Fred Thompson: From Class Clown to Presidential Candidate

Posted May 24, 2010 at 4:04pm

There’s one in every grade school — the class clown who puts cracker balls under the teacher’s seat, sets off the fire alarm, sneezes curse words in study hall or plots to vandalize the school. Most people don’t expect these troublemakers to become lawyers or TV stars, win Senate seats or run for president. But Fred Thompson did all of the above.

Thompson’s newly published memoir, “Teaching the Pig to Dance,” is a collection of funny stories that trace his rebellious years from early childhood to just after he started practicing law. The self-proclaimed “moron” and “rebel without a clue” — who became a lawyer, actor, Senator and presidential candidate — shares memories and lessons that he learned in the boonies of Lawrenceburg, Tenn., in the 1950s.

The book is anything but a typical Washington politician autobiography. Readers won’t learn about Thompson’s work on the Senate Watergate Committee, his eight years in the chamber or even the reasoning behind his ideology and beliefs. Nor will readers learn about his acting career on “Law & Order” or the 20-something movies and shows in which he appeared.

Rather, readers may laugh at jokes that his father used to tell, the priorities that he held high as a young boy, the brakeless motorcycle that he drove to impress his friends or how much he hated acting — a hobby for sissies. They may sympathize with the 17-year-old Thompson who became a father, got married and saw all his priorities — or lack thereof — flip topsy-turvy.

“It might seem counterintuitive, not writing about what people know me for,” Thompson said in an interview. “But … my story is my growing-up years. I had a lot of problems. I was hardheaded and irresponsible, only graduated from high school because [teachers] gave me my exams twice — the thought of me coming back the next year was more than they could deal with.”

Readers might enjoy learning about Thompson’s transition from a kid who hated school as much as the teachers hated him to working several jobs during law school to support his family. The title of the book sums up the memoir well: “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.”

“I’m just another American story of opportunity,” Thompson said. “What I’d considered misfortune at times turned out to be the best parts of my life.”

Thompson’s book, although nonpolitical, gives some insight into the formation of his ideology. As a child, he attended the Church of Christ, where “strict constructionism” was applied to Biblical readings — Christians could do only what the Bible instructed: no singing, no dancing, no activism, he said. “Helping one’s fellow man was encouraged, but it was an individual responsibility,” not the duty of the government, he wrote in one chapter, stating a belief largely upheld by conservatives today. In another chapter, he complains about a liberal “anti-American” professor who said the “downtrodden conditions of some little country … was the fault of the good old U.S. of A.”

Thompson also distinguishes himself through his authentic, conversational writing style. His Southern voice shines through phrases like “cut his face to ribbons” and “it would end in no good,” and at times, through improper grammar.

He even picks fun at his rustic culture: “He had been a nondescript, hard-drinking rural congressman … said to be able to pick up a young pig by the ears and tell you exactly how old the pig was. Naturally … a fellow like that ought to be in Congress,” reads his description of one Tennessee politician. Thompson also jokes that he took Sarah, his first wife, to a hog pen on their first date, “pointing out the … fine specimens shining before us in the moonlight.”

The book, however, does have its low points. Some of Thompson’s stories seem irrelevant to the lessons that he tries to reveal to readers. Some are bogged down with too many unnecessary details. For example, Thompson rants about his mother’s fear of storms, his deep love of sports and his music teacher Miss Sadie’s fetish with the pronunciation of “Santy Clause.” He dedicates a three-page chapter to Pooch, a dog he never mentions in the rest of his book.

What’s more, chapters are not written chronologically but instead jump from his childhood to his law practice and back again, or from driving his Silverado during his 1990 campaign for Senate to pinning a “gone fishing” sign over the study hall door and failing French in high school.

Most will find Thompson’s stories in “Teaching the Pig to Dance” funny and, at times, admirable. The human interest of the book — growing from a “moron” and troublemaker in a working-class family to a full-time family man and law school student working several jobs at once — will no doubt appeal to hardworking readers who aspire to more.