Former U.S. Senator, and Republican presidential candidate, Fred Thompson died on November 1, 2015. I covered his campaign prior to the South Carolina primary in 2008. In an interview on board his campaign bus, we covered a wide variety of topics, including his favorite movie role (The Hunt for Red October). Below is a portion of a chapter I wrote about Thompson regarding his historic role in the Watergate hearings.
EXCERPT FROM FRONT ROW SEAT AT THE CIRCUS:
“Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the President?”
A simple question asked by the Minority Counsel to presidential deputy assistant Alexander Butterfield during the 1973 Watergate hearings.
“I was aware of listening devices, yes, sir” Butterfield replied.
That question and answer were the beginning of the end for President Richard Nixon. The tapes would provide so much damaging information that it would lead to the first—and to date, only—presidential resignation in our history.
Fred Thompson was the attorney who had asked that critical question.
It was on my mind as we drove from Myrtle Beach to Columbia to interview the former senator and actor. He was making his first stop in South Carolina and—in a first—his campaign had called us and asked if we wanted to have an exclusive interview. Of course we did, and Kevin was especially excited because The Hunt for Red October, in which Thompson had appeared, was one of his favorite movies.
Thompson’s starring role in helping bring down the Nixon administration will probably be what historians find most fascinating about him.
As the cameras rolled, I asked Thompson to take us back to that time, the summer of 1973.
“Well, I was thirty years old, a young man in the center of the most important thing going on in our country at the time. I was sitting at the right hand of Statesman Howard Baker (just what did the President know and when did he first know it?), Sam Irvine was one seat over, and I got to watch American history be made.”
But what about effectively asking the question that led to a fellow Republican resigning from the presidency?
“I had to do my duty,” Thompson said. “I started as a loyal Republican and ended up a loyal Republican, but you have to call them as you see them, and we knew there was a taping system in the White House and it was our obligation to bring it out.”
On one of Nixon’s tapes, his aide H.R. Haldeman informed him that Thompson had been appointed as the minority counsel.
“Oh shit, that kid?” a dismayed Nixon responded.
On another tape from May 1973, Nixon would say about Thompson to his White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig:
“Oh shit, he’s dumb as hell.”
Three months later, the thirty-year-old Thompson would ask the not-so-dumb question that led to Nixon’s embarrassing departure.