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Ex-senator, actor Fred Thompson dies at age 73
01:32 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist, is the founder of Purple Strategies and Follow him on Twitter @alexcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

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Alex Castellanos: Former Sen. Fred Thompson, who was buried on Friday, is a big loss for the nation

What I learned from Fred is a lesson beyond today's petty politics: In our short time on Earth, we ought to live joyously

CNN  — 

When Tennessee Republican Fred Thompson wanted to retire from the U.S. Senate in 2002, after being elected and re-elected to “America’s Most Exclusive Club,” I did my best to talk him out of it.

I reminded him that there were only 99 other members and more than a few people coveted the job from which he would be walking away. He was one of the few senators with a strong, national voice, I noted, and the country’s problems didn’t appear to be diminishing.

“You have to run again,” I urged him, but I had no counter to his response. With his big, tsunami of a voice, he explained he couldn’t remain part of the dysfunction in Washington. He said, “Alex, I’m afraid that if I run again, I might win.”

Fred Thompson was buried on Friday. The nation lost one of our best and brightest and our biggest.

Alex Castellanos

Others will comment on his many careers; the law, Watergate, Hollywood, and the U.S. Senate, among them. What I learned from Fred is a lesson beyond today’s cheerless and petty politics: In the wisp of time we are given on Earth, we ought to live joyously and big.

There was nothing small about Fred Thompson, not his voice, nor his love for his family or his country. He was a big man who lived consequentially.

Many times we would sit on the porch of my house, the “drinking porch,” we would call it, and save cigars from communism. In this effort, we considered ourselves an altruistic organization, somewhat like the Red Cross. We gathered with our kids, too, many Thanksgivings, to solve problems the world hadn’t gotten to yet.

Small challenges did not occupy his thoughts. He cared about freedom and how we were losing it under a President he pegged as “George McGovern, without the experience.” He talked about leadership and the humility it required, and how we might remember that we had a Constitution. He talked about how we had made politics even pettier, “just when we thought we couldn’t drag it any lower than it already is.” Through it all, Fred Thompson never doubted the resilience of the American people and their ability to do extraordinary things.

Perhaps that’s why so many of us, from all walks of life, loved him. Fred Thompson understood that when our lives are about things that matter, loving our families and friends, our country and our freedom, it unites us to do great things together. When our concerns become selfish and trivial, we become petty, too, and there is no way to litigate our differences.

It was shameful to be small around Fred Thompson. You wanted to be as big as he thought all Americans could be.

One day, during his first campaign for the Senate, we were standing outside a restaurant. Fred was frustrated. They had him campaigning in a small, windowless van, loaded with mobile phones and the whiz-bang technology of the moment, fax machines. All he did was make fundraising calls. Fred Thompson hated every second of it.

At that moment, in an act of providence, a red pickup truck drove by right in front of us. We stood in silence. Fred said, “That’s what I want to campaign in.”

“Well,” I said, “Why don’t you?” In one of the first campaigns to capture America’s populist renewal, Fred Thompson drove that pickup truck all the way to Washington. There was nothing inauthentic about him. He was us, just bigger and more powerful. In movies and TV, he always played Fred Thompson. That’s why we trusted him in life and on the screen.

One of the last nights before he went to hospice, we spent alone in his hospital room in Nashville. It was a long time before dawn, and cigars and strong drink were only memories.

The fog of the cancer that was taking him, and the medicines that provided mild relief, both imprisoned his thoughts. The frustration of that big, bright mind, fighting to break through and express his thoughts with the clarity and power with which he was accustomed, was evident. Nevertheless, he persevered.

I urged him to relax and tried to make him comfortable. Before the fog engulfed him again, with the only tear I saw that night, he summed up his thoughts: “I have only a few more days with my wife and my kids.” In his clearer moments, he wanted his children, Hayden and Sammy, and his wonderful wife, Jeri, to know he was thinking only of them.

Later the next morning, I returned to his hospital room, after a shave and a hot shower at my hotel. Fred’s room was packed with joy. His friends and children, Tony and Dan, his grandson, Dalton, his lifelong companion and assistant, Bobbie, as well as his wife, Jeri, had packed the place to the seams. As I walked in, Fred whipped his head around, stared me in the eye, and said, “Never surrender!” I recalled our conversation a few hours earlier. Then he broke out in that big Fred Thompson smile, and we all laughed. Surrender, he never did.

When he was a young, rambunctious teenager, as opposed to the old, rambunctious father and grandfather he would become, Fred played high-school football.

One day, I’m told, he was injured during a play on the field. They stopped the game, and the coach ran out to ask, “Fred, are you all right?” Fred said he was just fine. Then, flashing that big Fred Thompson grin, he asked, “But how are the fans taking it?”

The fans are hurting today, Fred. We are comforted that you will find heaven familiar because you are from Tennessee, but in the bottom of our hearts, there is a little pool of tears.

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