LOS ANGELES -- U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Memphis got his widest national exposure yet Tuesday night in what has been a meteoric rise to public attention, giving a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention which was an apostrophe to Democratic standard-bearer and fellow Tennessean Al Gore but could serve as well as an exclamation mark on his own political future.
Following stemwinder Jesse Jackson, two Kennedys (Senator Ted and JFK daughter Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, and defeated Gore foe Bill Bradley, Ford rose to the occasion, asking Americans, including independents and Republicans, to embrace a "magnificent moment in history by voting for the Democratic ticket and reminding his listeners of some yet unfulfilled chapters of the American dream.
"If we can find the will and resources to build prison after prison, then surely we can build new schools, reduce class sizes, connect every classroom up to the Internet," Ford said. "The choice before us - a choice that weighs heavier on my generation than any other - is not what kind of leadership we will have in the next four years, but in the next 40 years."
Much of the address was taken up with extolling the virtues of Gore as the potential next leader for America. Ford recalled as a young boy listening to Gore talk politics with his father and predecessor, former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr. and said, in language which was clearly somewhat self-referential, "He jumped feet first into public life and was elected one of Tennessee's youngest congressmen ever," Ford, the youngest current member of Congress, said. "That's when he became my role model."
Some representative quotes from the speech(See complete text of address in For the Record): "Some in the other party would have us go back.. Back to the past where prosperity touches only the well-off and well-connected. Back to a past where children lean from outdated textbooks and parents can't scrape together the money to send them to college."
"Back to a past where polluters write our environmental laws. Back to a past where politicians run up enormous deficits, run factories out of business and run the economy into the ground."
In contrast, the Memphis congressman, chosen by Gore personally to deliver the keynote address, hailed the vice president as a sensitive, inclusive and future-oriented leader Ð- one he met when a younger Gore visited the Ford family home to call on Ford's father.
Democrats see Ford as having a role in helping to solidify the party's base among African-Americans while appealing to younger voters-- groups actively sought by Republicans this year. Gore, in advance, declared that Ford is a rising star for Democrats nationally as a "young but proven leader" who "exemplifies the positive vision our party has for the future."
In Tennessee, the Ford family has traditionally been a major factor in generating votes for Democratic candidates with an enthusiastic turnout among blacks in Memphis. That has historically been the margin for carrying several statewide races for Democrats.
The Ford family has been carefully cultivated in the past by Gore and other Democratic officeseekers in statewide elections-- despite occasional controversies involving the congressman's father, former U.S. Rep. Ford Sr.; and his uncle, state Sen. John Ford. Both the congressman's father and uncle were on hand at the convention.
Thus, as Ford was presented as the wave of the Democratic future, he also tied back into the party's past in Tennessee-- where Ford could help generate a big turnout for Democrats in Memphis and help Gore win a home state lately proclaimed a battleground by both sides in the presidential race.
Officially, Gore partisans emphasized Ford's youth and status as a Tennessean who knows the vice president in talking of the choice.
"It says a lot for Tennessee. He (Gore) could have picked anybody in the nation and he picked someone from Tennessee," said Harrison Hickman, veteran Democratic pollster and Gore advisor. "It says a lot about Al Gore... that the vice president isn't locked into the old way of doing things. `"It's more than just the African-American vote," said Burson. "He (Ford) is a standout. It cuts across barriers."
Ford has worked with Republicans on several issues and regularly calls for a bipartisan approach in government.
He also maintains close relations to national black leaders such as the Rev. Jackson, who says Ford is "like one of my sons" and Gore's selection of him as keynote speaker "left me ecstatic." Yusef Jackson>, the reverend's youngest son, is described by young Ford as "my best friend."
Rev. Billy Kyles of Memphis, an intimate of the late Dr. Martin Luther King and a longtime friend of the Ford family, toasted Ford at a party in the keynoters honor later Tuesday night at Nick and Stefs Restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. Hes on his way, said Kyles, who called the speech a huge success and said it worked out better than that other one did in Atlanta in 1988. That was a reference to then Arkansas Gov. Bill Clintons overlong and ill-received nominating speech for Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee that year.
.The subtext of Kyles remarks and of much other conversation among Tennesseans in L.A. was a future bid for the presidency by the young congressman. Youre very kind, Ford would say when reminded of the prospect by any of several well-wishers.
One booster in particular had spoken directly to that prospect and predicted beforehand that Ford would be the hit of the convention with his speech. This was Dorothy Ford of Washington, D.C., the congressmans mother, who, with her other sonsJake and Isaac, with her ex-husband, former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr., and with other ranking Democrats and friends, occupied two suites in the Staples Center arena Tuesday night.
One of the boxes was double-booked, having been assigned as an oversight both to the Ford family and to Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who graciously offered to share the box and largely deferred to the visitors. I knew when I saw those chicken wings in here that this was supposed to be a Memphis box, jested Jerry Freeman of Atlanta, a friend of the congressmans from his University of Michigan undergraduate days.
Most of those familiar with Fords oratorical ability who were on hand in the Staples Center or watched the Ford speech from a TV screen elsewhere in the convention area remember even more compelling efforts from the young congressman, who usually speaks ex tempore, but thought Ford had transcended some of the limitations of the address, which was vetted by members of the Gore camp and loaded up with predetermined talking points. Ford nevertheless was able to embroider on the prepared text, ad-libbing for several stretches with his own idiom and concerns.(Reportedly, there was some wrestling between Fords camp and Gores on what sort of content should predominate.)
Reaction from media sources was mixed, with the Los Angeles Times terming the fairly brief speech lengthy (though it was much shorter than the one which preceded it, a relatively dull and listless presentation by defeated Gore rival Bill Bradley) and observed that some of the crowd had begun thinning out toward the end of Fords speech.
The National Journal, however, quoted pollster Frank Luntz, who was conducting focus groups of viewers, as saying the highest response of Tuesday night was given to a passage in Fords speech in which the congressman asked listeners to imagine a world with clean coastlines, affordable health care, and word-class education. Well, it is time to stop imagining. Tonight, I call on all my reform-minded Republican and independent friends to join us in our new crusade, said Ford, getting off a sentiment about which Lunz said, They loved that line. It went through the charts.
Although CNN and C-SPAN covered the Ford keynote address in its entirety, the traditional Big Three networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, all cut away during Bradleys speech and never returned-- a circumstance which prompted a round-robin discussion of the decision on CNN, where correspondents observed that the Gore camp had desired maximum attention for Ford.