Naperville (IL) Sun
October 7, 2007
By SUSAN FRICK CARLMAN, Staff Writer
Naperville-raised Jeri Thompson is GOP hopeful's biggest cheerleader
Recent months have seen Jeri Thompson painted a variety of ways in the press, from doting mom to trophy wife. She says she knew that would happen, but because she has granted few interviews, it can be hard to tell who she really is.
The Sun had an exclusive opportunity to get to know the 41-year-old Naperville native a little better one afternoon last week. She sat down to talk before attending a major Chicago fundraiser for her husband, Fred Thompson, 65. The recently declared presidential candidate is giving frontrunner Rudy Giuliani some tough competition to lead the Republican ticket next fall.
When she was known as Jeri Kehn, the candidate's wife lived in one of Naperville's downtown neighborhoods, off Mill Street, with her mom and stepdad, Vicki and Ron Keller. She made her way through District 203, attending Naper School, then Washington Junior High and Naperville North High School, graduating in 1984.
She studied English at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., and after graduating, worked as a media consultant and Republican political strategist in Washington, D.C. She met her husband in the supermarket in July 1996, after their paths crossed in the checkout line.
The Thompsons were married in July 2002 at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Naperville, a few months before Fred stepped down after two terms in the U.S. Senate and launched his tenure portraying District Attorney Arthur Branch on the television crime drama "Law and Order."
The couple live near Washington in McLean, Va., with their two children: Hayden, who just turned 4, and Sammy, who's not yet 1.
Q: Where did you hang out when you were a teenager?
A: Well, I was pretty involved in school. I was a Starlette. That's probably not a cool thing to say now. Who knows what's cool, then and now? I don't really know. But I was a Starlette, and that was every day after school, so there really wasn't any hanging out. My parents were pretty strict ... about going out and stuff. But games were Friday nights. We had football and basketball. We performed at almost every game. I loved movies, and Ogden 6 (Theatres) used to be there. But I remember lots of intense times with those girls, more than anything.
Q: And from your earlier years?
A: I was in Girl Scouts and Brownies and church. My mom still is the organist, and we did a whole lot of music programs there. Though I cannot sing a note, I was in cherub (choir) and all the way up.
When I grew up, kids didn't have computers. We had a park across the street, so playing out there was just a normal thing that kids just don't seem to do now. I find it very odd to get in the car to drive my child to a play date. There wasn't the concept of a play date when I grew up. I do really feel a disconnect on that sort of thing.
I really don't remember anything that structured - except for the Brownies and Girl Scouts. And the park district. My mom was a huge park district fan, so we did those sorts of activities ...
I went to Naper School, and I still love to go back there. In fact, when Fred and I got married, we took him on a tour, and we went to Naper School. I remember Mayor Pradel when he was the beat cop, when he was Officer Friendly at the school.
(I have) a lot of knowledge about Naperville - and in here (hands over her heart), too. I remember we walked to school - remember that, when kids walked to school? I remember Oswald's Drug Store. When I go downtown now, I really have to look around. It really does look different.
Q: How often to you get back to town?
A: Now that we have kids, we're pretty good about it. We switch back and forth on the holidays.
Q: Do you feel more like a Southerner or a Midwesterner these days?
A: A Midwesterner, no doubt about it. But Midwesterners and Southerners have a lot in common, and once you travel to other parts of the country, you can definitely see regional flavors and flair for different things in different ways. But you can always tell a Midwesterner. There's something that's there - a lack of pretense that I think some other folks find either alarming or refreshing, I'm not quite sure which.
Q: It's safe to say your daily routine isn't what it was a couple of months ago. How are you balancing home life and being mommy to small children with the intensity of presidential campaigning?
A: It's shockingly not unlike normal life with small kids. I still wake up in the morning, and hope to get dressed and showered before I get the kids to school. Sometimes that doesn't always happen. I still try to get the e-mails done, either late at night or early in the morning. Often times Sammy's on my lap and there's still syrup on the table at 11:30 and I look up and where's the morning gone? It amazingly is not that different. There's more to do, I feel more guilty at the end of the day that I didn't do all the things I was supposed to do. It's not that different. It's just more.
Q: From what I've read, it's not unusual for you and Sammy to be up at 3 in the morning. Are you able to make good use of that wakeful time?
A: He has seven teeth now. If we can be proud that he has the seven teeth, then I can be OK that I have four more circles under my eyes than I used to ... It's Sammy and Mommy time, which is nice, because Hayden, at 4, is not all that thrilled. Surprisingly, we didn't have that problem at the beginning, when we first had Sammy. We had a lot of female friends who helped me and brought her gifts and gave a lot of good advice. Now I'm finding the minute she feels a close moment, she will jump right to me. So 3 o'clock's OK. But he's getting better. The bigger that he is, there's more of a schedule, and that helps, with either one of them.
Q: OK, back to the campaign trail. What do you find most admirable about your husband when you look at him as a prospective leader of the free world?
A: That's actually very easy to answer: his integrity. He is someone who you want to be in the ditch with, who you would want in your foxhole. He is the one who most people that I know, who know him, they would choose him. He's the one who makes you feel comfortable. He's had ex-girlfriends say, "I would feel better knowing Fred Thompson was president." That is a pretty amazing thing, to have so many people who have known him throughout his life feel the same.
I can honestly say that every day I'm with him, I learn something about him that I didn't know before. Now, it's only been five years. People who've been married 30 might laugh at me and say, "Haha, you're newlyweds." He has an amazing strength, and it's not something that he wears on his sleeve. It's not a bravado, that he feels he needs to say, "I'm the most passionate" - whatever it is that people in Washington think you're supposed to be. He doesn't feel like you have to do that. He is his own man, and it's a beautiful thing to be around, in a town where sometimes that's hard to find.
Q: In your interview last month with the Tennessean, you mentioned your mom and grandmother being hurt by some of the ugly aspects of political life. Was that a reference to the negative press?
A: Oh sure, yeah ... I think you do get a little bit used to it, because you understand if folks think that you're a threat - either they're running, or if you're changing a system that they're not comfortable with you changing the rules with - they're going to go after whatever they think might hurt him. We knew going in that they were going to do whatever they could to throw the kitchen sink at him, to try to get him off his game. It just strengthens your resolve for what's really important. I've said before that I have a very strong and firm belief that there's a whole lot of things we're not talking about in this country that we ought to. I've got a lot of friends that have sons and daughters in Iraq - second, third, fourth trips, some of them - and that's what's important. That's what we should be talking about. This stuff ... (Fred) used to say the flies get bigger in the summer, and I think that sums it up.
Q: Back in July, the New York Times noted that "trophy wife" isn't really a slur, since it describes someone who made a name for herself before she was given that label. But the same piece asked rhetorically whether traditionally conservative voters are likely to embrace a 60-something candidate with a pretty wife 24 years his junior. What are your thoughts about all the attention that's being given to that?
A: I think conservative voters will vote for the conservative candidate, which he is.
Q: What I'm hearing you say is you'd rather people talk about things that are more important than a trophy wife.
A: Well, it's a rhetorical question, so I'll answer rhetorically. And in light of that, I have spent quite a few years on very conservative issues. I worked with the Republican National Committee, I worked for Sen. (Connie) Mack in Florida, in a communications capacity. I really believe in the things that Fred stands for. I believe in America. I believe in smaller government. I believe in less taxes. If that's not what people want to hear from Fred, they probably won't want to hear it from me, either.
Q: Your professional background, as you just mentioned, enables you to bring some valuable expertise to the campaign. Depending on what one reads, your role so far has been everything from silently supportive spouse to manipulative mastermind. What's the truth?
A: I think the story would be if I was not supportive of my husband. This is a man who was, at the time we started thinking about this, filling in for one of Chicago's institutions, an icon, Paul Harvey. He was in New York a day and a half, at least, a week shooting "Law and Order." And he was writing commentary every day. To not ask your wife - who has some sense of something about who he is and what he is saying, to help him transition - the story would be why isn't she helping, not what is she doing to hurt him? The strength and energy that any spouse brings to the relationship I think is a healthy and a positive thing. I think most marriages ask for that sort of thing. It is really amazing to me that this is something that people think is bad.
Q: As you know, for several months now the polls have shown only Giuliani running ahead of Fred, and current Rasmussen numbers have Fred in front. Now there are indications that the religious conservative arm of the party will be launching a pretty concerted effort to prevent a Giuliani nomination, in large part based on his liberal stance on social issues, including abortion. Given that a highly controversial Planned Parenthood clinic just opened this week very close to Naperville, what is your position on that issue?
A: There is another quote that you might have heard about me, and that is that there is no space between Fred and me on policy issues. I think that's probably one of the reasons that we get along so well, and probably some of the reason that people are uncomfortable. Fred is 100 percent in his voting on that issue, he's very clear where he stands, and I am 100 percent in agreement with him.
Q: Have you given a whole lot of thought at this point to what it would be like to be first lady?
A: I have not. I almost feel it's slightly presumptuous. In a strange sort of way, I think there's a point where you look at it, and I haven't gotten there. I am lucky to get those kids (packed) with 22 outfits for spending six days on the road. It's a little daunting, and I haven't gotten that far - except I know I would never let go of the things that always mattered to me, that brought me to Washington in the first place, and that is those first principles that Fred talks about so readily. And also I think there are some things that the press needs to do a little bit better, like (covering) the treatment of women in Iran, things like that. We're very concerned about what certain women wear and how their hair looks and whether something's appropriate on the Senate floor, and I think that's hogwash. There's a whole lot of things that really matter, and shouldn't we be spending our time doing something else? And if the president and first lady cannot be the ones to guide to conversation somewhere better, then who?
(The presidential primary will take place in Illinois on Feb. 5, 2008.)
A bit bitter that Fred dumped on NH by not living there for the last 6 months, eh?????
What an awesome woman.