Fred Thompson’s Lobbying and Credibility, Redux

Several commenters and other bloggers have taken issue with my characterization of Fred Thompson’s denials of lobbying for a pro-abortion as “lying.” They think it’s a little harsh given the state of the facts and that I don’t know Thompson’s state of mind.

The crux of the problem, for me, is this passage in Michael Finnegan’s LAT piece which broke the story:

Thompson spokesman Mark Corallo adamantly denied that Thompson worked for the family planning group. “Fred Thompson did not lobby for this group, period,” he said in an e-mail.

In a telephone interview, he added: “There’s no documents to prove it, there’s no billing records, and Thompson says he has no recollection of it, says it didn’t happen.”

At least three of those four assertions, we now know, were untrue:

  • Thompson did in fact work for the group and billed nearly 20 hours, 3.3 of which for “lobbying”
  • There are documents that prove it
  • There are billing records

The fourth assertion, “Thompson says he has no recollection of it,” is a bit more difficult to parse. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on what the meaning of “it” is. If “it” means working for Judith DeSarno and the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, with whom he had 22 phone conversations after which he filed paperwork to bill them, I simply don’t believe him. Sure, 1992 was a long time ago and people forget things. But 22 conversations? That it was a pro-abortion group? Uh uh.

Now, if “it” means lobbying John Sununu on behalf of the group, then it’s quite possible that Thompson was telling the truth. Sununu has denied being lobbied and we have no reason to doubt his integrity on this issue.

I’ve discussed this matter with someone close to the Thompson campaign and that’s their angle. Essentially, they say,

  • Thompson was acting as a legal adviser rather than a lobbyist
  • Thompson’s conversations with DeSarno were mostly administrative in nature — asking questions to form the basis for doing research and so forth — and his role was mostly to give advice on how Republicans would view certain arguments
  • Thompson’s 3.3 hours of “speaking to officials” did not amount to “lobbying” and even the NYT admits “the records . . . do not specify which officials he met with or what was said”

Bill Dyer, a seasoned attorney familiar with billing practices and the ins-and-outs of law firms, strenuously objects in my comments section to my calling these misstatements “lies,” and then follows up at BeldarBlog with his customary thorough treatment of the matter.

Much of it amounts, essentially, to the Scooter Libby Defense: Fred Thompson was a busy man, the matter in question was incredibly insignificant compared to the other things on his plate at the time, and it was a long time ago. As with Libby, I’m actually rather sympathetic to that argument. In this case, though, I keep coming back to 22 conversations with the woman whose charges he was denying. It’s hard for me to swallow that, even 15 years later, Thompson wouldn’t have at least some fuzzy recollection, much less that he’d send a spokesman out to issue a vehement, categorical denial.

Still, Dyer reminds us that, at the time in question, Thompson was neither a particularly prominent actor nor a major political figure. He hadn’t yet been elected to public office. Therefore, “as someone with more information than clout, it makes perfect sense that the vast majority of the time Thompson billed to this matter was not for lobbying, but for other consultation — most likely meaning, here, client education.” That fits in with the campaign’s spin on this and, frankly, strikes me as quite plausible.

(Bill also makes a longish defense of lobbying in general as an honorable enterprise and making the case that one can lobby on behalf of a group with which one disagrees and still be a decent human being. On those points, we agree fully; indeed, I’ve taken that stance from the beginning of this controversy.)

Here’s the rub, though: Thompson didn’t send his spokesman out to defend the work he did for DeSarno and reconcile it with his positions on abortion. Nor did he say that, yes, he worked for DeSarno’s group but only as an attorney, not a lobbyist. Nor did he limit his denials to lobbying Sununu; he disavowed any knowledge of having worked for the group at all.

At best, we come down to Thompson being exactly as honest as Bill Clinton was during the Lewinsky affair. Clinton truthfully answered that there “is” no relationship because “is” implies present tense and, clearly, Lewinsky was not in the room doing that thing for which she is best known. In his mind, Clinton truthfully was not having “sexual relations” with that woman (Ms. Lewinsky) because, after all, oral sex is not sex to his way of thinking.

Does this incident disqualify Fred Thompson from the presidency? Probably not. If having been completely honest at all times is an absolute barrier to entry, we could almost certainly eliminate the entire field from consideration. As the philosopher-poet Erik Schrody once noted,

I’ve seen a rich man beg
I’ve seen a good man sin
I’ve seen a tough man cry
I’ve seen a loser win
And a sad man grin
I heard an honest man lie

Still, we should be honest with ourselves about identifying dishonesty.



FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Blogosphere, The Presidency, Uncategorized, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Alex Knapp says:

    But… but… Fred Thompson is manly! And uses folksy quips! So obviously he’s not a normal politician! Therefore, reality must be wrong!

  2. Milhouse says:

    If he had 22 conversations in less than 16 billed hours, they can’t have been very long ones. And I’ve spent more than 20 hours on projects, more recently than 15 years ago, and when asked about the subject not had any recollection of it. I’ve looked at programs and wondered who the $#*& wrote them and what they were thinking, and then noticed my name in the comments. Just recently I went into a program to fix a bug and found that I’d already fixed it several months ago; I’d completely forgotten.

    And that’s my own recollection; now imagine if I were to have a spokesman, who has no personal knowledge of what I did 15 years ago, and has to rely on asking me quick questions between my other engagements, he might very well categorically deny that I did anything of the sort.

  3. Triumph says:

    In this case, though, I keep coming back to 22 conversations with the woman whose charges he was denying. It’s hard for me to swallow that, even 15 years later, Thompson wouldn’t have at least some fuzzy recollection, much less that he’d send a spokesman out to issue a vehement, categorical denial.

    One important point that gets lost in this discussion is that Fred Thompson is well known as a ladies man. For someone aggressively playing the field like Fred, he probably had thousands of conversations with broads.

    While current pics of Desarno suggest that she has the typical feminist look, it is entirely possible that she was a half-way decent looking bird back in ’92.

    Like any good player, Fred was probably up for the challenge of conquest vis a vis a lady with repugnant political views and used the multiple conversations to soften her up.

    When he finally realized that she was feminist, through and through, he dropped her like a hot potato and moved on to concentrate on some other dames.

    This makes it pretty likely that he could forget her. Players are just LIKE THAT.

  4. Reg says:

    “I keep coming back to 22 conversations with the woman whose charges he was denying.”

    You aren’t being fair. 22 phone calls is nothing. The guy probably made 50 phone calls a week. I’ve been a lawyer for 2 years, and I can’t recall anything about some of the projects I spent 2 weeks on without going back to look at the files.

  5. A little thought experiment for professionals.

    Think back to what you were doing professionally ten years ago. (I’ll make it easy)

    Now name all your co-workers from that time.

    Now name your customers.

    Now name your co-workers’ customers who you may have helped out with.



  6. Grewgills says:


    A multiple choice quiz for you. Someone claims that you did something ten years ago that might be embarrassing. It would be a simple matter for you to check whether or not the allegation is true or not. Do you a) categorically deny the incident ever took place without first checking, b) assassinate the character of the person making the accusation, c) check the veracity of the statement and respond accordingly, or d) ignore it.

    To my mind two of these choices are honest and the other two are not.

  7. just me says:

    Although I am not so sure it was a “simple matter” of checking.

    He hasn’t practiced law at that firm since he left? Where did his cases go? Where do they store cases from 10/15 years ago in large lawfirms?

    Also, 22 hours really isn’t that much. I worked social services in the early 90’s, and while I can recall some of the major crisis families I worked with, I really couldn’t tell you anything about half the kids that were on my caseload-now one of those kids could say I did X, Y, and Z, but I can honestly say I probably wouldn’t recall any of it, and I wouldn’t have an easy way to access paperwork to say exactly what I did. I may not even recall having a certain kid on my case load.

    22 hours over 15 months works out to less than two hours a month spent on this stuff-that really isn’t much work at all.

  8. JadeGold says:

    It’s pretty amusing watching the rightwing twist themselves into pretzels to pretend this story doesn’t damage Thompson.

    The fact is the Thompson campaign lied and is now engaging in damage control. The latest spin is to claim Thompson was merely providing legal advice. Even the staunchest GOPer surely must have difficulty with this line of defense. Thompson’s value as a lobbyist is and was to provide access. A group hires Fred Thompson not for his legal acumen but for the fact he can get his phone calls to senior GOP officeholders returned. If you want legal advice, you could get far better legal expertise, far less expensive.

    Other spin is that Thompson’s lobbying on behalf of the pro-choice group was ‘only’ about 20 hours. Once more, Thompson was hired to furnish access–not to devlop some complex legal analysis.

    As to the “no recollection”–this seems to be the new GOP mantra. It is deeply unlikely Fred Thompson doesn’t recollect; after all, a lawyer or a lobbyist will maintain a list of his or her clients (and the nature of the work) as part of his or her resume/corporate experience. Certainly Arent Fox did and if Thompson were unsure, he could have easily checked. Instead, he chose to lie.