them warning of questions that administration officials might face under the klieg lights. Thompson himself noted later that "political partisanship and infighting were as common as ever on Capitol Hill."

The Watergate committee afforded much more visibility to a staffer than do today's committees. Back then, questioning was largely left in the hands of the Republican and Democratic counsels. Senators had a more supporting role. For instance, Robert Kennedy made his name in national politics as a counsel to a Senate Select Committee where he famously grilled Teamsters Boss Jimmy Hoffa on TV. Thompson's voice and '70s long sideburns became instantly recognizable to a national audience. A star was born.

He used that fame to toss out questions that were generally pro-Nixon, and tough on the president's accusers. This was not only true of Thompson but it was also the case of most Republican senators on the panel. The famous question posed by Thompson's mentor, Senator Baker—"What did the president know, and when did he know it?"—was not meant to discredit Nixon, but rather to cast doubt on the witness, former White House Counsel John Dean, whose testimony portrayed the Nixon's lair as a font of wiretaps, payoffs, and cover-ups.

Thompson was not only on camera, but he worked behind the scenes with the Nixon White House—in ways that were not appreciated at the time. He actually prepped then Nixon aide Pat Buchanan for his testimony, which is akin to a prosecutor cozying up with a defense's witness. And Thompson later acknowledged that he had tossed "cream puffs" at the president's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, who was an architect of the scandal and later convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury. It's no wonder, then, that Nixon, on the White House tapes, dubs Thompson "friendly" to the president's cause.

While Thompson may have been applauded as a Watergate hero, many Democrats were privately seething. Scott Armstrong, a Democratic investigator on the committee who has been brutally critical of Thompson in the years since, says the Tennessean was promoting a "reverse mortgage on our constitutional rights." Those moments that seemed to reflect well on Thompson's independence from the White House often had a backstory. It was one of Thompson's Republican lawyers who uncovered the famous tapes—a great step forward for the investigation but it only came about because of a paper trail that involved Thompson helping the White House.

In time, Thompson wasn't friendly to Nixon, not at all. The Watergate hearings, which were broadcast live during the day were replayed at night on PBS, became a national sensation in the pre-cable world. Thompson shared in the glow. Once he was even applauded spontaneously when he walked into a Washington restaurant.

Baker and Thompson, along with the rest of the country, became convinced of Nixon's guilt and pressed hard, along with the Democrats, for the White House tapes. Nixon refused, and that led to his resignation. Thompson may have begun as a Nixon defender, but like so many others, he came out in a very different place.