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If Politics Is a Greasy Pole, Illinois Governor Jim Thompson & Wife Jayne Are Enjoying the Slide

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After his first eight months as Republican governor of Illinois, Jim Thompson is still nervous about how to handle political debts. “Patronage is a ball of dough,” he complains, “and every time I put in my hand I feel entrapped.”

Yet anybody familiar with Illinois politics will testify that Thompson owes more to the former Jayne A. Carr than to any downstate county chairman. To begin with, she helped sew up his election by marrying him in mid-campaign last year, a huge media event whose guest list was the size of the Chicago phone book. And while Jim was a candidate without salary, she supported him as the $27,000-a-year deputy chief of the criminal justice division of the state attorney general’s office.

An ex-prosecutor himself, Thompson went on to win by the largest plurality in Illinois history. Now the two of them are playing house in the 42-room Victorian governor’s mansion. That, she observes, is “not bad for a couple of kids from the West Side of Chicago.”

Jim has emerged as one of the freshest Republican faces this side of Watergate. A crusading law man, his reputation was based on the 315 indictments of government employees—including the late Otto Kerner, a federal judge and former governor—brought during his tenure as U.S. attorney for northern Illinois. Thompson’s conviction rate was a spectacular 90 percent. He already figures to be a Republican dark horse presidential candidate in 1980—and beyond. “I am young,” the 41-year-old Thompson says. “The country is young. We both will be around for a while.” Nicknamed “Big Jim,” the 6’6″, 220-pound governor has never discouraged the use of adjectives like “Lincoln-esque.” As he candidly admits, “Ever since I was a small boy I’ve said I’d like to be President.”

For the moment the Thompsons’ concern is not the White House but settling down in Springfield. Jim, a passionate collector of antiques, is helping to furnish their six-room private quarters with choice pieces, including a Chippendale bureau dragged upstairs at night from the public rooms below. “I always get the heavy end,” Jayne groans.

She is also helping with the family budget again—the governor is paid $50,000 a year—by working three days a week in a Springfield law firm that claims Lincoln as a former partner. The transition from criminal prosecution to civil law—insurance, bankruptcy and probate cases—has been difficult, but Jayne, 31, explains, “I’ve worked more than half my life to be a lawyer. It’s part of me.” (Still, she jokes that she had to go back to work “to pay for my husband’s antiques.”)

Thompson grew up in Chicago’s Garfield Park section, the son of a pathologist. “Fascinated by politics,” he went to the University of Illinois, Washington University in St. Louis and Northwestern Law School. After a stretch with the Cook County state attorney’s office, he returned to Northwestern to teach law.

Among his brightest students was Jayne Carr, the daughter of a gasoline truck driver who died when she was 13. Jayne worked her way through the University of Illinois in three years and “never had time to do much of anything else.” (In the last 15 years she has taken only occasional long weekends and one week off in California.) Jayne applied to Thompson for a foundation fellowship, but was turned down—”a point she still brings up to this day,” he chuckles. But when he moved on to the state attorney general’s office in 1969, Thompson hired Jayne as a law clerk “because she was a first-rate student and a hard worker.”

He took his good-natured time on their romance, waiting seven years to announce their engagement (“I’m a cautious man”). By then he was well into his 16-month gubernatorial campaign against Democrat Michael J. Howlett (who was invited to the subsequent wedding—but did not attend). Thompson literally ran for office, jogging in 100 campaign parades and gulping corn dogs (hot dogs dipped in corn meal batter and deep fried) at 44 county fairs. “I’m Illinois’ No. 1 tourist,” he exults. “This is what I was born to do.”

So far the governor is getting mixed grades on his performance in the capital. While he’s balanced the state budget, the rest of his program is bogged down in the Democratic-controlled legislature. Assembly Speaker William Redmond thinks “Thompson is obviously learning on the job, but he should try to be a good governor before he tries to run for President.” Another Democratic foe adds sarcastically that Thompson “is a good politician. How else can a guy go around selling nothing?”

The governor and first lady allow that they are “more informal than some governors and their families.” For his first formal press reception Big Jim showed up in a Bill Blass sports shirt and jeans with a red patch on the pocket—eventually giving rise to complaints that he was subverting “the dignity of the office.” Yet back in the governor’s mansion, he keeps dozens of suits and jackets in his 30-foot closet.

The Thompsons share their private quarters with two dogs that are Jim’s pets and Jayne’s peeves. His Irish setter, Guv, is mansion-broken “except in moments of excitement and stress.” The result is that Jayne has to clean up an Oriental rug behind Guv while enduring innocent “Brown-bagging it again, dear?” cracks from her husband. Then, because “I’ve always wanted a collie since I was 9 and read Lassie,” Jim nagged Jayne into giving him a puppy named Sam for his birthday in May.

The pressure of living in the intensely political small town of Springfield can be troubling. “I still have not gotten as thick a skin as I need,” Thompson admits. “But it’s getting thicker. I’ve gone from being everyone’s darling who puts crooks in jail to a mortal man.” Jayne tries to be a soothing presence. “We have to steal the time together,” she says. “We don’t see each other as much as we’d like. But it is high-quality time. We talk in shorthand, a specialized language. I know what he is thinking; he knows what I am thinking.” Jim agrees, “It’s a close, emotional relationship. She’s the only person I get mad at. She’s always doing something for me. I yell at her because she doesn’t do enough for herself.”

If Jayne has any regrets about what she did for love and politics, she’s not letting on. “People have asked me how I could possibly get married into such a highly scheduled, visible life.” Her answer: “It’s the only life we have ever known.”