Harold Ford's Imperfect Storm

| November 08, 2006
As the Senate hopes of nephew Harold Ford Jr. went south, even Uncle John Ford was at a loss for an answer as to why.
As the Senate hopes of nephew Harold Ford Jr. went south, even Uncle John Ford was at a loss for an answer as to why.
- jb

As the rain clouds that doused West Tennessee on Monday passed eastward on Tuesday, in the direction of Republican Bob Corker's presumed stronghold of East Tennessee, Democrat Harold Ford Jr. had every reason to hope for a perfect storm that would elevate him to the U.S. Senate instead.

It would end imperfectly for the Memphis congressman, however, three percentage points and some 40,000 votes behind his more mundane opponent. There had been signs, to be sure, that the weather had been turning irreversibly against Ford.

As the campaign wound down and the last week's polls showed GOP adversary Corker with a double-digit lead, it began to seem that the congressman had over-reached himself - that his family history would catch him up, if nothing else.

Some Democrats - both local and statewide - took umbrage on election day upon hearing that Harold Ford Sr., the Florida lobbyist, former congressman, and Ford-clan patriarch, was putting out copies of a "Ford Democratic Ballot" on which his second-born son, Jake Ford, had the place of honor for the 9th congressional district, not state Senator Steve Cohen, the Democratic nominee.

That smacked too much of the old Ford machine for various Democrats whose loyaly to Harold Ford Jr.'s curiously new-breed politics was tenuous at best.

Discontent with Ford among hard-core Democrats may have been a marginal affair, but this election turned out to hinge on the margins.

Any student of the blogosphere -- suddenly swirling with political dervishes, in Tennessee as elsewhere - could attest to the passions that were driving partisans at the edges of ideology.  And, whereas in the outer, traditional world the pious, button-downed collar-ad Ford was making converts - in the likes of Knoxville's Frank Cagle, a journalist and conservative activist of the old school - he was still being regarded with suspicion online by redhots both left and right.

Beyond the convenient descriptors of race or party label, there was in fact not much in the way of ideological difference to distinguish between Corker and Ford.  Whatever their private convictions, both had progressively moved from their party's moderate wings to positions that were clearly right of center. 

Both candidates, formerly pro-cnoice on abortion, now described themselves as pro-life. Both opposed gay marriage. Both favored an extension of the Bush tax cuts, opposed immediate troops withdrawals from Iraq, and supported the president on the so-called "torture" bill. Their differences even on issues like tort reform and Social Security were even being fudged.

So it came down to a contest between individuals - Corker the plain-spoken businessman and former Chattanooga mayor versus Ford the dazzling, charismatic Wunderkind of 2006. Ford was routinely being described by those pundits who hazarded election forecasts and roundups last week as having run this year's best campaign.

But the debate that raged amongst progressive bloggers in Memphis, Ford's home-town bailiwick, narrowed down to the following choices: hold your nose and vote for Ford, whose politics had gone so far right as to be almost untenable; vote for a fringe candidate of the left like the Green Party's Chris Lugo; desist from voting in the Senate race altogegther; or, as a fourth alternative that came increasingly to be taken seriously, vote for Corker.

Several developments drove that resolution. There was a factor that loomed much larger in Tennessee than elsewhere, where pundits chose to ignore that old chestnut about all politics being local.  This was the fact, familiar to most Tennesseans within reach of a TV set or a morning newspaper, of the Ford family of Memphis, a.k.a. the Ford political "machine."

The franchise began in 1974, the year of Watergate, when a two-term Democratic state representative named Harold Ford  won an upset victory over white Republican Dan Kuykendall. Soon, Ford Sr. (the suffix, of course, derives from latter-day circumstance) was encouraging his siblings - all, like him, the sons and daughters of N.J. and Vera Ford, operators of a successful South Memphis funeral home, into the new world of politics.

Such were the leadership skills of the first congressman Harold Ford that soon there were Fords everywhere in government - on the city council, on the county commission, in both chambers of the Tennessee legislature. Over the years those family members, like John Ford of the state Senate, became dominant figures - exercising power up to, and sometimes beyond, established governmental lines.

John Ford's indictment last year for bribery and extortion in the FBI's Tennessee Waltz scandal capped a swaggering, often scandalous career in which the senator's a very real legislative acumen soon became a secondary issue in the minds of Tennesseans. When sister Ophelia won his seat after his forced resignation and then saw her election voided by her new colleagues because of demonstrated election irregularities, that was just more frosting on an established image.

Harold Ford Jr., raised in Washington  and schooled in such environs as St Alban's Prep School, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan, had every chance to avoid being stereotyped as "one of the Fords." First of all, he was different - even early on the same smooth article that TV viewers saw this year in candidate Ford's political ads.

Almost preternaturally self-assured and glib, he moved into the frames of his commercials and hit his marks with a grace and flourish that any professional actor might admire. Indeed, he was so accessible a figure that reigning political shibboleths ceased to be of any use to would-be analysts. It hade long been said, for example, that no black could win in Tennessee.

It soon became clear that, while Ford was black enough, at least in concept, to be the overwhelming favorite son of the state's African-American constituencies - some 16 percent of the total population - he also conformed closely enough to middle-class models of success that crowds of young white professionals soon began to crowd his rallies. His professions of piety (he called himself "Jesus-loving" and began to carry a Bible on the stump)  proved effective in rural surroundings and even on TV, where his nods and finger-pointing heavenward seemed reminiscent of famous pro athletes.

One measure of Ford's possible appeal to social conservatives was that in Shelby County -- where, as returns approached completion, he was maintaining a consistent 65 percent of the total vote -- the referendum on stae Amendment One, which would ban gay marriage, was winning by tidal-wave proportions - 80 percent to 20 percent. At the very least, this meant no sign of the usual anti-Democratic backlash that in recent years has accompanied evangelical voting.

In retrospect, Ford's strong showing should have surprised no one. Added to his personal panache -- virtually without parallel among Tennessee politicians, black or white - were the facts of an undeniable voter discontent with Republican rule and, for that matter, with politics-as-usual.

But the final three percent that Bob Corker held to as a margin never disappeared. And as news organizations began to call the race for the Republican, Harold Ford Jr.'s excellent adventure finally expired.

In fine, the same factors that gave him his chance ultimately may doomed him to defeat. In the final analysis, he lacked an important part of his base. Close but no cigar.

After all the exciement, after all the better-than-expected election results in Shelby, Davidson, and Hamilton counties, all urban centers, Harold Ford did what most Tennesseans thought in the beginning of his race he would do - lose to an established Republican in a taken-for-granted red state.

Maybe it was never possible he would win.  At the end of it all, campaign strategist Tom Lee acknowledged to the media that his candidate had reached or achieved most of the campaign's goals, falling short, perhaps, only in the upper northeast corner of the state, the so-called Tri-Ciies of Kingsport, Bristol, and Johnson City, traditional Republican strongholds all.

Maybe it was what the national media saw as racial content in he infamous "Call Me, Harold" climax, spoken by a white bimbo  in a Republican National Committee ad - though most Tennesseans doubted it. Indeed, Ford seemed to do well among young white professionals, who flocked to his rallies and sported his bumper stickers on their Volvos and SUVs. Indeed, they were as much a core constituency as African Americans were.

And he seemed to do well in some of the rural counties where a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage also ran up a big vote. At  various times he even appeared capable of doing the impossible - of stealing the religious vote from the Republicans. He promised on national TV that he would be  a "Jesus-loving, gun-supporting" senator, began toting a Bible on the stump, and seemed about to create a brand-new political type.

But the final stubborn three percent GOP rival Corker clung to never dissolved. Red-state reality insisted on asserting itself.

Even in his concession speech before adoring supporters at The Peabody,  however, Ford clung to that most surprising and unexpected component of his 2006 persona. Quoting passages of scripture, he made one last nudge of head upward, pointed heavenward one last time and thanked his maker, the celestial one, for the opportunity to do what he had almost done. And then, after having spoken the merest congratulations to his victorious opponent, he moved offstage, slowly, as most disappointed mortals would, campaign chairman Lincoln Davis' arm draped over his shoulder.

Ulimately, Harold Ford Jr. fell back to earth, having fallen just short of becoming a political archetype. But, like Icarus of legend, he made a good flight of it while it lasted.

Comments (12)

Showing 1-12 of 12

John Ford sportin' the pimp tie...

Posted by John Coyote on 11/08/2006 at 11:05 AM


Posted by walter payne on 11/08/2006 at 5:41 PM

I just don't know what, as a mere ignorant bystander, to say about all this, except that I never saw the charisma, I saw the glibness and the funeral director COGIC preacher style, and the silver spoon deficiencies and the family scheming. I watched June Bug's youthful looks fade, his features harden, and his hairline recede during this campaign. I remember sitting in the P&H one afternoon a lifetime ago with, jees, was it John Spence and either Terry Keeter or Wyeth Chandler, maybe it was Terry quoting Wyeth talking about Steve Cohen: "If you live by the media, you die by the media." Pride cometh before a fall. And Don Imus...take that dumb-lookin cowboy hat off your balding head and kiss my ass; no one shoves anything down MY throat. Sr., call me, let's talk.

Posted by Winter Mute on 11/08/2006 at 7:42 PM

I was hoping that Harold Ford, Jr. could have pulled this race out. Bob Corker's dirty campaign ads might have given him the 49,000 votes that he needed to win along with the 5 million dollar loan. It goes to show how the folks in Tennessee thinks. Mr. Ford we would love for you to come to our state - Maryland and take up residence and run for the Senate. Your chances would be greater and Prince George's County will put you over the top.

Posted by Deborah Speight on 11/08/2006 at 8:07 PM

That was a great story.

Posted by Derek Haire on 11/08/2006 at 8:18 PM

Arrrggghhhh!!!! You closet racist, low-budget, wanna-be Ernest Hemingway! Lots of Senatorial candidates lost races yesterday (Hmmmmm, more than half of them to be exact). You don't hear random editorialists spouting off cheesy, queasy nonsense about how the other candidates were all "Icarus in a golden dream who got too close to the sun...." etc., ad nauseam. I'm vomiting as I type this. I've said it once before, I'll say it again...BITE IT! So Harold Ford Jr. didn't win yesterday. You're acting like he was never supposed to aim for the Senate in the first place! Your "article" is basically saying Jr. should have stayed in his place. A black man loses in a red state to an opponent who resorted to subliminal racist attack ads? That sounds like business as usual in Tennessee as far as I'm concerned. And you're just a tool in the machine. Why don't you just admit it? At least save us from your lame attempts at literary greatness at Jr.s expense. But perhaps I should explain my feelings in more literary terms that you would understand.... You...are like Odysseus, on a journey seeking greatness, much like the young Ford. Alas---Ford is young and has a bright future ahead of him in politics. Your writing, however, seems to have gone the way of the Harpies. Sadly it seems your ship is doomed to sink should you continue down such a retarded path. Signed, A bitter Memphian

Posted by Kelle on 11/08/2006 at 8:59 PM

aww, just shut it kelle ya whiner. this high drama created itself. don't blame the chronicler...

Posted by Shasta McNasty on 11/08/2006 at 9:08 PM

Nice to see that all of the hard work Jackson put in to writing a fair and elegant story about Junior's rise and fall wasn't lost on his supporters! The commenter who can see nothing but Junior's skin color accuses Jackson of racism. "Subliminally racist ads?" Yeah, that's it, all us crackers just flip on the racism switch as soon as we get our radio signals from Honky Central Command.

Posted by Derek Haire on 11/09/2006 at 6:33 AM

It seems that tennesse is not yet readyfor a minority male or female in their political offices, this artical and the individual who wrote it verifies that. It is a real shame that in the 21st century we still have to deal with undercover racists like the gentleman' and I use this term loosley' who wrote this artical still lives in the shadows if the 1940s and 50s, most everyone knows that corker is a racist and he had to ok the slanderous adds that were displayed on our televisions about Harold Ford. all I can say is God help us all.

Posted by chria on 11/11/2006 at 4:20 PM

when harold jr finally sits alone and wonder what happened? dad, why didn't i win? well lets play the maybe game, maybe you shouldn't have chased bob corker down with your bus and jumped off it like a gangbanger,going to kick butt in front of the camaras,best free press corker could have gotten, maybe you shouldn't have voted with the rat pack to turn off life support for terri shavio, maybe you should have thought about the district you rep, when you voted to make it hard for people you may lose job, home, car, due to layoffs, to file bankruptcy,maybe you shouldn't have been so happy to vote with president to send the troops into iraq, especially, when you had information, from the weapons inspecters, as we all did there was no weapon of mass destruction, before you voted, i forget you said you personlly like the man, right or wrong,he could count on you.or just maybe you forgot to glad hand and back slap enough republicans, to get them to vote for you, after all their viewpoint is your viewpoint.you let us all know time and again how very smart you are harold, how can you not have reasoned in you may not win.me i am a democrat thru and thru, i voted on your record in congress,and i am not in your district,i just couldnt send you back as democrated senator, feeling like you are a closet republican, why not just vote for the real republican? so i did.

Posted by ruth grose on 11/14/2006 at 4:49 PM

Ford Jr was not the best choice his voting record was to the right and he only used the people of the 9th congressinal dist, sorry son a Fake Democrat cant fool all Dem's New York exposed him later on for the desperate Fraud he turn out to be, Bob Corker is not a good Senator at all just a dumb republican who who fit the bill of this Backward Hillbilly State not enough open minds here in the State of Tennessee

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Posted by KEEPING IT REAL on 01/14/2013 at 8:09 AM

It is funny how all of the closeted racist come out at election time. They accuse the african americans of monolithic voting and always playing the race card. When push comes to shove, regardless of who is the best candidate, they vote color.

A good example of this today is Rep. Marsha Blackburn. She is a republican, however, the republican leadership wince everytime she comes on tv and makes public statements. There is no way that this district can be proud of her? I wouldn't care if it was a democrat or republican, she or a person like her should never be elected to national office.

The Ford Jr. election is classic, classic 1960's racial politics. Corker was destined to lose and when he finally realized it, he used the one weapon with two sides that is always a winner in the south. He used a white woman kow towing to a black man. Yes, that did the trick. So, Ford Jr. really didn't lose the election and should not feel bad. As for coming back to Tennessee, what for? He is a small millionaire now and don't have to face the racist attitudes that is still prevalient in the south. Ford Jr. stay where you 're at.

Posted by oldtimeplayer on 01/14/2013 at 8:56 AM
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