Feature: A Sit-Down with Fred Thompson

Written by Jessica Linn Guerin, as originally published in The Reverse Review.

As a former senator, a political pundit and a reverse mortgage spokesman, Fred Thompson has a lot of opinions about the upcoming election. The one-time presidential candidate doesn’t back down when it comes to talking about what needs to be done in Washington, and he’ll tell anyone who will listen that Mitt Romney is the better man for the job.

An outspoken Republican, Thompson pops up regularly in the news and on TV to comment on the political climate, most recently appearing as a commentator for the Republican National Convention on Fox News’ On the Record with Greta Van Susteren.

Voted one of the top 20 conservatives to follow on Twitter, Thompson regularly tweets his political musings, offering humorous one-liners that take direct aim at the Democratic Party. (“Obama campaign asking people to hold yard sales and donate the proceeds to them. Might work better if fewer yards were in foreclosure.”)

For Thompson, it’s all in good fun. “I’ve always believed that it’s better to laugh than cry, and with some of the things that happen around here, you have to do one or the other,” Thompson said, adding, “As long as we’ve got Joe Biden around, there will always be something to tweet about.”

Despite his staunch support for the Romney/Ryan ticket, Thompson predicts that the election will be extremely close. Still, he adds, “I think there’s an unprecedented number of concerned Americans out there who are going to be interested in a change. That will bode well for Romney/Ryan.”

Born Freddie Dalton Thompson in Sheffield, Alabama, in 1942, Thompson grew up discussing local politics at the kitchen table with his father. He majored in political science at Memphis State University before moving on

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to Vanderbilt University’s School of Law. Upon graduation, Thompson worked as a campaign manager in Middle, Tennessee, for Howard Baker’s Senate re-election campaign. In 1973 he got his first big break when he was assigned, through Baker, to the Senate Watergate Committee. As chief minority counsel, Thompson is credited for leading the line of questioning that led to the discovery of the Nixon tapes. In 1975, he wrote a memoir about his experience watching the Watergate scandal unfold.

Thompson entered the U.S. Senate in 1994, winning Tennessee’s seat in a special election to replace Al Gore. He was re-elected and served eight years in the Senate before leaving on his own accord. “I placed term limits on myself,” he said. “And I thought I was through.” But Thompson had a change of heart, announcing his bid for the presidency on The Tonight Show in the fall of ’07. “I was concerned about the direction of the country,” he said. “It was the ultimate opportunity to do something about it.”

Thompson’s affable, easygoing manner and familiar presence had some convinced he might come out on top, but when he showed signs of slipping in key primaries he withdrew his bid after just five months. Looking back on his failed bid, Thompson said he has no regrets and even admits he may be better off. “From a personal standpoint, I’m probably happier now than I would have been had I been more successful. There’s a lot of personal tradeoffs in something like that.”

Despite his packed schedule, Thompson still finds time to act. His credits include more than 18 feature films, with Cape Fear and The Hunt for Red October among the most notable, and a longtime gig as the Manhattan district attorney on Law & Order. “I have a couple of things in the can that haven’t come out yet,” he said, adding that one is a film starring Ethan Hawke. “I don’t go too long without doing something.”

Thompson is also a spokesman for American Advisors Group and stars in national commercials promoting the benefits of the HECM. A strong proponent of the program, Thompson’s connection to the product is more than just professional—he came to know more about its nuances on a personal level when he helped his mother obtain a reverse mortgage. Thompson said going through the loan process with her really solidified his belief in the product. “Until you’re looking at it for yourself or for a loved one, it’s hard to completely appreciate the thoroughness of it,” he said. “The fact is we have a growing elderly population, and this is a tool for people to use what they have worked for and built up.”

Thompson said that with more people entering retirement every day, the future of the

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HECM is promising. He also added that the CFPB’s effect on the program remains to be seen, although he is hopeful the bureau will yield its power wisely. “There’s a new regulatory sheriff in town with very broad powers, which makes me nervous, but our goals should be the same,” he said. “I’ve looked at some of the things that have come out of their shop already and it looks like they have a realistic understanding of the nature of the product and its value to the people.”

Although Thompson insisted that his ’08 bid “will indeed be my last political campaign,” he remains an avid Capitol Hill spectator and is following the upcoming election closely.

He said the challenge in Washington right now is “speaking truthfully about some of our country’s needs and problems, and still protecting oneself from the demagoguery that follows from speaking the truth. Most people think that the electorate just wants to hear what’s in it for them, and not what’s best for the country. I am more optimistic than that,” he said. “Delivering bad news is a difficult thing to do in politics, but we have to understand where we are before we can decide what to do to make things better.”

According to Thompson, fixing the flailing economy is first and foremost on the agenda. “We are in the process of bankrupting ourselves as a nation,” he said. “We need to get control of federal spending and resist the temptation to continue to raise taxes to solve the problem. The problem can only be solved by growth in economy, which will produce more tax revenue than raising taxes. This is relevant to the jobs issue also,” Thompson continues. “If you have a growing economy, you’re going to have more jobs, and you’re going to have a smaller deficit if you reduce spending.”

Thompson said the GOP is better equipped to clean up the deficit with Paul Ryan on its side. “He knows more about the United States budget than probably anyone in Washington and he’s willing to talk truthfully about it,” Thompson said. “The only thing we should all be able to agree on is that our current path is unsustainable, and Ryan sets out in detail the path we need to follow.”

Thompson said that aside from addressing the economic situation, he’d like to see the next administration step up its efforts abroad. “In these difficult economic times, we cannot forget about our national security. It concerns me when I hear proposals for the radical reduction of our military,” he said. “A weaker United States will make for a more dangerous world.”

While he hopes that the GOP will prevail in this election, he doesn’t predict tidal waves of change in D.C. “I don’t see a major change in the composition of Congress taking place. Republicans will probably retain the majority in the House. They may take the Senate but it will be close either way, with no filibuster-proof majority.”

Asked how the election might impact the HECM program, Thompson said he doesn’t predict much change on that end either. “I don’t believe that either party will want to tamper too much with a financial tool that is benefiting so many people who are simply accessing their own equity in tough economic times, especially one that is not costing the government any significant amount of money,” he said.

Whoever wins the election will have some serious issues to address, Thompson said. “Steps are going to have to be taken in order to save Social Security and Medicare, for example. Tax reform should also be high on their list,” he said. “The next administration is going to have to address the unsustainable fiscal mess we are in.”


TRR Talks to Fred:
How Might the Election Impact the HECM?

TRR:: Do you think support for the program could waver?
FT:: There’s a general push and pull between both parties when it comes to government support for the HECM program. But at the end of the day, I think both sides can agree that this is a product that not only helps bridge a gap for senior citizens, but also helps stimulate the economy. It allows the government to facilitate the private sector so that it can provide reverse mortgages for seniors who need them.

It is important to note that Republicans instinctively support programs that help people help themselves, and the HECM program fits right into that model. While many Republicans may not want the HECM program to be 100 percent government-backed, they do recognize that the program is one of the best public/private solutions out there when it comes to addressing America’s eminent aging crisis. When Republicans understand that the HECM is essentially a private-enterprise solution, albeit a government-backed one, and that it is a vital financial tool in our nation’s arsenal to address a large public policy challenge, they tend to support it. Politicians on both sides of the aisle recognize that with more than 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day, our country needs more solutions to help seniors, not fewer.

TRR:: Since it was granted oversight of the program, the CFPB has left many concerned about over-regulation. Do you see this as a potential problem?
FT:: There’s always a risk of stifling the market with over-regulation. We need a healthy, thriving market because it gives rise to competition and generates more options for the consumer. Ultimately, a much larger HECM industry could reduce

the degree to which the government needs to support the program.

As a result of the financial crisis, the pendulum has predictably swung a bit too far in terms of regulation, in my opinion. If you effectively reform Fannie and Freddie incrementally with proper controls in place, you won’t need to over-regulate. It is possible to protect the consumer and the markets at the same time. I hope the next administration finds this balance.

TRR:: How might the election impact counseling funds?
FT:: Counseling is essential in certain subsets of the lending market, and I think both parties should agree that funding must be maintained. It is imperative that our seniors receive the counseling they need for this product and that they understand all aspects of a reverse mortgage before entering into a loan.

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