Politics » Politics Feature

Harold Ford's Imperfect Storm



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.

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