Fred Thompson's Papers Draw New Interest

Actor and former Sen. Fred Thompson, pointing, talks with his mentor, Howard Baker, front right, in this Oct. 7, 2005 file photo as Thompson donates his Senate papers to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
AP Photo/Wade Payne
Republican Fred Thompson's previously little-noticed personal papers from his eight years in the U.S. Senate are suddenly in demand as the "Law & Order" TV star nears a decision on a 2008 presidential run.

Even though he has not declared himself a candidate, recent polls show the well-known actor in the top tier of Republican candidates, placing in the top two or three in some states. Already, he is a favorite of U.S. conservatives who are underwhelmed with the current candidates.

Thompson's papers — donated to the University of Tennessee four years ago when he gave up his political career in favor of acting — 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 for a 1996 questionnaire he said, "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 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 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."

  • 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 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 money.
  • 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."

    Thompson, 64, represented Tennessee in the Senate from 1994 to 2002.

    "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.

    Chief archivist Bobby Holt said the papers are on loan and the former senator could recall any of the files at any time, but so far Thompson has left them alone.

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      Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.