It is not every day that Chautauqua draws from national political headliners for a member of its governing board of trustees, but it has happened this year.
New trustee Larry Thompson of Atlanta has certainly experienced the phenomenon of being a newsmaker. He was frequently in the news in Atlanta, Washington and New York, mainly as the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, Deputy attorney General under President George W. Bush and more recently as vice president and chief corporate counsel for Pepsi Co. He counts among career advisers and mentors former Carter administration attorney general Griffin Bell and U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas.
Thompson and his wife Brenda first came to Chautauqua 12 years ago when he spoke from the podium at the Amphitheater, and they have been returning regularly in the years since. They now own a home in the central section of the Institution. Theirs is a quintessential American success story.
As they shared that story, we sat comfortably on their wide screened porch surrounded by trees and bushes. Though pedestrians, bicyclists and occasional vehicles moved on nearby streets, the feeling was distinctly pastoral. Brenda was in and out of the conversation, and pulled away often as she continued preparations for another summer on the grounds.
Atlanta is home for you now, but where did you grow up?
I grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, a town of 18,000 people on the Mississippi river 100 miles northwest of St. Louis. My father worked on the railroad. Neither my father nor my mother graduated from high school, but they were very good parents. I never thought there was anything I could not achieve. My parents instilled in us the belief that, No. 1, we lived in a great country. They were very patriotic. They were proud to be Americans, notwithstanding that I grew up in a very segregated society.
I went to an all-black school for eight years. I didn’t know that I was technically an academically disadvantaged person until I went to college. I learned that when I took a sociology class in my sophomore year in college. Where I grew up, in Hannibal, there were only about 1,000 white people. It was a good town. There were many good people there. For example, my father, given his work on the railroad, was laid off from time to time. When that happened, local doctors would give him work cleaning their offices. The local junior college would hire my mom as a cook. The town was generally supportive not only of me but of my family.
You mentioned not feeling academically disadvantaged in your early school years. I assume much of that came from your parents and their values. Were there other factors?
My teachers were a big part of that, too. At my all-black school, we were taught that we could achieve anything. We would have to work hard, and there would be no excuses. I remember I was in a spelling bee. There were four junior high schools in Hannibal, and this competition drew from all of them. One year I came in second overall. The person who won happened to be a white student.
My teachers, instead of congratulating me on coming in second, castigated me because I didn’t work and study hard enough. There were no excuses. You had to be the very best if you were going to make it in this world.
I got my Bachelor of Arts degree from Culver-Stockton College, which was run by the Disciples of Christ as a Christian college. It was about 40 miles from home, and I won both academic and athletic scholarships there. I played football. I wasn’t big or talented enough to play at the University of Missouri. I played linebacker.
Did you call the defensive signals?
Yes, I did. I learned a lot from playing football, about the importance of teamwork. And most important, I had to be aware of my limits. I wasn’t the biggest or strongest person on the field, but you had to be able to play to be effective. There were running backs who were faster than I was, so I had to figure out what angle to take to tackle them. And so on.
You were in college during the Vietnam War. How did that affect your choices?
I had been planning on a career in social work. My college was a small school, with less than a thousand students. The professors got to know us. During my junior year, a history professor suggested I think about the law as a career. I remember he didn’t make a value judgment, just a suggestion.
I got my Bachelor of Arts in 1967. We were in the midst of the Vietnam War, and I was a very angry young man. I didn’t oppose the war necessarily on philosophical grounds. I was angry because we were being asked to give our lives in a fight we weren’t even going all out to win. Those were rebellious times for me. While I was in college, I won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study at Columbia University, but after visiting the campus in New York City, I didn’t think that was right for me. The area around the university had been scarred by recent riots.
Back at college, I saw a notice on a bulletin board at Culver-Stockton touting National Science Foundation fellowships in sociology at Michigan State. I visited the campus; it was a beautiful, pastoral place, and I decided to go there. There were deferments from the draft for teaching assistants, though not at that time for law school. There were more than 50,000 students on campus then, 50 years ago. And I met my wife there.
How did you two meet?
Well, she was studying psychology, I was studying sociology, and we lived in the graduate dorm. I had seen her in the cafeteria. One day I came up to her and introduced myself and asked her name. She said Brenda. I said, “I have a sister by the name of Brenda.” That is true, but she kind of rolled her eyes as if to say, “Can’t you do any better than that?” But it worked out pretty well.
Where did your wife grow up?
Brenda is from Salisbury, North Carolina, also a long way from home. She had attended North Carolina Central University, a predominantly black university in Durham. The University of North Carolina didn’t want her at the time because she was black.
(At intervals in our conversation, Brenda Thompson said she continued her psychology studies at Michigan State and, while the couple was living in St. Louis, completed her Doctor of Philosophy in psychology at St. Louis University. She subsequently taught at Morehouse College in Atlanta and elsewhere, and has played a primary role as the couple began accumulating an impressive collection of mostly African-American art.)
Tell me about the path to law school, Larry.
I had taken IR (industrial relations) courses at Michigan State. A professor suggested I might think about trying for a Doctor of Philosophy in industrial and labor relations. Maybe think about corporate relations. Through him I got a management position in HR at Ford Motor Company. I was to rotate through salary administration, labor relations and other areas. Then I would choose which of these areas I would pursue for a career. I did that. I worked in the Highland Park tractor plant, the oldest plant Ford had. It was in the inner city in Detroit. I was doing well, making good money.
I still thought about law school, though. I believed law had the potential to permit me to do a lot of good. I applied to some of the top Midwest schools: Michigan, University of Chicago, Washington University in St. Louis, Wisconsin, Minnesota. I got accepted into Michigan and enrolled there. Brenda was working at this time for the state of Michigan in vocational rehabilitation. After we were in Ann Arbor, she took a job in as a counselor in the school system there.
What came next?
I wanted to go back to St. Louis. There was an opening in the general counsel’s office at Monsanto there. This was in 1974. I had a lot of responsibility early on. I had corporate client responsibility. I wasn’t doing research in a library the way a lot of young lawyers do. I began to think I would want to be a litigator, and to move out of corporate law. At this time the largest Atlanta firm, King & Spalding, was representing Monsanto and, hearing of my interest in litigation, they offered me a job. Another young lawyer at Monsanto, from Georgia, told me I should go to Atlanta. It was a city on the move, he said, and I took his advice. That young lawyer was Clarence Thomas. At that time, St. Louis had about 2.5 million in the metro area; Atlanta had 2.4 million. Now, St. Louis is still at about 2.5; Atlanta metro counts 6 million people. Clarence was right.
When I joined King & Spalding in 1977, Jimmy Carter was president and Griffin Bell was the U.S. attorney general. But soon thereafter, Griffin returned to King & Spalding and we worked together. He was one of the wisest, savviest lawyers in the country. He was a lawyer as [attorney general], and independent of the president. He felt he served the entire government, not just the White House.
I was involved in politics as a young lawyer. I was involved in the campaign of Mack Mattingly in Georgia as he took on one of the Senate titans, Herman Talmadge. Talmadge’s divorce opened the door and Mac was victorious in a huge upset. This was in 1980.
So after the election I was about the only lawyer in this huge law firm who knew the new U.S. senator from the state of Georgia. After two other nominees backed out, Grifffin and others came to me and convinced me to take the U.S. attorney job for the Northern District of Georgia, encompassing 29 counties and the city of Atlanta. I thought Griffin was telling me I wasn’t going to make partner at King & Spalding. He was candid but reassuring. The official in the Reagan Justice Department in charge of picking U.S. attorney nominees was [future New York City major] Rudy Giuliani.
That’s a very good job for a 35-year-old.
It was a great job. There were lots of good attorneys on staff. I tried some cases, but the district workload was growing as the population did and there was a lot of management to do, also. We won one big drug case and the [attorney general], William French Smith, called to congratulate me when the staff and I were out celebrating. I said, ‘Mr. Attorney General, I have to tell you I am drunk.’ He said he expected nothing less, and go celebrate some more.
Back to King & Spalding then for a partnership, right?
Yes, that’s right. There followed 15 years of private practice, though I did a stint as a special counsel in a case involving a couple of cabinet secretaries including James Watt, the secretary of the interior. I had lots of corporate clients, representing mostly white collar defendants in government prosecutions.
Next stop was to Washington to be deputy attorney general under George W. Bush. How did that selection process go?
I got a call from Alberto Gonzales, who was then White House counsel. You know that the White House makes all the calls on senior cabinet and sub-cabinet officials. But I needed to meet [Attorney General] John Ashcroft, a former senator from Missouri, to make it formal. We got along fine and we’re still friends. I think he was good for the country, especially after 9/11. I was deputy [attorney general] from 2001 to 2003.
You almost became the nation’s first African-American attorney general.
Yes, this was in 2007. I had left Washington for a senior job with Pepsi in 2004, and you generally have to stay with a firm for five years for major benefits to vest. I had taken a 90 percent pay cut to go to D.C. in 2001 and I wanted to stay my five years at Pepsi. At that point I was in my 60s and needed that compensation. Not everything falls into place at the right time.
The newspapers weren’t done with you yet. There were rumors that you might get picked for the Supreme Court.
There was talk also about a Supreme Court nomination for me, at the time Justice [Samuel] Alito was picked, and I have to tell you, that one I would have taken, had it come my way. Senator Ted Kennedy called me during this period, and said he thought I should get the nomination. He asked if it would do me more good if he praised me or criticized me. I said, probably the latter, and he went right out and did just that! I still didn’t get the nomination. That’s the way it works sometimes in Washington.
What stands out from your time as deputy attorney general?
First and foremost, there was 9/11. It transformed the Justice Department’s role, almost literally overnight, from investigation and prosecution to prevention. That was a huge change, and we haven’t completed the process yet. Prevention bumps into civil liberties, and this raises really tough questions. We also had the corporate scandals, Enron and Adelphia and Worldcom. Half the FBI’s resources were being dedicated to counterterrorism and we had these huge white-collar crimes. Ashcroft was recused from most of these cases, so I was the [attorney general] on them. We brought a lot of those CEOs and CFOs to justice. Unfortunately, we haven’t had the same success in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009.
Trace your connection to Chautauqua.
A former law partner, Bill Goodell, [carried an invitation for] me to speak in the Amphitheater in 2004. I spoke about corporate fraud and the Enron prosecutions. I’d given that talk scores of times, all around the country, but after I spoke in the Amp, people were lining up for questions. I believe the man fielding and synthesizing the questions was [Chautauqua Institution President] Tom Becker. I was surprised at the number of people who were asking questions and their questions were really perceptive and well thought-out. They displayed a knowledge and sophistication that was unmatched anywhere else I spoke around the country. I said to Brenda, “This is an interesting place. We need to come back here.” And we have been returning since then. When I retired, we bought a home here.
[Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees Chairman James A. Pardo Jr.] is a friend and former law partner, and he and Mary have helped welcome us here. We started out staying at the Athenaeum Hotel, then gradually shifted to renting in the north end, and then bought this place. But in the end, Chautauqua is just a charming place. We’re glad we’re here.
(Photo by Sarah Holm.)