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Thompson's red truck is parked, for now

To some, the pickup signaled his country credentials. To others, it was just a stage prop for a lobbyist insider.

August 12, 2007|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

franklin, tenn. -- It's just an old red pickup, with a gouged and rusted hood and an expired U.S. Senate license plate, parked behind his mother's home off a busy highway in this gentrifying town south of Nashville.

But for Fred Thompson, the 1990 Chevy was more than a means of transportation. It was a good-luck charm that boosted his first political campaign back in 1994, when his prospects were flagging.

Like Bill Clinton's saxophone, Ronald Reagan's cowboy hat and Jimmy Carter's sweaters, the red truck became shorthand for something the politician was trying to sell, and may again, if Thompson, as is widely expected, announces in September that he will seek the GOP presidential nomination.

To Thompson's supporters, the red truck signaled his conservative credentials and folksy ways. To Thompson's opponents, it was a stage prop for a sophisticated Washington insider playing a plain-talking country lawyer, a way to flash populist credentials to which the Republican lobbyist and actor was hardly entitled.

Thompson's 86-year-old mother, Ruth, could not be less impressed with either interpretation. "I don't know why everyone's so interested in that truck," she said as she stood in the doorway of her modest brick home one recent humid morning. "It won't even start. The battery's dead!"

But in the late spring of 1994, the truck helped jump-start Thompson's sputtering Senate campaign.

Thompson was the front runner for the GOP nomination, but Rep. Jim Cooper, his presumed Democratic opponent, had a big lead in the polls, greater name recognition and a lot more money. Thompson was in the doldrums.

"He was a very unhappy candidate," said political consultant Tom Ingram, who masterminded the campaign. "He was complaining about all the Republican events -- the coffees and teas and chicken dinners. So I said, 'What would you like to do?' "

Thompson, the son of a used-car dealer who had grown up in modest circumstances, told Ingram he would like to get a truck and drive around the state meeting people. Up to that point, Thompson had been tooling around Tennessee in a Lincoln Town Car.

"So why don't you do that?" said Ingram, who is now chief of staff to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and part of an informal support network for Thompson, an actor known for his role as the district attorney on NBC-TV's "Law & Order."

In August 1994, Thompson leased, and later purchased, a lipstick red, used Chevy pickup with manual transmission, an extended cab and maroon velour seats.

But he didn't just ditch the Town Car. He also shed his tailored suits and ties for jeans, work shirts and beat-up cowboy boots. "It's not a costume," he told supporters at one rally. "It's what we wear where I come from."

Thompson may not have been a country lawyer, but he knew how to act like one. A Knoxville newspaper reported that he gave speeches standing in the truck's bed and invited voters and reporters along for his "truck-capades."

"You could see the difference in his demeanor and in the way people reacted to him almost immediately," said Ingram. "And we were encouraged when the other side attacked him for it."

Thompson's opponent, the son of one-time Tennessee Gov. Prentice Cooper, was furious at what he believed to be Thompson's affectation. He ran a commercial featuring a shot of Thompson's Washington home and called him a "Gucci-wearing, Lincoln-driving, Perrier-drinking, Grey Poupon-spreading millionaire Washington special- interest lobbyist."

Cooper's attempt to paint Thompson as a phony didn't work. Thompson captured 60% of the vote, then drove the pickup to Washington for his swearing in.

To this day, Thompson is attacked for what turned out to be a successful bit of political stagecraft. "He was about as close to being a salt-of-the-earth Southerner as Truman Capote," Noam Scheiber wrote in the New Republic, "and it was a stretch to think average Tennesseans wouldn't pick up on the dissonance. Yet the gambit proved wildly successful."

Ingram said the truck and the jeans would never have worked if Thompson hadn't been a little bit country to start with.

"It worked because it had enough basis in reality and didn't come across as phony," he said.

Ingram doubted the truck would play a part in any Thompson presidential campaign, should the former senator decide to jump in.

"You gotta be careful about using things that worked in a statewide race," he said. "They don't necessarily translate into a national race."

And red trucks don't always work either.

When former Atty. Gen. Janet Reno sought the Democratic nomination for governor of Florida in 2002, she embarked on a "red-truck tour" of the state in what was described as her "beloved" old beater. She lost in a squeaker.

Today, Thompson's old truck sits exposed to the elements in Ruth Thompson's leafy backyard, next to the carport where she parks her silver Buick Century. The Chevy's odometer reads 159,797. The truck's Tennessee "U.S. Senate" plate expired in March 2003.

Thompson turned down a request for comment, but his spokesman said Thompson had warm feelings for the truck.

"He never had the heart to get rid of it," said Mark Corallo, Thompson's spokesman.


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