Everybody by now knows about the encounter between U.S. Senatorial candidates Harold Ford Jr. and Bob Corker Friday on the parking lot at Wilson Air Services at the Memphis airport. There are even those who think that, as an impromptu add-on to the three formal debates between the two, the Airport Ambush affair may turn out to be the decisive encounter.
Who did win the Battle of Wilson Air? There are two givens in the matter that each of the candidates’ partisans think that their man came out ahead; and that the airport encounter necessarily will cast its shadow or its light over the last of the three formal debates, scheduled for next week in Nashville.
There is actually a third given maybe the most important: That the ghost of Marshall McLuhan hovered over the affair. I.e., it may have looked and felt one way on the ground and been perceived another way altogether in the widely seen TV newsclips images that, you may be sure, will be played over and over again, one way or another, between now and November 7th.
At the scene, Democrat Ford who arrived first, along with his brightly painted campaign bus (which Wilson air workers promptly began to shoo off) was bright and cocky, with a strong dash of B’rer Rabbit mischief to go with his usual live-wire panache. An entire press corps was there waiting for him. They had all been alerted by the Corker campaign to the fact that the former Chattanooga mayor and Republican nominee would be making what he deemed a major proposal at 11 a.m., of course. But each of them, too, had been tipped that the 9th District congressman would be there waiting. It was the planned ambush as much as if not more than the Corker availability that had drawn them.
A word about the two men’s wholly differing styles: In the normal course of campaign itineraries, a Ford event is something like a concert or a boxing match. A crowd is collected, entertained by preliminaries (everything from a jug band to warm-up speakers), and, finally, after anticipation has been whetted to a pitch, the candidate himself arrives always later than the posted time.
Corker’s appearances are otherwise. Like a businessman taking a meeting, he comes on time and starts on time. Run a few minutes late, and you will miss a few minutes of his start. Run significantly late, and you will miss him altogether. There is little build-up (unless he happens to be on one of those big-rally bills featuring other name Republicans, like senators Lamar Alexander and Bill Frist). Even when he traveled West Tennessee late last week with former GOP primary opponent Ed Bryant, the pattern held with Bryant making low-key, almost perfunctory remarks before introducing the candidate.
So for Ford to be there early was something unusual in itself. It was, of course, part of his game plan to appear “accidentally” to have one-upped Corker. His opening remarks to the band of media on the parking lot were pure tongue-in-cheek disingenuousness.
“I don’t know what Mr. Corker said…” Ford said quite early in his remarks, keeping to the scenario that he was on hand merely to make himself available to the media to respond to what his Republican opponent had said presumably at some earlier point that had just occurred and was now past tense.
The congressman talked at length about Iraq and the distinction between what he characterized as Corker’s “stay-the-course” position and his own proposal for a tri-partite division of the country between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds (ironically, the same proposal advanced months ago by Ford’s erstwhile primary opponent Rosalind Kurita before she dropped out of the race). He took issue with what he said were Corker’s attacks on his family and the new ad “criticizing how I look."
This was really a filibuster, a stalling tactic. As Ford surely well know, Corker had not yet arrived, and all the while the congressman spoke, he seemed to be waiting for the moment when his adversary would materialize and he could spring his trap.
After long minutes, the moment eventually came. Corker’s vehicle pulled up some 60 feet off, and the candidate stepped out and voiced a greeting to Ford, who immediately began to close the distance between the two men, the press pack following along.
“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..."
The two men had now shaken hands, and Corker, his face impassive, grunted out a pro forma “yeah” of distanced acknowledgement, more an attempt to break Ford’s flow than anything else, as the congressman went on
“…and even Kay Bailey Hutchinson, she, uh....
“Uh huh,” interrupted Corker finally. “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.”
There followed an avalanche of cross-talk, from which the following nuggets emerged
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 matter of fact, this is my press conference. Not yours. OK?”
And with that the Chattanoogan began to move off toward the terminal for his planned press conference.
“I’d love to hear you talk about Iraq, though,” Ford called after him, grinning, and then turned back to the press pack, which stayed with him a few minutes longer. “I mean, this is it’s unfortunate that we can’t get a debate in Knoxville, Tri-Cities. He wants to come and attack my family and attack me. We can’t have a debate on the serious issues that are confronting the country.”
The congressman began to restate his original premise that he had not come to Wilson Air to obstruct or upstage Corker. “Whatever he says, I’d love to respond. Whatever he says…I came here to respond. That’s why I came out.” He made a show of advising the media people to go inside the terminal building to hear what Corker had to say.
“I want you to go right over. I’ll show the great respect that he deserves. And I hope that he’ll answer some of the questions about Iraq and what Republican senators are saying about it now.” And North Korea. And so on.
Ford repeated his objections to “attacks” on his family and to the Corker ad “criticizing how I look.” He noted that Corker had arrived by “private plane” and said, “When I travel to Chattanooga, we have open schedules. I’d love for him to come to any of those events. I just wanted to make easier for you to find me. This was not an attempt to do anything other than that. …I learned that he was here and came out to respond.”
Flashing a grin, Ford stated the obvious: “I don’t think he came here to say, vote for me.”
Inside the terminal, as Corker got around to the matter of what he did come here to say, he began with a wry grin of his own and repeated that everybody had just witnessed a “desperate” maneuver by his opponent. (Ford, too, had employed the adjective “desperate,” using it to describe Corker’s remarks about the Ford clan at large.)
Then Corker essentially unveiled a three-point package of “reform” proposals all of which had some bearing on the race at hand. The first one, in particular, called for a ban on lobbying members of Congress by family members.
Clearly, this proposal referenced allegations previously made by Corker that Ford's father, former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr., served as a lobbyist for Fannie Mae while Ford Jr. was a member on the House committee providing oversight for the mortgage agency.
The congressman has denied being lobbied by his father, but at his press conference Corker repeated allegations previously made by his campaign to the effect that his opponent had signed on to legislation beneficial to Fannie Mae.
Corker’s second proposal was for a full disclosure of funding sources for congressional travel and was accompanied by this statement: “Thus, when a member of Congress gets a free trip as Congressman Ford has done 69 times citizens know who is footing the bill and what they might expect in return.”
The third, more politically neutral proposal read this way: “Earmarks or money for special projects should be fully disclosed 48 hours before there is a final vote to ensure accountability and maximize transparency. The Line-Item Veto should also be passed, so the President can strike specific projects from a bill if he believes they are wasteful, extraneous or contrary to the national interest."
But even as Corker delivered these proposals and entertained questions about them, he and everyone else present knew that the real issues had somehow been dealt with outside during the impromptu parking-lot debate.
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.
How much that can be dented by the unexpectedness of Ford’s tactic may be some key to just how expansive the Democrat’s “new generation” appeal is at this stage and to whom. In the numbers game that this like all other elections finally is, that’s really the question.