Presidents often remark about the eeriness of the first moments after they revert back to being private citizens. Suddenly all of the fanfare is gone. Nobody is there at his beck and call. The band doesn't strike up any longer when he walks into the room and he is once again, just an ordinary citizen.
As I park behind a book store called Book Soup in West Hollywood and make my way to the front door I am reminded of this as a store employee hopefully asks if I am here for former presidential candidate Fred Thompson's book signing. Sort of, is what I meant to say, but I say yes to make him feel better I guess. Actually, I was just coming to pick Fred up for a late dinner before his flight back to DC the next morning, but as I walk to the back the steady stream of autograph-seekers has slowed to a trickle and I think about, as I do for the rest of the evening as we have a quiet dinner uninterrupted by gawkers or fans at an outdoor café on a sidewalk on Sunset Blvd., how close Citizen Fred came to, instead of being here with me tonight, being the Leader of The Free World, unapproachable and distant.
In 2008 I was pretty sure that the race was going to be Barack Obama vs. Fred Thompson and I'm usually a fairly good handicapper of such things. Early on in the campaign I had had coffee with Fred's wife Jeri at a hotel in Burbank and caught a glimpse of Fred walking out the door on his way to the Tonight Show where he was going to announce his candidacy. As he strode purposefully to the front door, trailed by his wife, daughter, nanny and son, he looked, well, "presidential." It would have been a fascinating race-the laid-back Southern-fried country boy vs. the Honolulu/Chicago City slicker, and we'll never know how it would have turned out. But it would have been far more fascinating than the race we got.
Once while Fred was in the middle of his campaign I had the challenging task of calling him about playing a lead role in a film that I was then-producing, awkwardly mentioning that I understood well that he could only be in it if the whole running-for-President thing didn't work out. He didn't seem offended and asked for more details. A year later my fellow producers and I were off of the project but Fred starred in the film anyway, and on this balmy May night I tell him that I'd see the movie and it looks pretty good and I'm back to thinking how amazing American democracy is that a man can be so close to such a high position and then just as quickly be back to starring in indie movies and signing books.
As his fans, known as Fredheads, well know, Fred now has a daily radio show (he took over O'Reilly's slot when Bill left radio) and has now published a memoir called Teaching The Pig To Dance. If Fredheads came to Book Soup hoping for a rehash of his most recent political race or an exegesis of the Obama administration, they'll likely be disappointed. Instead, it's a warm look over the shoulder at life in small-town America. This resonates with me especially because I've just spent time on the set of my next movie in a warm, friendly but quiet town called Smithville, in Texas, that I imagine is similar to the one Fred grew up in, in Tennessee.
On the set in Smithville, I keep thinking that these are the kinds of towns that mass media has destroyed-that the kids of Smithville instead of living and breathing and contributing to their city, are indoors watching stupid TV shows produced by my friends in Hollywood, and are, in the process, losing out on so many of the virtues that kids like Fred learned in his small town. Instead of soaking up the values of their parents and grandparents, I think, today's kids are absorbing the values of Britney, Lindsay, and Paris and maybe our country is going to hell as a result.
Fred's book is a lot like the man himself: warm, unpretentious, modest and contemplative. He has a Reaganesque ability to chalk up any negative things that have happened to him in life as part of the plan that got him on the right track. Having a son at 16 is certainly nobody's idea of a good way to start life, but Fred believes that it saved his life and kept him on a path of hard work and integrity.
He's so modest in real life that it's easy to forget the things this man has done, which I do. At dinner we can't escape talking politics and I tell him a story about being at another dinner with former Watergate figure Chuck Colson and, knowing that he's seen so many presidents up close, I had asked him his opinion of President Obama: Colson gave me two adjectives but later asked that I not publish them. I pass on the two adjectives to Fred and Fred is just as amazed as I was when I first heard them, but then proceeds to talk about Colson as though he knew him. "Of course," I almost smack myself. "You were there-at the Watergate hearings as Senate Counsel."
Fred gives me historical context and suddenly I see Colson in a different light-not as the do-gooder prison reformer and author of books on God, but as a Rahm Emmanuel-like figure who would have done anything and screwed anybody in pursuit of his objectives.
And perhaps, I think, those are the kind of epiphanies that we no longer have because we don't listen to our elders the way the young listened to elders in Fred's time in the small town where he grew up in and which much of the book is about.
Fred writes movingly of his father's wit and his Mom's kindness and of life in a small town in which elders were always there to correct the mistakes of their youth and the young became better men and women because of it.
As we head back toward my car for the short drive back to his hotel, I decide to tell him my story about his "presidential gait" that night in 2007. I figure he's not feeling very presidential on this night and that he might like to know that even though circumstances, Providence and the voters had made other choices, on that night anyway, he very much looked the part of the most powerful man in the world.
And something about Fred Thompson's life mirrors the greatness of America-how ordinary men and women answer the call to service. He was willing to serve, of course, but not obsessed by the need for power. He doesn't seem overly disappointed that things didn't work out the way he'd planned, and seems pleased to have the chance to get back to raising his family, doing his radio show and writing a book for his fans-passing along the words of wisdom he learned in a small town, that have stood him well in life.