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The Nation

An in-law-made man

Thompson lacked drive, then he married into it

September 06, 2007|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

LAWRENCEBURG, TENN. — In the summer of 1959, everyone could see that Sarah Elizabeth Lindsey was going places. Beautiful and brainy, she had edited the yearbook, joined the science club and graduated near the top of her class. In the fall, she'd be off to college.

Her boyfriend, Freddie Thompson, was another story.

A year behind Lindsey in school, he was a 6-foot-5 stick of undeveloped potential, awkward and lacking in drive. He seemed to devote himself only to pickup basketball games played at the Concrete Court, a slab set down for a building not yet constructed.

Sometime that summer, Lindsey told Thompson she was pregnant. He responded, friends say, by asking her to marry him.

Today, with a kickoff tour through early-voting Iowa, Thompson formally offers himself as a candidate for president, the highest ambition in American politics. But the onetime Senate from Tennessee did not grow up with such ambition. He married into it.

That union did not last, but it gave Freddie Thompson an education, a profession, a political party and even a new first name.

The Lindseys, who initially held some of the same doubts about Thompson's work ethic that now shadow his candidacy, would prove to be the most important audience he ever won over. Though Sarah agreed to the marriage, her family, which included Lawrenceburg Mayor Ed Lindsey, held a meeting to discuss whether to block it. Opinion was running against Thompson until Sarah's grandfather, a distinguished lawyer named William H. "Bid" Lindsey, spoke up.

"If Sarah Elizabeth sees something in him," Bid Lindsey declared, "then there must be something there."

With that, Thompson was adopted into one of Lawrenceburg's leading clans -- a family of attorneys, judges, manufacturers and Republicans. Freddie and Sarah exchanged vows in a Methodist church during the second week of his senior year. Seven months later, in April 1960, 17-year-old Thompson had a son.

Over the next decade, Thompson would prove that, with prodding and a little help from loved ones, he could rise above difficulties. By 30, he would land the job that made him famous: top Republican counsel to the Senate Watergate committee.

"It wasn't a pleasant situation at first," recalls Ed Lindsey, Sarah's uncle, "but we accepted Freddie into the family, with no residual animosity or feeling about his personal circumstances. We took Fred in and tried to teach him."

The couple divorced after three children and 26 years of marriage; Thompson, now remarried with two young children, rarely mentions his ex-wife's family today.

But people here say he was an in-law-made man.

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Flicker of aspiration

The Lawrenceburg of Thompson's youth was a manufacturing town of about 7,000 -- with few hills, plenty of creeks and even more car lots -- not far from the Alabama border.

Freddie Dalton Thompson (Freddie was his legal name, appearing on birth and marriage certificates) was born in 1942 to a family less distinguished than the Lindseys. His grandparents had come off the farm to run a diner near the center of town. His father, Fletch, a used-car dealer, and mother, Ruth, a homemaker, had eighth-grade educations.

Over morning coffee at the Blue Ribbon Cafe, Fletch Thompson liked to crack jokes and gossip about Lawrence County's vicious and entertaining politics.

After World War II, returning veterans -- led by members of a family called the Freemons -- formed their own political operation to challenge the town's Democratic machine, using legal maneuvers, and sometimes fists, to win elections.

The old-line Democrats responded by building an alliance with some of the few Republicans in town, including the Lindseys. Each side accused the other of owning the town. The Freemonites called Lawrenceburg "Lindsey-ville." On election night in 1950, the Freemon coalition won all the county offices after a box of ballots disappeared. The Lindsey family law firm challenged the results. The litigation lasted more than two years.

Before one hearing, attorney Howard Freemon exchanged gunfire with a Lindsey ally in a courthouse hallway. (No one was killed.) The election results stood, mostly because the next election came up before the issue was resolved. The Lindsey coalition and the Freemonites fought for political power for more than a decade, a period covering Thompson's adolescence.

Freddie's family watched from the sidelines, with one exception. In 1958, Fletch Thompson scratched his political itch and accepted a spot on the Freemonite slate for the post of county sheriff. His posters promised "qualified but not politically experienced" leadership. He lost by 814 votes out of about 10,000 cast.

"He was considered more of a jokester," recalls Bobby Alford, a local historian and former columnist for the Democrat-Union newspaper. "People thought, 'He's a good old boy, but would he make a sheriff?' He was too nice to be sheriff."

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