Fred Thompson's Homespun Autobiography

Former Sen. Fred Thompson‘s Teaching the Pig to Dance: A Memoir of Growing Up and Second Chances is hardly the book to spark a political campaign.

It’s more homespun autobiography than political manifesto, filled with curious characters and tales of a young, irrepressible Thompson raising heck in his home town before becoming a senator and in-demand character actor.

The book’s lack of political red meat is what makes Thompson such an appealing figure for many conservatives. He’s an actor without the usual vanity, a politician humble enough to understand when the people prefer another candidate.

And now he’s delivered a sweet, soulful tale that’s as much about his formative years as it is a love letter to his Tennessee roots.

Dance takes us to Lawrenceburg, Tenn., where a young Fred Thompson learned the joy of team sports, the value of elbow grease and the humility that comes with being a gangly teen.

The narrative skips around quite a bit, making the book feel like a meandering chat with an old friend.

Thompson is a lawyer by trade, but his folksy writing style is instantly endearing. He’s got plenty of tales to spin, and even more outrageous characters to share with us.

And all of the above meant the world to him, even if few folks have ever heard of his small town before.

“The people I knew and the experiences I had in that little town formed the prism through which I have viewed the world, and they shaped the way I have dealt with events throughout my life,” he writes.

The book officially starts with a humiliating defeat, the moment when Thompson’s presidential dreams were dashed—for the moment.

He quickly takes us back to Lawrenceburg circa the 1950s, describing his home town with a blend of affection and awe.

His father worked a variety of jobs and had a profound influence on his son—even though he always pulled the Democratic lever in the election booth back then.

Religion played an integral role in his youth. He calls himself a strict constructionist when it came to the Bible, but he also learned a political lesson or two from his blossoming faith.

Preachers who hung around too long tended to cling to their positions, and the notion of rotating out a new preacher every few years began to sound good to him. He considered theological term limits a precursor to the political variety.

His faith also taught him about the weakness in mankind—and the need for checks and balances to counteract it.

Thompson didn’t set out to have a side career in film, but events simply got in the way. One of his legal cases caught the attention of author Peter Maas, the mind behind Serpico and other books which later became feature films.

One happenstance led to another, and suddenly Thompson found himself acting alongside the likes of Paul Newman and Alec Baldwin.

“It’s like I opened the door to what I thought was the courthouse and walked into Disneyland,” he writes of his Hollywood days.

Then again, given all the characters he grew up with it doesn’t seem like a stretch he could inhabit any number of larger-than-life types on the big screen.

Readers will be hard pressed to find many unabashed talking points here, but the ones Thompson includes fit right into the bumpy narrative.

Consider the time he hit a rough patch in his campaign and wished he could just hop in his pick-up truck and meet the public the old fashioned way, like he would back in his home town.

He ended up doing just that, and the truck trip gave him a considerable boost.

His small-town upbringing also told him his prankster ways would eventually come back to haunt him. And then some.

“If you act like a jerk, the people you have offended will eventually get an opportunity to nail you—and often when it hurts the most,” he writes.

The most poignant chapters deal with his young marriage to his high school darling. They didn’t plan to have a child so soon, but their hurried nuptials forced Thompson to grow up fast. He also got to know and admire his new wife’s extended family.

They weren’t keen on the newest family member at first, but they gave Thompson a chance to prove himself and he did just that—eventually. And Thompson soon realized his ambitions for higher learning were more than he initially suspected.

Teaching the Pig to Dance is pure Thompson—avuncular and witty with a healthy heaping of reality thrown into the mix. It’s the kind of book that won’t feed a future political campaign, but it speaks volumes about the man behind the politician all the same.