In Honor of Fred Thompson - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
In Honor of Fred Thompson

It was with great sadness that I learned of the death Sunday in Nashville of Fred Thompson. The actor, lawyer, and former U.S. Senator from Tennessee was 73. He died of lymphoma. TAS writer Aaron Goldstein gives the details of Thompson’s life in this obit Monday.

I enjoyed many of Thompson’s roles as an actor, particularly as the carrier skipper in The Hunt for Red October, and as Manhattan prosecutor Arthur Branch in Law and Order. The last probably abused the willing suspension of disbelief more than any of his thrillers. Who really believes that Manhattan voters would elect a slow-talking, Tennessee good-old-boy like Thompson? But if you could get over this — one can dream, no? — Thompson was good in the role.  

Red October was a fine movie, which can’t be said of every movie Thompson was in. But he was always credible, even in forgettable flicks. Ever the tough but fair straight-shooter who could express himself colorfully and economically. Many a veteran wishes his CO in service days had been like the guy Thompson played.

Speaking of colorful expression, there is plenty of it in Thompson’s fine 2010 memoir of coming up in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, Teaching the Pig to Dance. (The source of the title is from Thompson’s observation that “Teaching Latin to someone like me in high school was somewhat like trying to teach a pig to dance. It’s a waste of the teacher’s time, and it irritates the pig.”)

Thompson was a U.S. Senator from Tennessee for eight years, where he compiled a conservative voting record, though he would probably not be described as a movement conservative. More the small-town, patriotic, solid values kind. He was in the 2008 presidential race, but not for long. I was prepared to vote for him had he made it to the Florida primary, but he didn’t. Thompson had plenty of smarts and political talent, but he didn’t seem to have the burning ambition for high office that some lesser beings are infected with. (I’ll name no names, but they all know who they are. We do too.)

Thompson’s was a soothing screen presence, which is probably why we’ve seen him peddling various goods and services on the small screen in later years. He was the kind of folksy, down to earth guy who made you believe what he said. (And most enjoyed the drawl that he said it in — I certainly did.) He will be missed.

The column below first appeared in the Sept. 25, 2007 edition of TAS on the occasion of Thompson’s entry into the presidential race that year. The observations on the guy I would have liked to have voted for hold up, as do those about Florida.


Southern Fried Fred
Wherein we learn geography isn’t culture.

TAMPA— Now that Fred Thompson has moved from endless foreplay to actually running for president, there’s great interest in seeing how big a bump he gets in the polls for finally coming out.

More than one poll in Florida shows Thompson about dead-even here with national GOP front-runner Rudy Giuliani of New Yawk. Various commentators — including some Floridians who should know better — have said Thompson is popular in Florida because he’s a fellow Southerner.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Red state Floridians may like Thompson for his conservative views. Or because they thought he was good in Hunt for Red October. Heck, some here may even enjoy listening to his Tennessee drawl. I know I do. But don’t let the heat, the humidity, and the fact that we’re well below the gnat-line fool you. Florida is not a Southern state, and hasn’t been for decades.

Before you hit Orlando going south you’ve left Dixie behind. OK, I know the entire South is morphing into the Sun Belt, an execrable term, made up by chamber types and other Babbitts. The word grates on the true Southern ear and signifies mainly that the South has become as economically grabby as the North, and nearly as bland. But the change in Florida has been much more dramatic than in other Southern states.

There’s still some Southernness in the panhandle area of the Florida (the beach areas there are often referred to as the “Redneck Riviera”), and in many of the state’s smaller, interior towns. But the major cities have largely taken on the cultural cast of immigrants from the snowy reaches of the Midwest and the Northeast (Jacksonville less so). There are so many Northeasterners in Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Boca Raton, the area is sometimes called Baja New Jersey.

The second wave of carpetbaggers has been much larger, and some would add has done much more damage, than the first one in Florida. Which view you take on this tectonic civilization shift depends largely on how much you like the fact that more than 18 million people, a majority from the Midwest and the Northeast, are now shoe-horned into the Sunshine State, often rubbing each other the wrong way and getting under each other’s feet. Many new arrivals are trying to re-zone the place so no one else can come down.

There were “only” about six million souls in Florida when I graduated (barely) from H.B. Plant High School in Tampa in 1960. A large majority of these people were from Florida or nearby Southern states. Thompson-like drawls were common, though air-conditioning wasn’t yet.

Most waitresses in Eisenhower-era Tampa were named Laverne. They called you “honey” and gave you grits with your breakfast without your having to ask for them. Radios were tuned to country stations. People were mostly civil to each other, with nary a “fuggedaboudit,” or a “Bada-bing!” to be heard. Kids said “sir” and “ma’am” to grownups. “Dixie” was played at high school pep rallies, sometime after the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and everyone stood up and cheered. We also prayed at school and didn’t realize we were doing something naughty. Lots of men were named Harlan, Coy, Junior, R.L., Bubba, Buford, Trace, Lonnie, and Cole. Women had two first names, not two last names. No one jogged. When you drank it was usually bourbon. The house wine was iced tea.

Heck, even Miami had its good ole boys before El Jefe Maximo came down out of the mountains in 1959 and stole everything from anyone who had one nickel to rub against another, thereby creating a mass exodus from Cuba to South Florida. Now Miami is the most vibrant city in Latin America, and no one even remembers when the last Southerner left Dade County.

Less agreeable aspects of the Southern life of my boyhood included the dehumanizing strictures of Jim Crow, both as law and as etiquette. These have been written about and commented on exhaustively, and exhaustingly, and there’s no point in reviewing them here. Except to say that Florida was Georgia was Alabama in this regard.

But all that Southern business is mostly gone, the bad stuff as well as the good. Because of the predominance of Midwesterners on Florida’s west coast, Tampa could probably be described culturally now as Peoria with palm trees. Mobile and Montgomery and Yazoo City (one of my favorite American place names, along with Pascagoula) may still be recognizably Southern in many ways, but you really have to search in contemporary Tampa to find artifacts of Southernness. And don’t even get me started on Orlando.

This isn’t uniformly bad, and I don’t mean to sound too cranky about all this. Some of these folks from elsewhere are quite nice, and I number many of them among my friends. Even poor souls from New York who say “becuaws” for “because,” or native Ohioans who say “tock” for “talk.” I’m always patient with these newcomers when they try to speak a little Southern but don’t even realize that “y’all” is always plural. I know they can’t help it. At least they’re trying, and many catch on in time. Some have even learned how to blow gnats and say “howdy” at the same time, very helpful in the summer time.

So let’s get away from the idea that Florida is, except for geography, Southern. If Fred Thompson is going to prevail in Florida he’s going to have to craft appealing and coherent positions on the important issues of the day, and convince voters that he’s the leader we need. Regardless of what some clueless commentators seem to think, Thompson won’t be able to drawl himself to a win here.

Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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