One of the most discussed developments of the current campaign for the open U.S. Senate seat in Tennessee has been last Friday's encounter between Democrat Harold Ford Jr. and Republican Bob Corker on the parking lot of Wilson Air Services at the Memphis airport.
Video from the affair has gone around the world, literally -- not just via network and cable newscasts but, notably, through the medium of cyperspace. The original footage of the event derived mainly from two sources -- WMC-TV and WREG-TV, Memphis' NBC and CBS affiliates, respectively. But various combinations and recombinations -- short, long, and edited for effect -- have made the rounds of many Web sites proper, most of the political blogs, and assorted e-mail networks. YouTube.com has virtually teemed with different takes.
The bottom line: Anybody whose curiosity had been whetted by news of the event has been able to find several different versions of it. And many, many have. CNN's version of it was the single most-watched video on that cable network last Saturday.
Well, what did it show exactly? Opinions differ, largely according to the politics of the beholder, but another, equally interesting question is: What was the origin of the event?
It was not a random circumstance or a happenstance encounter: Be assured of that. Word had got out to most of the local news media well in advance that Ford or some surrogate would be on hand when Corker arrived at Wilson Air Services at 11 a.m. on Friday to announce proposals in the area of ethics. It was no secret, either, that these "proposals" coincided with various campaign charges unleashed by candidate Corker against candidate Ford and the candidate's father, former congressman, now lobbyist, Harold Ford Sr.
Putting it plainly, media representatives who showed up at Wilson Air on Friday morning had every reason to suspect some act of one-upmanship by Ford or somebody representing his campaign. Just what that might be was the only mystery.
After filibustering with the press pack long enough to give his rival time to show up, Ford bounded over to Corker after he had exited his vehicle and voiced a greeting. The actual conversation, posturing and cross-talk condensed, came down to this:
Ford: It's good to see you. I'd love to debate you on this Iraq thing and the fact that so many Republican senators now are coming around on the partition plan. In Memphis here you said I might be playing God with it, but now it looks like John Warner and even Kay Bailey Hutchinson, she, uh....
Corker: Uh huh. I came to talk about ethics, and I have a press conference, and I think it's a true sign of desperation that you would pull your bus up while I'm having a press conference.
Ford: No sir, I can never find you when I'm in the state.
Corker: I was in Jackson last night, and I saw your ...
Ford: Well, tell me, what do you think about this Iraq thing. I know you're here to talk about my family. I thought you made a promise right after ...
Corker: No, no, no. I'm here to talk about you, and this race, and you and I, and I'm going to do that right now. As a matter of fact, this is my press conference. Not yours. Okay?
And that was it. Corker went into a terminal to do his planned availability, and Ford chatted with the press a few minutes more.
Who won? At the scene, Ford clearly dominated proceedings with his quips, thrusts, and mugging as much as by his statements. It was his surprise attack, and he had the initiative. On TV, however, Corker's resolute and terse termination of the encounter was the sort of image that may grow larger in the collective memory of the event. He had, besides, protocol on his side, and an air of maturity more in keeping with the public notion of what a senator is.
Indeed, Corker's campaign team promptly dubbed the affair the "Memphis Meltdown" and claimed victory in as many press releases as they could repackage and turn out in the next 36 hours. That part of the blogosphere sympathetic with Corker (which these days includes several yellow-dog Democrats disgusted with what they see as Ford's creeping conservatism) concurred, as did a good many bona fide neutrals.
Only ... back to that question of what Ford had in mind. Clearly, if Corker had gotten flustered or defensive, Ford stood to reap huge dividends. Didn't happen. Hence, the Corker camp's euphoria at what campaign manager Tom Ingram called "a defining moment."
But wait: Here's a minority opinion, from one Richard Banks, a former editor of Memphis magazine, now a toiler on behalf of Southern Living in Birmingham:
"I don't have any inside scoop on Ford's intentions, but the video was ready-made for the Web. Now that more voters have broadband at home and at work, it's easier for these videos to spread virally. Ford shows attitude and bravado in the video, which is ironic, considering now that public opinion has turned against the war, that the 'tude is used to push an agenda that [Ford] has not been supportive of until now. My guess is that bravado appeals to the younger voters -- the very audience this video was designed to reach."
Hmmmm. Maybe. And as good a place as any to make the point that Junior's base constituency is as much young white professionals as it is urban blacks. Arguably, more so. But for the apparent consensus that Corker kicked butt, Ford had an answer. Did he! On Sunday morning, news got around that Newsweek magazine had him on its cover, illustrating the title "Not Your Daddy's Democrats." The blurb continued, "Hungry to take back Congress, moderates like Harold Ford Jr. have the GOP running scared. Would a Democratic majority go wild or govern from the middle?"
As reassuring -- even exalting -- as that cover and the fulsome story within were to Ford and his partisans, it was a fresh acid bath on the already scalded psyche of liberal Democrats, whose attitude toward Ford has been, at best, on-again, off-again -- the "on" phase tenuously linked to the knowledge that his victory in Tennessee could be the one that returns the Senate to Democratic control.
The polls? For now they are still going back and forth. It seems likely that this weekend's climactic third debate between Ford and Corker in Nashville will go far toward settling things on November 7th.
Meanwhile, Representative Ford, who had maintained a cautious and ostensibly neutral distance from his brother Jake Ford's independent congressional race against Democratic nominee Steve Cohen and Republican Mark White, seemed to cross a line with unexpectedly strong criticism of Cohen.
It began when state senator Cohen, on a fund-raising trip to Nashville, checked in with members of the Legislative Plaza press corps and delivered himself of some typically outspoken observations about what he -- honestly or conveniently or both -- saw as the drag on Ford's senatorial campaign. Cohen saw Representative Ford's "tremendous attributes" being overshadowed by the candidacy of brother Jake as well as by a speech given by Harold Ford Sr. in which the former congressman not only conflated a Harold Jr. rally with support for second son Jake but attacked Cohen in language that disturbed many who heard or read about it with its religious overtones.
"We're from a Christian city here," Ford Sr. had said at one point. "[Jake] doesn't believe in legalizing marijuana. This man that's running against Jake wants some sex shops running in downtown Memphis on a Sunday! That's our religious holiday."
After remarking on Representative Ford's "tremendous attributes," Cohen told his audience of Nashville media, "For him to come this far and to have the effort to overreach, I guess, and to have his younger brother run in the 9th District, I think has hurt his campaign."
Further, in a reference to Ford Sr.'s out-of-town residences: "The Ford machine used to have a lot of foot soldiers. ... The top brass has moved away from the foot soldiers. It's hard to be in touch with your foot soldiers when you're on Fisher Island [Miami] or in the Hamptons."
That prompted a press release in Representative Ford's name, which said in part: "Now, it appears that state senator Steve Cohen and Mayor Bob Corker are singing from the same Ford family attack hymnal. I know that Bob Corker is attacking my family because he has come up short on ideas and answers in this campaign. I didn't know that ... Cohen was suffering from the same problem."
The congressman's statement also accused Cohen of support for gay marriage, amnesty for illegal immigrants, legalization of marijuana, and "a cut-and-run strategy in Iraq."
For the record, Cohen has denied favoring gay marriage, opposing only what he calls "constitutional tampering" on top of existing statutes outlawing it. He also introduced a bill last year to legalize the use of marijuana for strictly medical purposes.
"I really think that if Harold Ford Jr. had run with me on a ticket, it would have been a 'dream team,'" Cohen mused last week in Nashville.
So much for that dream. The reality was that, with the advent of early voting last Wednesday, Ford Sr. had personally taken charge of a Get-Out-the-Vote drive on behalf of both of his candidate sons, routing voters to polling sites via a fleet of buses and other vehicles.
Republican White, the third candidate in the congressional race, has meanwhile kept active, conceding nothing and maintaining dreams of his own for a significant share of the vote in the inner city.
Indeed, "Realizing the Dream," the title of a panel on overcoming poverty that White was scheduled to appear on this week at Olivet Fellowship Baptist Church (along with Martin Luther King III), could serve as the GOP candidate's campaign slogan as well. White recently cited a poll (from the Silver Star News, a newspaper with an African-American reader base) showing him with a potential 19 percent share of the black vote.
Though White has addressed economic issues (and went so far as to chide President Bush for not touring the inner city with him on the president's recent fund-raising appearance here for Corker), his basic appeal both to his would-be black constituency and his predominantly white Republican base has been along social and moral lines.
In a recent fund-raising letter, White attacked "leftist" Cohen along the same lines as had Representative Ford, accusing the state senator of having promoted gay marriage and being responsible for a "bill to legalize drugs in Tennessee," among other things. The letter took opponent Jake Ford to task as well, citing the latter's GED degree, "no known background of any kind," and alleged need for "on the job training" if elected.
The equal-opportunity bashing reflects White's need -- acknowledged in Republican circles -- for Cohen and Ford to break even while White holds the line against attrition of the GOP vote and gains at least a modicum of the church-based black vote.
See also Viewpoint,"Color and Politics," .