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Jeri Thompson on the record

From NBC/NJ's Adam Aigner-Treworgy
CHARLESTON, WV -- After accepting the endorsement of West Virginians for Life on her husband's behalf, and holding her first solo press availability here on Monday, Jeri Thompson sat down with NBC/National Journal for a candid conversation about her husband's presidential campaign and her role in it.

A big part of feeling comfortable with her position in the campaign, she said, was participating in Maria Shriver's forum of candidates' wives in California last month. Although she was already entrenched in the campaign process, she said that being able to interact onstage with women who had so much more experience in the political spotlight helped her to see how much other wives were involved in the process.

"I came away really imbued with a sense of community from them, from both sides," she said. "Elizabeth Edwards was the first woman who defended me when some folks were, I would say, mischaracterizing me, and I will forever be grateful to her for that. There's sort of a funny side to this and that's that what I didn't realize is some of these women have been in this 20, 25 years doing this with their husbands as governors, or definitely in the limelight. Frankly, I've been sort of the grassroots, sort of behind-the-scenes girl. 

"What I learned from these women is that they all participate at a great level in the campaigns in as much as they care about the issues as much as their husbands. And they care about their husbands' schedule and how the campaign is working and they have a lot to say about how it works. And if they didn't, wouldn't that be the story? If we didn't care about our husbands or didn't care that they were being overworked and underfed and over-whatever else you do on the campaign trail since I'm not there all the time. Wouldn't that be the story?"

For a wife who has been criticized for micro-managing her husband's campaign from the beginning, seeing the involvement of other wives gave Mrs. Thompson a sense of "camaraderie," she said. And although she didn't elaborate on what she meant by this, she also added that the event taught her that the wives are "not covered the same way."

On the topic of her husband's campaign, Mrs. Thompson pointed to the specific policy papers he has released so far as evidence that he cares more about the issues than he does about the process. "One can look at things in a papa bear or a mama bear way of looking at things," she said. "Several years ago, folks were trying to encourage Fred to run, and he looked at the situation and he felt that the kind of leadership, the sort of tough choices that he thinks he's best at making, maybe weren't needed at the time. The country was looking for more of a nanny state. Things are now to the point that we must address some of these issues before it's too late."

Fred cared most about the issues even after he left the Senate, Mrs. Thompson said. "When he was coming home from Law & Order, he didn't talk about the set," she said. "We didn't go to the parties in New York or LA. I think we went to one party, which I think I wore one dress to that you've seen a thousand pictures of, and that's all we've ever done. What Fred cared about, what he talked about when he came home at night, was the stuff in the China commission that he could tell me.

"Guess what we talked about at night? Nuclear proliferation. This doesn't make it seem that exciting in the Thompson household. And I have to confess, often it's not very exciting. But these are the things that motivated him that he cared about, that he was passionate about."

Mrs. Thompson then recounted a conversation she had with her husband before he decided to run for president, using it as evidence that Fred seemed "unfulfilled" by his life on television. "'I'm really worried,' he said one night with a glazed look in his eyes, 'About a nuclearized Middle East,'" Mrs. Thompson said. "'Well honey why don't you do something about it,' you sort of say casually as you're putting the dishes in the dishwasher, not thinking you're going to have a further conversation about it. But once this conversation starts stringing out to weeks at a time -- anyone who's married or has close friends knows that someone who's not fulfilled becomes disenchanted and must move to something that makes them fulfilled.

"He was happy. He had made more money than he thought that he ever would… He just didn't feel like he had done everything he could do."