BONITA SPRINGS — Former senator and onetime presidential hopeful Fred Thompson briefly broke from his witty style Tuesday as he candidly reflected on his recent bout with lymphoma.
Speaking at the Bonita Christian Forum in front of a crowd of nearly 1,500, Thompson said his bald head wasn’t merely for his recent Broadway role as Judge Noose in John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill.” While the look seemed to fit the role, Thompson also was experiencing hair loss due to chemotherapy.
While the most recent CT scan looks clear, he reported, the experience gave Thompson time to reflect on his life and its diverse opportunities — from Watergate attorney to senator to actor, and even a short-lived campaign for the presidency in 2008.
“There are opportunities in this country, if you just open the right doors and refrain from walking through the wrong ones,” he said. “The most important thing is to be the kind of person, the kind of father and husband I should be. To learn to walk humbly, sometimes, is the most difficult thing to do, especially when you think you’re pretty hot stuff.”
Thompson admitted his bid for the presidency was one of those moments of pride. He was a latecomer to the primary race, officially announcing in September 2007. He withdrew in January 2008 after polls showed lackluster support.
“My presidential campaign was the toughest two weeks of my life,” he said, evoking a chorus of laughter before turning serious. “It was something I didn’t do well. It was one of those occurrences I let my ego get a little bit ahead of myself.”
While he said he had the right motives — to help his country, standing for family values and advocating fiscal responsibility — he had been out of the game of politics since leaving the senate in 2002. Although polls showed he would likely have won re-election, Thompson said he placed term limits on himself to avoid the pitfalls of becoming a career politician.
“The game had changed,” he said of his re-entry into the political foray with his announcement to run for president. “I had been out of the game. Everybody had a two-year head start on me. You have to about want it more than you want life itself.”
The former senator from Tennessee (1994-2003) lamented the direction he sees the nation heading now.
“We pose our own greatest threat to ourselves as a nation,” Thompson said. “We are caught up totally in short term solutions.”
His top two concerns, he added, are abysmal fiscal policy and the federal government — particularly the president and the attorney general — mandating social change from the top down.
“Our country is rapidly changing before our eyes,” he said. “We go from 2000 years of a concept of a marriage and we see that change about overnight. We’ve handed over real power in this country to the regulators.”
Through the years, Thompson has interspersed acting roles with his law career, starting shortly after “serendipity” landed him on the Watergate legal team as a young lawyer. It was Thompson who discovered Richard Nixon had everything recorded on tape, after interviewing Nixon assistant Alexander Butterfield.
After Watergate, Thompson returned to his law practice in Tennessee, where he took on the case of Marie Ragghianti, who was wrongfully fired from the Tennessee Board of Pardons and Paroles in 1977. Thompson’s team proved the governor was taking bribes.
The high-publicity case landed Thompson his first acting role, playing himself in the 1985 movie, “Marie.” He has since worked with Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Sean Connery, Robert Duvall, Tom Cruise and many other stars. He started on TV’s “Law and Order” in 2002.
Although his career in law and politics is what Thompson said matters most, he enjoys acting. He added his favorite role was as Rear Admiral Joshua Painter in “The Hunt of Red October.”
“I got to dress down Alec Baldwin — before he was Alec Baldwin,” Thompson said.
The near capacity crowd, which turned out to hear Thompson speak, filled the auditorium and overflowed into another viewing area. After the program, many locals shook hands with the former senator. Bill Huey even wore a “Fred Thompson for President” campaign button from 2008. His wife, Gloria, was a delegate from Indiana for the National Republican Convention that year.
Thompson’s first wife, Sarah Knestrick, even showed up to hear her ex-husband speak.
“I was glad to see him looking well,” she said.
Bonita Christian Forum Chairman Chuck Wolfe said his favorite part was hearing Thompson talk about his recent illness.
“He was very sincere when he was talking about his illness,” Wolfe said. “He was just like one of us. A lot of people in our church are going through the same thing.”
Bonita Christian Forum was established in 2005 by First Presbyterian Church of Bonita Springs as a way to enrich the cultural and spiritual life of the community. Last month, syndicated columnist and political commentator Cal Thomas packed the house.
Two speakers remain this season. Pam Tebow, mother of Tim Tebow and a spokesperson for National Right-to-Life, will speak on March 18. Jim Wallace, former Los Angeles homicide detective and author of “Cold Case Christianity,” will close out the season April 21.
Pratt announced earlier this week that Dr. Ben Carson, neurosurgeon and author of “The Gifted Hands,” has committed to opening the 2014-15 season next November. The forum aims to bring in a diverse range of speakers with interesting faith stories to share, Wolfe said.
To view the season schedule, visit www.bonitachristianforum.org.