From Senate caucus rooms to Hollywood sound stages, Fred Thompson has performed in any number of high-stakes dramas, some merely make-believe, others all too real. Most recently, the former Republican senator from Tennessee has returned to his prior vocation, acting, on NBC's never-ending prime-time drama "Law & Order." Drawing on his Dixie baritone and the gravitas that accrues to certain big, craggy men past middle age, the 60-year-old character actor known for shoot-'em-ups and thrillers like "Die Hard 2" and "The Hunt for Red October" has slipped easily into the role of conservative, no-nonsense New York district attorney Arthur Branch.
But Thompson, who knows that power and pop culture can afford a bully pulpit, hasn't turned his back on politics. As the world inches closer to war, global attention is focusing on issues of credibility and leadership -- whom to trust, which experts to believe -- and on what Thompson authoritatively calls "the art of persuasion."
Earlier this month, Thompson stepped into the debate when he began appearing in a 30-second TV spot urging support for the Bush administration's Iraq policy and hoisting red flags about the possibility of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein acquiring nuclear weapons. And though only a few politicians like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton ever earn the title of Great Communicator, it's obvious even in a half-minute that Thompson isn't sitting for his first screen test.
Speaking against the backdrop of an undulating Old Glory, he asks in his folksy drawl, "Can we afford to appease Saddam? Kick the can down the road? Thank goodness we have a president with the courage to protect our country." Honing his rhetoric, he concludes: "When people ask, 'What has Saddam done to us?' I ask, 'What had the 9/11 hijackers done to us before 9/11?' "
So far the ads have been seen only in New York City and Washington, but Thompson hopes they may be extended to other markets, including Los Angeles. (The spot can also be downloaded off www.citizensunited.org.) While he insists the ad isn't targeted at anyone personally, Thompson did tell a Memphis newspaper recently that he was thinking of having his character, Branch, run for president against Martin Sheen's ultra-liberal Josiah Bartlet, the fictional Oval Office occupant in NBC's "The West Wing."
"You don't have to be in public office in order to have an impact. Some of our friends in Hollywood and elsewhere show that," Thompson says. "In fact, I've said that I had to get back into show biz in order to get my political views heard."
Seated poolside at a Marriott hotel in this sun-drenched pensioner's paradise, Thompson speaks with an insistent yet low-key self-assurance. He's prone to knowing grins, but never to rhetorical flourishes or $5 words, and segues easily from off-the-cuff banter to statesmanlike oratory. He and his wife have jetted out for a few days so Thompson can address the 114th annual conference of the Mechanical Contractors Assn. of America, in a speech dealing with what an aide termed "pending military action against Iraq."
Thompson acknowledges that no 30-second TV spot -- a long sound bite with good production values -- can delve into the nuances of such a complex subject. His objective with the ad, which was paid for by the conservative political group Citizens United, was to focus on what he considers to be the "most significant" issue in the debate: that Saddam "will soon have nuclear capabilities to go along with his other weapons of mass destruction. And that'll change the whole equation."
Last Friday's report by United Nations inspectors that they have found no conclusive evidence that Iraq is developing nuclear weapons didn't impress Thompson. The inspectors, he says, are continuing to overlook their prime mandate, "to determine whether Iraq has disarmed."
Thompson certainly isn't the first actor turned politician (or vice versa), but he may be among the most philosophical when it comes to comparing the two professions. For both, he says, there comes a point when a decision must be made from which there's no turning back. "Except a president -- and other presidents have had this in the nuclear age -- the president can't afford to make the wrong choice." Consequently, "there's tremendous pressure on the President toward inaction."
But in the case of Saddam's Iraq, "I think the choice of inaction is worse, and will lead ultimately to more vulnerability than a choice of action." If the United States is unwilling ever to use force, except in self-defense of the homeland, Thompson fears the world's lone superpower will be regarded by "the Saddams and the bin Ladens of the world" as a paper tiger.
"I think President Kennedy pointed out in the Cuban missile crisis that ... circumstances have changed since the Treaty of Westphalia in the 1600s. Now, people can push a button. They don't mass on the border the way they used to, they don't give you a heads-up."
Known on Capitol Hill as something of a maverick -- Sam Houston is one of his heroes -- Thompson came out early in support of campaign finance reform and voted nay on one of the two impeachment articles against President Clinton. He's aware that taking action means taking heat, sometimes even from those on the same side of the aisle, and his support of President Bush's policies isn't without a few qualifications.
Switching to his Senatorial delivery, he says he wishes that Bush had vetoed a recent farm-subsidy bill and spent the money on homeland defense instead. He thinks neither the Bush nor the Clinton administration did enough to preserve the alliance that fought Iraq during the Persian Gulf war.
Whatever the outcome of the current crisis, he believes America is long overdue for reassessing its domestic and global priorities, for facing up to a challenge as great as any belligerent foreign despot: "sustaining our success."
"Maintaining success is oftentimes more difficult than achieving it to start with," Thompson says. "We all know about the rise and fall of civilizations. And they say that people get complacent and fat and happy and weak and self-indulgent. And I think that's probably true. Human nature, even with the change in technology, has not changed that much."
So far, Thompson thinks, President Bush has met the challenge to American civilization posed by the Sept. 11 attacks. Good leaders, like good actors, he believes, are effective partly to the extent that they truly believe in what they're saying -- and, of course, that they can convince the public of their sincerity. "Any way you look at it, whether it's entertainment or politics, you've got an audience to deal with," he says.
"I've often thought the strength of Reagan wasn't that he was an actor at all. It was that he believed in what he was saying. And that comes across in a very real sense. An actor does too. The best actors, the great ones, are in a moment of truth when they believe in what they're doing. It's not like they're outside themselves looking in and saying, 'Well, I need to twitch an eyebrow.' The source of that is different, the wellspring that gets these two players, you might want to say, to those points, is different. But neither is standing back saying, 'How can I fool the public?' I don't think they are. I think they either believe what they're doing or very close to it."