Senator offers details on 'very personal' decision to leave

Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., said Tuesday that he had told only a few trusted confidants about his plans before late last week announcing his decision to retire at the end of his term.

Thompson said he had told National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Bill Frist of Tennessee, because he wanted to ensure that Republicans could hold his seat. But "other than that, it was a very personal decision," he added.

Thompson said he had not told Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., until he had made up his mind.

Thompson has not decided yet what he will do next. "I'm going to get 10 months severance," he said, in a reference to the remainder of his term. "I don't have to worry about that for a while."

Thompson--who made a name for himself as minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973 and as an actor in movie hits such as "The Hunt for Red October" and "In the Line of Fire"--did not rule out future acting roles.

"There always seems to be a part for a man my age who can look mean without trying," he quipped. "So maybe I'll still fit the bill." But Thompson said acting never was a full-time occupation for him, and "it never will be."

Thompson dismissed claims that he had grown bored with life in the Senate.

"I spent some of my best days here in the Senate," he said. "It's like anything else--it has its up sides and its down sides. If you're happy all the time around here, you're not paying attention."

He said he always had intended to limit himself to two terms; Thompson first won a 1994 special election to serve out Al Gore's term after Gore was elected vice president.

"There's a time and a place for everything, and I never intended on doing it all my life," he said.

With re-election looming, he said, it became clear that "it was either six years or out." He said he never had considered retiring immediately to allow Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist to appoint a Republican to fill his seat.

"People don't appreciate that sort of thing--it would have handicapped whoever got the appointment," he said.

Thompson said he has developed "relationships and interests" that he plans to pursue and singled out his work in international affairs. He also rejected a claim that he was comfortable leaving because he has a life outside Washington.

"Maybe it's that I want a life--maybe it's not that I've got one," he said. "I think this is the best job in the country, okay, but just not for a real long period of time, for me.

"I stayed up here for as long as George Washington did--eight years," he continued. "I don't think I need to try to outdo George."

While Thompson did not discuss the matter Tuesday, published reports have quoted friends as saying the recent death of his daughter, 38-year old Elizabeth Thompson Panici, played a major role in his decision to retire.

The Nashville-based Tennessean reported last weekend that Panici's death was the result of an accidental drug overdose. The newspaper report cited official reports showing the painkiller hydrocodone in her blood when she arrived at the hospital emergency room.

Reacting to the report last weekend, Thompson was quoted by the Associated Press as calling the Tennessean report "unfortunate...Every public official has to understand there's a price you pay, and for the most part it's appropriate. ... But there are lines to be drawn."

Lott, meanwhile, said Tuesday that Frist had kept him briefed about Thompson's deliberations, but that he had chosen not to approach Thompson.

"Frankly, I didn't want to make it easy on him," Lott said.

Lott said when Thompson was first mulling retirement last fall, he had offered to "make it worth his while to stay." And in September, Thompson announced he intended to seek re-election. But this time, Lott said, "I didn't try to talk him out of it."

Noting he was a fraternity brother of GOP Rep. Ed Bryant, Lott said Bryant--who is seeking the GOP nomination to replace Thompson--would make a good senator. Bryant attended the University of Mississippi after Lott.

Lott also is very familiar with former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who has also announced for the GOP nod for the seat.

Lott said he had shared a house with Alexander on Foxhall Road in Georgetown back in 1968. "It almost killed me," Lott joked.

Lott said when he was married and working as the administrative assistant to former Rep. William Colmer, D-Miss., he shared the house with five bachelors--including Alexander, who was working for "Hard Henry Baker," a reference to then-Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn.

"Those guys--they partied at night, including during the week late," Lott said.

He revealed that Alexander--who went on to serve as Education secretary and twice seek the GOP nomination for president--was known to wear an armband with the name of a Bourbon Street bar called "My Father's Moustache," where he had played piano.

Lott said the housemates were a "capable group of guys," but the arrangement must have been something of a mismatch for the abstemious Lott.

"They partied hard," he said. After about three months, Lott recalled: "I said, `You guys are crazy. I'm married, and I'm too old for this. I'm leaving.' "