KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – If one man's trash is another man's treasure, then one politician's old papers are potentially another politician's — or journalist's — gold mine.
Which explains why Republican Fred Thompson's previously little-noticed personal papers at the University of Tennessee from his eight years in the Senate are suddenly in demand as he nears a decision on a 2008 presidential run.
Thompson donated the documents four years ago when he gave up his political career in favor of acting. Academics haven't paid much attention, chief archivist Bobby Holt said, but journalists have been poring through the more than 400 boxes held by UT's Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy.
While the papers haven't yielded any bombshells so far, they reveal a candidate whose record on public issues is sometimes inconsistent, often nuanced and occasionally surprising. Some examples:
— Thompson recently said he was opposed to abortion rights and noted that National Right to Life endorsed him in his 1994 Senate race. But he told the Memphis group FLARE (Family, Life, America, Responsible Education Under God) in a 1996 questionnaire that, "I will not set a litmus test for any U.S. Supreme court nominee who has shown an understanding of the principles set forth by the Constitution."
As a senator, Thompson voted for legislation to ban so-called partial-birth abortion and to prohibit federal funding of abortions except in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is in danger.
But he also told the Eagle Forum in a 1994 questionnaire, "I do not believe abortion should be criminalized. This battle will be won in the hearts and souls of the American people."
In a candidate survey the same year for The Tennessean newspaper, Thompson said that states should have the right to impose "reasonable restrictions on abortions such as parental notification." But he said, "The ultimate decision on abortion should be left with the woman and not the government."
Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times reported that Thompson was retained by an abortion rights group, the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, to lobby the administration of President George H.W. Bush to ease a regulation that prevented clinics that received federal money from offering any abortion counseling.
— Thompson told the Christian Coalition he opposed allowing federal employees to strike, but told the Memphis Business Journal he also opposed legislation supporting the replacement of striking workers, saying it would upset "the balance between labor and management" to bargain in good faith.
— He told the Concord Coalition he would back a balanced federal budget — and later voted for such a measure — but not the group's deficit-reduction plan because "it calls for higher taxes."
— He told the National Rifle Association he supported every suggested reason to own a firearm — from constitutional right to personal protection — and "no prohibition" on their manufacture, sale or transfer.
— Although Thompson has appeared in some 20 movies and has played District Attorney Arthur Branch in the NBC series "Law & Order," he wrote Tennesseans for the Arts: "And while I support funding for the arts, I will have no choice but to support reduced funding to the National Endowment of the Arts" without "suitable guidelines."
Thompson said no material deemed unfit for broadcast by the Federal Communications Commission, works that desecrated the U.S. flag or those containing "any part of the human embryo or fetus," should get federal funding.
Thompson, 64, represented Tennessee in the Senate from 1994 to 2002. His voting record covers more than 170 boxes in the collection. Most of the rest contains reports and background papers, daily schedules, newspaper clippings, some correspondence and related documents, such as articles and public polls on the 2000 presidential race in which Thompson was considered a long-shot candidate.
The librarians won't say who is looking at his papers, but it's a sure bet that Thompson's political opposition — Republicans and Democrats — will be sifting through the letters, staff reports, background papers and daily schedules.
"There is nothing in there that I can say is going to be earth-shattering or reveals something that people don't already know," Thompson said as he formally presented the papers to the university in 2005 with his mentor, Howard Baker.
Holt said the papers are on loan and the former senator could recall any of the files at any time. But so far he has left them alone, Holt said.