By Jennifer Johnston
Long before they represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate, Jim Sasser and Fred Thompson were freshly minted Vanderbilt Law School graduates who met regularly for coffee at a downtown Nashville drugstore with a group of young attorneys.
Those meetings nearly five decades ago reflect a culture of civil discourse and personal connection that both men regard as missing from today’s Washington.
While serving in the Senate was a highlight of their professional lives, Sasser and Thompson both say they would not want to hold office in today’s divisive and bitter Washington. The current era is marked by a “corrosive combination” that includes a lack of civility and respect for fellow colleagues and the institutions they serve, Sasser said, noting that collegiality and compromise have all but disappeared. “There were partisan positions back then, but people were more likely to work together and socialize together and spend time together. The issues that divided us were just as sharp, but the elbows of the various colleagues weren’t as sharp,” he remembered.
Sasser started law school at Vanderbilt in fall 1958 after earning his undergraduate degree at the College of Arts and Science the previous spring. After earning his J.D. in 1961, he practiced law in Nashville as a partner in Goodpasture Carpenter Woods & Sasser for 16 years.
Sasser’s political career literally started in the driver’s seat. He worked as then-Senator Estes Kefauver’s driver in Tennessee during law school. In 1970, then-Senator Al Gore Sr. asked Sasser to manage his campaign in Middle Tennessee, and he was “bitten by the political bug.” But when a newspaper story announced that he was running for the chair of the state Democratic party, the story was news to Sasser. “I ran down and picked up the paper, and sure enough, it was in there. I thought, ‘why not?’ ” he recalled. Sasser spent the next three years trying to balance his law practice with his travels throughout the state as party chair. Ultimately realizing “I had to get in or get out of politics,” Sasser threw his hat in the ring and ran for Senate in 1976. “To a lot of people’s surprise, I was elected,” he said.
During his 18 years in the Senate, Sasser chaired the Senate Budget Committee during sometimes contentious budget hearings. After leaving the Senate in 1995, he spent the next four years as the U.S. ambassador to China, organizing a historic state visit from then-President Bill Clinton.
Sasser proudly and pointedly recalls his friendly relationships with his Republican colleague, Senator Howard Baker. “We were friends,” he said. “We never had a sharp word, never took a cheap shot at each other.”
Former Senator Fred Thompson, a 1967 VLS graduate, also worked closely with Senator Baker, first as his campaign manager and later as counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, on which Baker served.
That stint as minority counsel was Thompson’s first blip on the national radar screen, and it changed his mind about entering the political ring. “Because of Watergate, I had seen it all up close,” he said. “I became increasingly concerned about the direction of the government—excessive growth, unsustainable spending bound to lead to a weaker economy, centralization and moving away from founding principles. When Al Gore’s Senate seat became vacant, it was ‘put up or shut up’ time.”
After a stellar legal and political career, during which he also gained national visibility as an actor who garnered significant TV and movie roles, Thompson was elected to the Senate in 1994 in a special election to fill the seat vacated by Al Gore. Thompson announced in 2002 he would not run for re-election in the Senate. He made a run for the presidency in 2008.
As chair of the Government Affairs Committee, Thompson felt compelled to point out inefficiencies, waste, fraud and abuse, some of which he says continue in government today. “You do your incremental part,” he said. “You try to make the right speech at the right time. You persuade your colleagues in private on the issues. At the end of the day, you’re one of 100, and there are many different ways you can contribute. It’s important not to be defined by certain causes or pieces of legislation.”
Sasser recalls some tense moments while he was budget chair, first under President George H.W. Bush and later under President Clinton. “I remember when we passed (Clinton’s) budget by one vote,” he said. “We called in the Vice President to break the tie.”
Sasser believes that final budget battle cost him his seat in 1994. But he says that principle was always more important to him than electability. He views the struggle to “restore revenues to previous levels while reducing expenditures” as important work that led to a balanced federal budget in the mid-1990s and budget surpluses of the late 1990s.
Thompson believes that the reasons for Washington’s change in tone since his days in the Senate are not fully appreciated or understood. “It’s not that overnight they got up and decided to turn into mean partisan rascals,” Thompson mused. “It’s basically a reflection of what’s happening in the country. Unfortunately, the country is becoming more divided in many respects.”
The two dominant political parties have distinctly opposing views on the role of government in people’s lives. “In many respects it’s getting to be pretty much a 50-50 nation,” he said. “That angst is being played out on the floors of Congress.”
Thompson expressed concern that a major priority now for time-strapped members of Congress appears to be raising money for ever more costly campaigns. “They are on airplanes all the time,” he said. Lawmakers have lost time for contemplation, study and discussion. “There’s no escape for members anymore,” he added, citing a barrage of email and other technological intrusions.
Sasser agrees. “I don’t think they have time to focus on legislation the way they used to,” he said. “Today’s bills are too dense for anyone to absorb and understand anyway.
“Now (a bill) has to be a thousand pages or it doesn’t count,” Thompson added. The nation’s interstate highway system, he noted, was built from a bill of just a few pages.
Sasser and Thompson have differing ideas about how to fix things in Washington and encourage bipartisan compromise. Thompson strongly favors term limits. “I put term limits on myself,” Thompson said. “I always knew that, for me, service would be a limited number of years. I still think that’s the way to go.”
He points to careerism as an exacerbating factor in many problems in Washington. “If, in this hurly burly that they have up there now, you’re constantly looking over your shoulder and your main goal is political survival, you’re not going to have the courage to stand up and speak the truth,” he said.
Sasser disagrees with his distinguished colleague about term limits. “I found that some of the wisest senators that I served with were those who had been there for a good period of time,” he said. “The U.S. government is the most complex creation that the human race has ever come up with. It takes you a while to understand how things operate. If you term-limit people, they become captives of staff or captives of the lobbyists.”
Instead, he favors campaign finance reform to free up more time for legislators. “I don’t think the American people are really going to get the kind of government in the legislative branch that they should have until there is some campaign finance reform,” he said.
Despite their concerns for the prevailing culture in the nation’s capital today, neither feels the situation is hopeless. “My sense is that the Senate today on a person-to-person basis is as high quality as we had in my day,” Sasser said. “[Senators] just don’t have the time to focus on the legislation or the institution, to learn from each other, to learn to respect each other.”
Sasser and his wife, Mary (BA’59), who met as undergraduates, recently donated their papers to Vanderbilt to serve as a resource for scholars and researchers. Sasser particularly hopes his experiences as U.S. ambassador to China will offer valuable insights. In recent years, he has devoted his time to advising companies doing business in China and to studying U.S.-Chinese relations. Sasser was a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Global Research Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and is serving as the Morehead-Cain Distinguished Honors Professor there.
Thompson is currently traveling between his home in McLean, Virginia, and New York City, where he recently made his Broadway debut at the John Golden Theatre, playing a judge in the stage adaptation of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, which ran for several weeks last fall.
Thompson’s acting debut came about in an unlikely fashion. In 1978, he was hired to represent Marie Ragghianti after she was fired as chair of the Tennessee Parole Board by then-Governor Ray Blanton. Ragghianti won her case and was reinstated. Two Blanton aides were later convicted of taking money in exchange for granting paroles. Thompson played himself in a movie based on the pardons scandal. The scandal led to the early swearing-in of Blanton’s successor, Lamar Alexander (BA’62), now a senator.
Thompson would go on to roles in The Hunt for Red October, Die Hard 2 and In the Line of Fire. As his Senate career was winding down in 2002, he took on the part of Arthur Branch in NBC’s Law & Order. He recently completed filming in New Mexico for an independent film, Persecuted, in which he plays a priest.
While their years in elected office are behind them, Thompson and Sasser would encourage current students to consider a career in public service. But first, they advised, establish a career and a source of income.
“You’re really giving of yourself. You’re sacrificing, too. You don’t make much money,” Thompson said.
“When I arrived in the Senate,” Sasser remembered, “I was the youngest member except for Joe Biden. I always thought I would have been better advised to spend a little more time building up my career. You don’t want to be dependent on elective office. You need to have a little cushion to get you through it.”
But both men emphasize that the country desperately needs more talent in government. “We’re suffering from many years of people degrading government service and casting aspersions on civil servants,” Sasser said. “We’ve got some really splendid people in our government, and we need to encourage them and encourage young people to come into it as a career.”
“We need more idealism—more people who are doing it for the right reasons,” Thompson agreed. “The notion of elected office as a career is kind of a slippery slope. You have to be very, very careful that you’re not sucked into living your life in a survival mode instead of remembering why you got there in the first place.”
Thompson advises anyone planning to run for office to gain career experience beforehand and develop a thick skin—and the ability to show grace under pressure. But the most important skill, he believes, is learning how to adhere to your core principles. “At the end of the day,” Thompson counseled, “you have to live with yourself.”
Also see where Vanderbilt law students served D.C. externships this past summer.