Former Staffer Gregory Gleaves Recalls Ride of His Life as Late Fred Thompson’s Drive
Direct Edge Founder Greg Gleaves Pays Tribute to Fred Thompson (As published in the Nashville Scene)
Rolling With Big Fred
by Greg Gleaves
November 5, 2015
Watergate prosecutor. Movie star. Senator.
To me, Fred Dalton Thompson, who died Sunday at age 73 after a life you couldn’t make up, was “Boss.”
I was 23 and full of idealism. Back then all I knew was that I was a die-hard Republican and wanted to work in politics. I had moved to Washington, D.C., eight months prior with no car. Suddenly I was hired by my home state’s senator to be his driver.
There is something special about working for your home-state senator or congressman on Capitol Hill, but for me it went beyond that. My mom and aunts grew up with Fred Thompson in Lawrenceburg. His father, Fletcher, worked at my granddad’s car lot, Caperton Chevrolet. This is a man I’d heard about my whole life, not to mention seen in movies like Days of Thunder, The Hunt for Red October and Cape Fear.
Being a U.S. senator’s driver and being without a car was clearly not going to work. I flew home to Nashville, drove my car up and spent the weekend frantically trying to learn the D.C. road system. My first driving experience with him was awkward, to say the least. He gets in the car and doesn’t say a word. I drive him from the Capitol to his apartment on Pennsylvania Avenue while he reads the newspaper I had waiting for him. Not a single word is spoken the whole time, until he gets out and says, “Thank you.”
One thing I realized quickly about the Senator was that despite being a politician, a movie star and great on camera, he was an introvert. It took a while for him to open up. Staffers who had worked for him a year would ask, “What’s he really like?” At that point I’d only been driving him for a couple of weeks. Not a lot of small talk at first. But we went from riding silently to singing Hank Jr. loudly on the way to the airport.
I’ve had some cool jobs: chief of staff to the Tennessee House of Representatives, executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party, now president of my own political consulting company. But I learned more about politics and life in general being Fred Thompson’s driver than anything I’ve done since. When talking about my career once, I was bemoaning my lack of a clear direction. He responded, “Hell, I’m almost 60 and I still don’t know what I wanna be when I grow up.” That’s one thing I learned from him: Life is a journey.
I have so many favorite memories. We drove past the Department of Justice one time and I said, “I wonder what Janet Reno’s doing in there right now?” He deadpanned, “Hopefully not a thing.”
I was driving him before 9/11, so you could still get to the airport just right before the flight. He didn’t care if I sped, and we were running really late one day that he absolutely had to make a flight back to Nashville. I started speeding and swerving like crazy — running red lights, breaking all kinds of laws. He just sat there and read his paper, didn’t look up from it the whole time. When we arrived, he just got out and said with a smirk, “Well done.”
The car I drove was a green ’93 Honda Accord two-door. Whenever Big Fred would get in, he would sit down, pull one leg in, and then have to pull the other one in because he was so tall. Never once did he complain. Also, never once did he let me carry his bag or open his door for him.
Talking about an invaluable staffer who was annoying him at the moment, I sarcastically asked, “Boss, what would you ever do without her?” His response was classic: “I really don’t know, but sometimes I’d sure like to see.”
I once had to pick him up at the annual House-Senate Dinner. The problem was, my car didn’t quite fit in. There was a parade of black town cars … and my old green Honda. I was feeling a little self-conscious about it — until Big Fred got in. “I’m so glad you drive this car,” he said, “otherwise I’d never be able to find you.”
I drove him for months before I told him about my Lawrenceburg ties. When I told him my grandfather was Lucien Caperton, he lit up. “That man is the main reason I became a Republican,” he said. My aunt later gave me a letter Big Fred had written during the Watergate hearings to my grandfather when he was on his deathbed. The letter said the exact same thing. It was just so special to me that my grandfather, who died when I was 1, had such an influence on this larger-than-life figure.
And his laugh. Oh, that big booming laugh. So loud. So contagious.
He didn’t really care for politics. And in a way, isn’t that a good thing? He didn’t have much fire in the belly for electoral politics, as was obvious in his 2008 presidential run. But that’s because he was a statesman, not a retail politician. He did something that few politicians do: He walked away from a U.S. Senate seat after eight years.
What a life he lived. What a journey. He asked the question that brought down the Nixon White House. He helped expose Tennessee Gov. Ray Blanton’s prison pardon scheme. He helped turn Tennessee red in 1994 with his come-from-behind landslide. And he made his mark in D.C., not just by the policies he espoused, but also by the people whose lives he touched.
Greg Gleaves is president of Direct Edge Campaigns, a Republican direct mail and political consulting company.