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Jeri Rigged

No one thought Jeri Kehn could do it. Back in 2000, the dishy young Republican operative, then 33, had Washington wags atwitter over her high-profile quest to capture the famously footloose Fred Thompson. Divorced from his high school sweetheart in 1985, the senator and erstwhile actor, then 57, had become one of the hottest tickets in town. A deep- drawling, broad-shouldered six-and-half footer, Thompson had a devastating Southern charm, with a gilding of movie-star glamour. Country music bombshell Lorrie Morgan, cosmetics queen Georgette Mosbacher, conservative pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, and Time columnist Margaret Carlson were among Hollywood Fred's better-known, better-heeled paramours.

Kehn (pronounced "keen"), by contrast, was neither rich nor famous. A Midwestern gal of modest means, she had met the older, more established Thompson on July 4, 1996, in a Kroger check-out line in Nashville. Two years later, she moved to Washington to try her hand at political work and to pursue their relationship. But, while Kehn impressed Beltway types with her quick grasp of their culture, few gave her much chance of realizing her romantic aims. Thompson had never been known as a one-woman man--not even during his early, still-married days as a fledgling lobbyist living alone in Washington while his first wife, Sarah, raised their three kids back in Nashville. One of Fred's old flames from his pre-divorce era recalls with a laugh that she was not Thompson's only paramour at the time of their involvement and observes that good ol' Fred (with whom she stayed friendly post-romance) has always been something of a Clintonesque bad boy with the ladies. Once he and Sarah split, Thompson's romantic life approached the status of Washington legend. As he chuckled to Hill Republicans earlier this year, "I was single for a long time, and, yep, I chased a lot of women. And a lot of women chased me. And those that chased me tended to catch me." The swinging senator was considered unlikely to settle down again with any one woman--much less a mid-level party operative from Naperville, Illinois, no matter how young and fetching.

And so you could almost hear the collective gasp when, on June 29, 2002, Kehn and Thompson tied the knot in a small, private ceremony at the First Congregational Church of Christ of Naperville. Even some friends of Fred's and of Jeri's recall being stunned by the news. It seemed Washington--and perhaps even Thompson--had underestimated Kehn. She may not have been a Music City diva or a multimillionaire mogul, but she was a salesgirl extraordinaire. From her fresh-out-of- college job peddling mortgages for Sears to her later mission hawking the Republican message to the media, Kehn had learned to woo reluctant--even hostile--customers. She had the gifts of perseverance, projecting confidence in the face of uncertainty, spotting opportunity, insinuating herself into a situation, and elbowing out the competition--all of which proved useful in closing the deal to become Mrs. Fred Thompson.

As it happens, these skills also come in handy when selling a presidential candidate. For, although Jeri Thompson is hardly the Machiavellian mastermind of recent campaign lore, most agree that, without her aggressive involvement, there would be no Thompson campaign. In the beginning, say those familiar with the campaign, it was basically just Jeri and Fred sitting around weighing the pros, cons, and possibilities. Seeing the void in the Republican field, Jeri set about convincing a chunk of both the party's grassroots and its elite that Fred has the makings of a unifying leader. (Last year, for instance, she enlisted Republican p.r. guru and pal Mark Corallo to help raise Fred's profile around Washington.) More importantly, she sold the idea to Fred Thompson. It's not that Fred couldn't imagine himself in the White House--he had, after all, toyed with the idea of running back in 2000. (Plus, he has all that experience from his role as commander-in-chief in the terrorism thriller Last Best Chance). Those close to the candidate, however, have long said he lacks the political obsessiveness to run a traditional campaign, with the endless speechifying and traveling and sucking-up it entails. Jeri helped Fred envision a different way to run, one that relied heavily on webcasting and other high tech outreach, and helped shape his image as the true conservative in this race. And, most broadly, she continues to supply the necessary drive that many people suspect Fred lacks.

But, with Thompson finally in the race, Jeri's sales skills are facing their toughest test yet. On the heels of its late start, Team Thompson has drawn fire for its anemic fund-raising and campaign schedules. And reports from the trail suggest the phlegmatic senator is having a tough time conveying--much less generating--enthusiasm for his bid. Already, people are grumbling that perhaps Thompson's heart isn't in this fight. Which raises the question of whether Jeri, having assumed a central psychic role in the campaign, has overreached with her latest pitch. Even if she manages to sell herself to voters, can she sell them on a candidate so clearly ambivalent about closing the deal?

Last June, at a fund-raiser for the Virginia GOP, Jeri Thompson entered on her husband's arm looking more Dallas beauty queen than D.C. power player. The hair was a shade too bright, the skin a shade too tan, and the sleeveless V-neck dress a shade too snug. Although Jeri is chronologically only 24 years Fred's junior, she is a young-looking 41 to his old-looking 65, making the gap appear much larger. And, as the crowd swarmed and the TV lights dazzled, Jeri's Hollywood glitz beside Fred's grizzled mug brought to mind less an aspiring First Lady and president than Anna Nicole Smith vamping next to a wizened J. Howard Marshall II.

Jeri's fans (and Jeri) grumble that focusing on her looks--or on political wives in general--is a juvenile, trivial distraction from more important issues in this race. Maybe. But it is a distraction the majority of Americans indulge. Some 60 percent of voters say they consider a presidential candidate's spouse at least somewhat important when deciding whom to support, with Republicans far more concerned with connubial matters than either Dems or Independents. For her part, Jeri faces any number of hurdles in the First Spouse race--the visually arresting age disparity with her husband being just one. Fortunately for Team Thompson, she has a proven track record of successfully repackaging herself and marketing a new and improved Jeri.

Kehn's period of transformation began in 1996, the year she met Thompson. At the time, she was living in Nashville with her college boyfriend, Bernard "Chip" Alvey, and selling ad time for a local radio station. There was nothing in Kehn's background--save, perhaps, a decent work ethic--that suggested she was headed for a life less ordinary. Born in Hastings, Nebraska, her family moved to Naperville when Jeri was three (around the time her sister was born) so dad Jerry could take a job at Bell Labs. Her parents divorced when Jeri was twelve, and the Kehn sisters found themselves spending increasing time on their grandparents' farm back in Nebraska. Her mother Vicki worked as a librarian, and, even after her remarriage to music teacher Ron Keller three years after her divorce, she expected young Jeri to work for life's little extras. (Unlike most of her sorority sisters at DePauw University, Kehn waitressed all through school.) Universally described by friends and former colleagues as outgoing, energetic, and confident, Kehn went to work after college in sales for a communications services firm and for Sears Mortgage in Chicago. Cold-calling potential clients, the perky, chatty former pep-squad member knocked on doors, flashing her megawatt smile, peddling her wares, and learning to persevere in the face of rejection.

By the time she was in her late twenties, living in Nashville with Alvey, Kehn's future looked less sunny, as she stumbled into and out of financial trouble. In 1994, a court ordered Kehn to pay $10,000 in civil damages stemming from a 1990 car accident in Illinois. In 1996, a Davidson County court in Nashville garnished her wages to cover some $900 in bills to an anesthesiologist. The next year, the courts again moved to garnish her pay, this time over $1,700 owed to Nashville's Baptist Hospital. By then, however, Jeri had left her job, and the debt was never discharged. Facing debts of his own (including $93,000 owed a builder), Alvey was in no position to bail out his girlfriend--and, anyway, it remains unclear how serious the two were by then. Today, neither Thompson nor Alvey seems to recall when they stopped dating. And, although multiple court filings on her medical debts list Jeri's name as Kehn-Alvey, both Alvey and the Thompson campaign have said that the couple were never married.

It was during this rocky time that Kehn crossed paths with the dashing, successful, significantly older Thompson while grocery shopping. One can only imagine the impact the suave senator--his career built on the ability to project an aura of stolid, comforting authority--had on the untethered Gen Xer. Within a year or so, it became public knowledge that the pair were casually dating.

Thompson was the vehicle not only for Kehn's personal transformation but for her professional one as well. Around the time the two met, Kehn began moonlighting with Internet entrepreneur Roger Schneider to develop a website about Tennessee politics. Originally, the plan was to create a site where insiders could swap insights and chase down rumors about the legislature. But, by mid-1997, it was clear the plan was doomed, and Schneider began toying with the idea of creating sites for prominent politicians. When Jeri told him that she was dating Thompson--who, she posited, might run for president in 2000--Schneider suggested they pitch to the senator's office the idea of "a world-class website" to be developed and maintained to the tune of $45,000 a year. As Schneider tells it, Kehn was enthusiastic and unabashed about soliciting her new beau. "Jeri was extremely keen--ah, sorry about the pun," he chuckles, "on getting the senator involved in the Internet. She did not want him being behind." Two weeks after it was submitted, the proposal was rejected by Thompson's staff as "technically vague and stunningly overpriced."

Undeterred, Kehn regrouped and worked out a deal to host a text chat between Thompson and constituents. Recounting how Kehn kept the project on track, Schneider notes admiringly, "She was sort of the energizing element in the program."

Soon thereafter, Kehn set her sights on a bigger playing field. One day in late '97 or early '98 (folks are a little fuzzy on the dates), an old sorority sister of hers, working as an aide to thenMajority Leader Trent Lott, was stopped on the Senate floor by Thompson, who mentioned having made Kehn's acquaintance. The next week, Kehn phoned her old friend in search of a political job. The two Pi Phis hadn't stayed close, but the aide hooked Kehn up with Mitch Bainwol, then chief of staff at the Republican National Committee. Bainwol, in turn, recommended her to the committee's head of public affairs, Cliff May, who hired her to raise the party's TV profile. Kehn proved a quick study. "She very quickly kind of learned who was who at the various networks and various shows and what the various shows wanted," says May. Better still, he adds, "she very quickly got quite friendly with all of them."

Indeed, in many ways the RNC job was tailor-made for Kehn, as the one-time saleswoman found herself knocking on producers' doors, flashing that smile, making charming small talk, proffering armloads of lox and bagels that are remembered fondly to this day, and learning to win over cynical, skeptical audiences. One hard-boiled producer who dealt with Kehn remembers her as a gifted "schmooze-meister" and quips, "Under that thick layer of Max Factor is a pretty smart cookie!"

Charting the precise arc of Jeri's Washington career is tricky, since no one-- including her--recalls her exact tenure at any particular job. Nor is there a helpful paper trail: According to her campaign spokesperson, the sole copy of Jeri's resumé was destroyed when the family's home flooded some time past--an explanation that sounds suspiciously like "the dog ate my homework." It is, however, unclear why the campaign would object to a close parsing of Jeri's job history: Even the rough timeline already known effectively undermines their aggressively promoted narrative of her having been a political power player before ever hooking up with Fred (which, after all, occurred before she moved to D.C.).

Moreover, whatever Kehn's myriad talents, there's little question that her involvement with Thompson helped open the occasional door. After a couple of years at the RNC, followed by a short stint as spokeswoman for the Senate Republican Conference Committee, Kehn decamped for the private sector, signing on as a media specialist for the public affairs firm Burson-Marsteller in February 2001. She was recruited by thenChief Operating Officer Ken Rietz, a good buddy of (and current campaign adviser to) Fred Thompson. (A couple of her former Burson colleagues recently popped up in The Washington Post, anonymously grousing that Rietz created a job for her as a favor to Fred.) Eleven months later, Kehn left Burson and for a while did consulting for the lobbying powerhouse Verner Liipfert. But, by 2003, with the arrival of her and by-then-hubby Fred's daughter, Hayden, Jeri had left the workforce altogether.

All told, Jeri spent about five years in four political jobs. She is recalled as talented at selling a message and at rallying support for an issue from unexpected corners. What seems to have struck most people is her confidence; even when peddling a line of baloney, she did so with an air of total conviction. And, when she set her mind on a goal, she had no doubt but that she would achieve it--a trait that today is cited less in regard to any of her professional accomplishments than in her hard-fought domestication of Hollywood Fred.

Kehn has said that she decided she wanted to marry Thompson "when I knew he was the man that made me feel safe." It took considerable time and effort, however, before her knight in shining armor bought into the role. Those who knew Kehn during this period admit they thought she was deluding herself where Thompson was concerned. But Kehn was not ashamed to play hardball. After former Washington Post gossip columnist Lloyd Grove ran an item about Fred's supposed new honey (Kehn), both friends of Fred and friends of another of Fred's sweeties called to complain that Kehn, who had not denied the rumor to Grove, had in fact been scorned and was using the column to tweak Thompson. Then, of course, there was the infamous "Page Six" episode, in which Kehn phoned The New York Post's gossip column to gripe about all the other fillies--and, yes, she named names--nosing around her stallion. In keeping with Kehn's trademark chutzpah, it was a tactical use of elbows so pointed and so public that the senator himself had to issue a statement effectively telling her to cool it.

But Kehn was determined to ride out the bumps, and eventually fate lent a tragic hand. In January 2002, Thompson's 38-year-old daughter, Betsy Panici, died of an accidental overdose of painkillers, after years of struggling with bipolar disorder and prescription-drug abuse. Thompson, devastated, announced that he would not stand for reelection that fall. "I've lost my heart for public service," he told friends. Friends of friends report that the tragedy prompted in the senator not just an emotional but also a deep spiritual crisis. As the not-quite-fairy-tale goes, Kehn stepped in to help the grieving father pick up the pieces. She told him how much she loved him; he at last realized how important she was to his life. Six months later, Thompson again entered into the bonds of holy matrimony.

Five years on, the senator seems content with his decision. At 65, he is the father of two young tots, Hayden, now four, and Sammy, who will celebrate his first birthday in November. Old friends speculate that Fred sees life with Jeri as something of a "do-over," a chance to atone for all the mistakes made as a not-especially-attentive husband and dad the first time around. Some still seem mildly surprised by Jeri's success: "I think we all admire her for corralling Fred and settling him down," chuckles Tom Ingram, who managed Thompson's first Senate race and now heads Lamar Alexander's Senate office. Marvels the TV producer, "The most spectacular battle Jeri ever fought was to win the heart and hand of Fred Thompson."

Jeri clearly hopes for the same sort of victory in selling her husband as president--and, of course, herself as First Lady. By all accounts, her initial efforts were a grand success. The early days of Thompson's proto-campaign saw Jeri, Fred, and a couple of pals, like veteran strategist (and Jeri's former boss) Ken Rietz, huddled around the couple's kitchen table. It was a charming image--vague but evocative--of a piece with Elizabeth Edwards goading John to get feisty or Bill Clinton coaching Hillary on how to emote. When Jeri was credited with prompting Fred to tape his cigar-chomping YouTube slap at lefty filmmaker Michael Moore, the Republican world cheered her cheek. Here is a gal who's got it all, they cooed: brains, sass, political savvy, and the nostalgia-evoking curves of a 1940s pinup.

But, as Fred's proto-campaign began to congeal and the stakes began to rise, the stories about Jeri became more concrete and less adorable. She was mucking around in the details too much. She distrusted Thompson's "testing the waters" chief Tom Collamore, and so all campaign decisions had to pass through her. In early July, the semi-implosion of rival John McCain's effort, featuring accusations of profligate spending, unnerved the Thompsons, prompting Jeri to further tighten her grip. No one could be hired, nothing could be purchased, and no event could be scheduled without her nod. Over the next two months, the still-unofficial campaign saw heavy staff turnover (Collamore, research director J.T. Mastranadi, the entire communications department ...), with more than one departee (few of whom wished to speak on the record for this piece) citing troubles with Jeri. The week of Fred's long-anticipated announcement on September 4, snarky quotes surfaced in the press about how some female staffers had dubbed the campaign "The Devil Wears Prada II," likening Jeri's volatile temperament, demanding nature, and couture consciousness to those of the tyrannical fashion-magazine editor played by Meryl Streep in the 2006 film. (Campaign aides tend to take greater umbrage at getting chewed out by the candidate's wife than by your garden-variety boss.) "You never know how she's going to be every day," a source told the Capitol Hill weekly Roll Call. "When she clacks her high heels in the hallway, [staffers] all go scrambling" to get out of her path.

Jeri's defenders (some of whom also asked not to be quoted, even anonymously) insist that she is being misrepresented, in part because she is a pretty, youngish woman in a field that still harbors retrograde notions about pretty, youngish women. Some dismiss all criticism as an effort by disgruntled ex-staffers to scapegoat her for their own failures. Others offer a more nuanced interpretation, noting that Jeri, as one of the few members of Fred's tiny inner circle, often had to make the tough calls by default. Fred hates to be the heavy, says Ingram. "He would have an opinion, but he wouldn't want to be the bad guy. So somebody else has got to be. And, when there's nobody around the table but two or three folks--and he's out--that someone else" is likely to be Jeri. (One ex-staffer spins the dynamic more harshly, characterizing Fred as disengaged and Jeri as a control freak.)

The compressed time frame in which the campaign came together put additional pressure on Jeri, notes Ingram. "When you've got a huge mission with a short time to accomplish it, there's not always time for everybody to be as polite as they might like to be." Of course, with the campaign underway, he adds, the key now is to ease her into a more peripheral role. "She'll probably become the candidate's number one surrogate as opposed to his lead operative," he posits--an aim endorsed by Jeri herself in a recent sit-down with Fox News' Sean Hannity.

Indeed, publicly at least, the campaign has been hard at work on just such a move. In an August Web piece chival- rously headlined fred thompson: criticism of my wife should be directed at me, the not-yet-a-candidate informed National Review that Jeri's campaign prep work had been all at his behest. "She did what I asked her to do," said Thompson. "She always looks out for my best interests, and, when she sees something that she knows I would not approve of, or is not in my best interest, she voices that concern--in other words, just exactly the way I would want her to." Supporters and staffers, meanwhile, have begun rhapsodizing about Jeri's maternal devotion. "She doesn't want to run anything. I swear," Thompson adviser Mary Matalin recently reassured.

Even as she beats back the Lady Macbeth comparisons, Jeri is tackling the equally unflattering bimbo caricature. Since her May appearance before Virginia Republicans, she has undergone a low-key dowdying up. She has trimmed and darkened her bright blonde mane, and her wardrobe has grown more muted and less revealing. She still looks young, but no longer tarty--which should help in wooing all those conservative "values voters" contemplating Fred as their standard bearer.

No one thinks Jeri Thompson dragged an unwilling husband into this race. But Fred (whom one old girlfriend characterizes as a lovable egomaniac plagued by deep insecurities) has always had a weakness for people who have a dream for him--who see a way to parlay his charm and raw talent into Something Bigger. His first wife's family is credited with putting a lazy, directionless young Thompson on the road to law and politics. His mentor, former Tennessee senator Howard Baker, time and again propelled Thompson onto center stage politically. And now, Jeri is hard at work on securing her husband's biggest success--and her biggest sale--to date. But, as Thompson's candidacy continues to underwhelm, it seems increasingly doubtful that, doggedness aside, Jeri is enough of a saleswoman to convince America that her husband really should be president--and, more importantly, to convince her husband that he still wants the job.

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic.