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Fred Thompson has died at age 73. He is known to the political world as a Watergate Committee counsel, a U.S. senator for eight years, a Republican presidential candidate in the 2008 cycle; and he is known by the public also as a movie and television actor. Unlike many political figures today, he came from a humble background, raised in a small county seat in Middle Tennessee just north of the Alabama border. He has described himself as having no particular ambitions until in high school he read the autobiography of the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow; he was the first member of his family to go to college and did well enough to get a scholarship at Vanderbilt Law School from which he graduated in 1967.

My own acquaintance was Fred (his legal name; he changed it from Freddie) came soon after. He was one of several young talented young men spotted by freshman Republican Sen. Howard Baker and, presumably on Baker's recommendation, he was appointed an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee in Nashville in 1969. I encountered Fred when, as a law clerk to Judge Wade H. McCree, Jr., of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit from 1969 to 1971, I saw him argue moonshine cases for the government. As I told him later, I thought he wasn't very good, but he didn't need to be; the only issue usually was whether the search was legally valid, and it usually was in these cases. When the revenuers encounter a Chevy pickup truck rolling down a mountain road at 90 miles an hour at night with the lights out and a bunch of bottles in back, there's not much doubt about what was going on.

But within a few years, it was clear that Fred's talents had not been fully revealed in his oral arguments in moonshine cases. In 1972 he managed Baker's re-election campaign in 1972, which Baker won with 62 percent of the vote, carrying 60 of 95 counties, a record for a Tennessee Republican. And when Baker became ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee, he appointed the 30-year-old Thompson as his chief counsel. I remember encountering him at a dinner party at Lesley Stahl's Watergate apartment, together with Chairman Sam Ervin's chief counsel Rufus Edmisten and Bob Woodward. It was Thompson who asked the question that got Alexander Butterfield, the subject of Woodward's latest book, to reveal the existence of Richard Nixon's White House tapes. Fred was a model of integrity in investigating a president of his own party — a model that is not being followed today.

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