Wash. Post, CNN reported on Thompson's pickup truck without noting it was a leased campaign prop

››› ››› RYAN CHIACHIERE

An article in the Style section of the May 31 edition of the Washington Post described possible Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson as "the pickup-driving former senator and 'Law & Order' star," referring to the long-running television series in which Thompson stars and the red pickup truck he drove during his 1994 and 1996 Senate races. On the May 30 edition of CNN's American Morning, anchor John Roberts said of Thompson, "He'll be taking his red pickup truck, which has become synonymous with Fred Thompson, around on the campaign trail." But neither the Post nor Roberts noted that the pickup truck Thompson took on the road during his Senate campaigns was a prop leased by his campaign staff for the purpose of winning over Tennessee voters and, despite subsequently buying it, Thompson told a reporter through a spokesman that he left it in his mother's driveway "looking a little forlorn," with expired Senate license plates, once the races ended.

A March 18 article by The Tennessean of Nashville described the truck as "a colorful signature for [Thompson's] 1994 U.S. Senate campaign in Tennessee," and described Tom Ingram, who worked on Thompson's campaign, as "the political mastermind who had a hand in revamping Thompson's image by putting him behind the wheel of the truck." Also playing a role in obtaining the truck was Ron McMahan, "a GOP insider who worked on the campaign." According to the article, Ingram "sprinkled on some of his marketing pixie dust to make it work":

They decided it had to be a red truck because that would be photogenic: "Red made sense. We didn't want anything too flashy, so used made sense. We wanted something that was going to be roomy because there were going to be people with him from time to time, so we got a stretch cab."

But how do you magically produce a truck matching that exact description?

"I said, 'Before the sun sets, I can find you a red truck,' " McMahan said. "I made one phone call to a friend of mine who was the owner of Reeder Chevrolet in Knoxville."

The Tennessean article noted that "on Aug. 5, 1994" -- just three months prior to a special election for the Senate seat Al Gore vacated following his election as vice president -- "Senate candidate Fred Thompson parked his black Lincoln Continental and started driving" the truck. The article further noted that the truck was leased by the campaign, and while Thompson purchased it after the campaign, the Tennessean article quoted Thompson as saying, through a spokesman, that he doesn't drive it, and that it is "parked in my mother's driveway in Franklin, with expired U.S. Senate license plates on it, looking a little forlorn, but I have not had the heart to sell her."

Additionally, a 1996 article in the Washington Monthly by Michelle Cottle reported Thompson's preference for luxury sedans over pickup trucks:

Finishing his talk, Thompson shakes a few hands, then walks out with the rest of the crowd to the red pickup truck he made famous during his 1994 Senate campaign. My friend stands talking with her colleagues as the senator is driven away by a blond, all-American staffer. A few minutes later, my friend gets into her car to head home. As she pulls up to the stop sign at the parking lot exit, rolling up to the intersection is Senator Thompson, now behind the wheel of a sweet silver luxury sedan. He gives my friend a slight nod as he drives past. Turning onto the main road, my friend passes the school's small, side parking area. Lo and behold: There sits the abandoned red pickup, along with the all-American staffer.

An article by Noam Scheiber entitled "Pickup Artist," in the May 21 edition of The New Republic, speculated on the outcome of the 1994 race if the media had given a more accurate description of the red pickup's role in the campaign:

Republicans, according to him [The New Republic's Jonathan Chait], realized long ago that political reporters are much more interested in making vague characterological pronouncements than reporting on matters of policy, or even relating biographical details. The GOP has exploited this quirk by placing character at the center of its campaign strategy, surrounding its candidates with the right atmospherics and mounting personal attacks on their opponents. Democrats, by contrast, believed themselves to be on the right side of most issues, and so they never invested much in these efforts. Again, there is much to be said for this analysis: Had every story written about the 1994 Tennessee Senate race begun, "High-priced GOP lobbyist Fred Thompson, speaking from the red pickup truck he rented to shore up his populist credentials, announced yesterday that ..." the outcome of his campaign might have been different.

From the May 31 Washington Post article:

There's a moment in "Back to the Future" when Michael J. Fox's Marty McFly shows up at the home of Dr. Emmett Brown, whose DeLorean time machine has rocketed McFly from 1985 to 1955. Wary of McFly's story, Brown, played by Christopher Lloyd, says, "Tell me, Future Boy, who's president in the United States in 1985?"

When McFly responds, "Ronald Reagan," Brown goes on a rant.

"Ronald Reagan? The actor?" he screams as he tries to run away from McFly. "Then who's vice president? Jerry Lewis? I suppose Jane Wyman is the first lady! And Jack Benny, the secretary of the Treasury."

Finally, everyone's favorite whacked-out scientist says, "I've had enough practical jokes for one evening. Good night, Future Boy!"

Well, it's morning again in America. With Fred Thompson deciding to read for the part of Republican presidential nominee, we thought we'd see how the pickup-driving former senator and "Law & Order" star stacked up against others who used their SAG cards to gain political favor.

From the May 30 edition of CNN's American Morning:

ROBERTS: Hey, thank you very much. Forty-eight minutes after the hour, and some news just coming in to us here at CNN from our good friends over at the politico.com, specifically correspondent Mike Allen, who you know has been on American Morning many times, suggesting that Fred Thompson is going to throw his hat into the presidential ring on the Fourth of July.

According to Mike's article, which is out there in The Politico, he is going to form a testing-the-waters, or exploratory committee, on the fourth of June, which allows him to hire staff and raise money. He'll be taking his red pickup truck, which has become synonymous with Fred Thompson, around on the campaign trail, and then in Nashville, on the Fourth of July, make the announcement that he is throwing his hat into the ring on the Republican side of the equation. A lot of people looking to Fred Thompson as the only real conservative out there, and we'll see if he does that. Again, that news coming in from The Politico this morning.

From the March 18 Tennessean article:

Will Fred's old, red pickup ride again on presidential trail?

If Fred Thompson decides to run for president, it's hard to imagine him driving to the Iowa caucus in anything but his famed red Chevy pickup truck -- the vehicle that became a colorful signature for his 1994 U.S. Senate campaign in Tennessee.

But whatever happened to the truck?

"I haven't seen the truck since the end of the campaign," said Tom Ingram, the political mastermind who had a hand in revamping Thompson's image by putting him behind the wheel of the truck.

As campaign icons go, it was a humdinger.

"I don't know who came up with the original idea," said Ron McMahan, a GOP insider who worked on the Senate race. "The campaign had no fire in it. Fred was doing lawyerese stuff. It's been written that Ingram came up with it. It's been written that I did. I do not know whose idea it was."

Ingram recalls a meeting with Thompson at the Cracker Barrel restaurant in Cookeville: "He wasn't too happy with traditional campaigning. The conversation went something like this: I said, 'What would you do if you could do what you want to do?' He said, 'I'd go to my dad's used car lot (in Lawrenceburg) and get a truck and drive it across the state.' I said, 'Do it.' People thought he was crazy. It worked because it wasn't an unnatural or unreal thing for him to do."

Ingram sprinkled on some of his marketing pixie dust to make it work. They decided it had to be a red truck because that would be photogenic: "Red made sense. We didn't want anything too flashy, so used made sense. We wanted something that was going to be roomy because there were going to be people with him from time to time, so we got a stretch cab."

But how do you magically produce a truck matching that exact description?

"I said, 'Before the sun sets, I can find you a red truck,' " McMahan said. "I made one phone call to a friend of mine who was the owner of Reeder Chevrolet in Knoxville."

Campaign hit the road

And so it was that on Aug. 5, 1994, Senate candidate Fred Thompson parked his black Lincoln Continental and started driving a used 1990 cherry-red, extended cab Chevy pickup truck with four on the floor and almost 200,000 miles on it. The campaign leased it for $500 a month.

With a package of Red Man chewing tobacco on the seat and country music blaring, Thompson drove from Mountain City to Memphis and back again.

He changed his sophisticated, educated lawyerly look into a good ole boy. He packed 6 feet, 6 inches into jeans, cowboy boots and a work shirt and gave it a "how y'all?" at each stop. He sometimes delivered his "throw the bums out" stump speech from atop the truck bed.

It worked. People loved it and wanted their picture taken with the truck, so the campaign started carrying a Polaroid camera. They put a red truck on campaign buttons. Combined with Thompson's down-to-earth style and stage charisma, the truck became the perfect symbol for his campaign.

"That was a great truck," said Bob Davis Jr., Tennessee GOP chairman. "It was comfortable, too. It could take a little while to heat up sometimes."

So where did the truck end up?

Thompson grew so fond of it -- as he should because it left skid marks on his opponent -- he bought it for $5,000. He drove it to Washington for his swearing in and drove it across the state again for his next campaign.

But where is it now?

Through a spokesman, Thompson said it is "parked in my mother's driveway in Franklin, with expired U.S. Senate license plates on it, looking a little forlorn, but I have not had the heart to sell her."

With close to 300,000 miles on it and parts that don't work so hot, it would run in the presidential race with a high probability of breakdown. Not exactly the symbol Thompson needs this time around.

And so this could be the first run for the White House that has this unique, full-time staff position:

Official campaign mechanic.

Network/Outlet
The Washington Post, CNN
Show/Publication
American Morning
Stories/Interests
2008 Elections
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