The following article is taken from the February 2010 issue of the Main Street Journal. Click “Subscribe Online” above to start your subscription.
What Is Harold Ford Jr. Up To?
By: Michael Roy Hollihan
The popular local mythology has treated Harold Ford Junior as the golden child of the country village of Memphis who set off for the magical land of Washington, with the best that the village can give him to aid in the journey and the well-wishes of the villagers pushing him along like a wind at his back. We tend to treat news of him like family stories and his media appearances like suddenly spotting a relative on the TV.
In a still-prescient profile of Ford from 2004, the Nashville Scene’s Roger Abramson commented on Ford’s status as a privileged son, but he too seemed to swoon slightly, even as an outsider looking at Memphis. (Something he also noted.) The article’s title? “Prince Harold.”
It is Peter Beinart, writing in his Daily Beast blog on January 14, who correctly characterizes Ford:
In the United Kingdom, a man like Harold Ford—son of a congressman, nephew to state senators, educated at St. Albans—wouldn’t have to sully himself finding a state. He would live in London, making his way among the political and financial elite, and the party would pick out some safe borough for him, which he might occasionally deign to visit. The framers of the U.S. Constitution didn’t want that. Members of Congress were supposed to be from their states, thus limiting the concentration of power in Washington. Ambitious, pedigreed young politicians were expected to live in the hinterlands and succeed or fail based on their ability to relate to the unwashed masses that lived there.
In that sense, Ford is like Al Gore. Both had fathers (Harold Sr., Al Sr.) who came from middle-class circumstances and were self-driven hard to achieve, who were outsiders who struggled and fought fiercely to move up in the world – both economically and politically. And both eventually gave their children entry into the social and political elite.
For all that Memphis loves to talk about Harold Ford Jr., he just isn’t from around here. He is from the stateless place that centers on Washington and New York, with occasional visits to the slopes of Colorado or New England. Ford knows the local language better than Beinart’s aristocrats, but he’s unmistakably to the manor bred. Look at his disastrous interview with the New York Times, when his speculation about entering the New York Senate race led to media interest. Ford spoke of helicoptering around the boroughs of New York, owning a car and riding taxis, and the Giants. In his failure to connect well to the common man, something that didn’t matter in Memphis, he showed his upper-class manner.
And that’s why he’s been so effortless and unconcerned in giving Tennessee his back as he takes up residence in New York. A. C. Kleinheider, writing in the Nashville City Paper in late January, called Ford a “political nihilist” but that’s wrong. What Kleinheider sees as nihilism is just this stateless aristocratic sense of place, class and entitlement mixed with a peculiarly Ford willingness to jump at the next big chance.
That was first seen not in his ascension to the U.S. House seat of his father – which is the ultimate family inheritance from father to son – but in his surprising move, after just six years in the House, to run for the House Minority Leader’s office against a well-positioned Nancy Pelosi.
Remember, the Speaker opening came about because of the sudden resignation of Rep. Richard Gephardt following the big losses Democrats took in the 2002 elections. It was an uncommon opening and Ford jumped, despite the long odds against him. In fact, he lost the vote of his colleagues, 177 to 29. The remarkable thing is that Ford tried at all, when he clearly had long odds against him. Once he made up his mind, he acted; when he lost, he simply left it behind and kept going.
Then came the 2006 Tennessee election when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist stepped down at the end of his second term. Frist’s move wasn’t entirely unexpected, as he’d been dogged by charges of ineffectual leadership, but it was another opportunity. And, again, Ford took it.
At the beginning, Ford was cursed across the rest of the state for his family name and dogged by their antics. He also faced the popular wisdom that a black man couldn’t win in Tennessee. He ran a tough campaign that is hard to fault in any particular save the airport news conference he crashed where his opponent Bob Corker still managed to make him look foolish.
Ford came close, finishing an impressive 48% to Corker’s victorious 51%. He beat all expectations, save winning. And again, he left defeat behind him and kept moving forward.
After that, Ford’s aristocratic statelessness returned. He left Tennessee altogether to make a permanent home in New York City, working as a financial advisor for Merrill Lynch and as a political instructor at New York University. There were calls from Memphis for him to run for mayor against an unpopular Willie Herenton, but he ignored them almost completely. The villagers wanted him to return, to slay the monster but he was too secure in his new life in the magic, far-off city. Returning would have been shrinking his stage and limiting his options, settling for much less in an executive job his career had never prepared him for.
Ford seemed to have left elected politics for a glamorous life of dilettante academia and cushy financial advising in the capital of that world, New York City.
And then came Hillary Clinton. She stepped down from being Junior Senator of New York to become Secretary of State. Her replacement was a rising Congresswoman, Kirsten Gillibrand. Adding that Gillibrand had only a year in the US Senate, it made her as politically vulnerable as a sitting senator can be. Once again, Ford spotted an opportunity.
Ford’s biggest problem suddenly was a media that didn’t view him as the golden boy; the likable, well-spoken, mediagenic scion. In his time representing the Ninth District, progressive Democrats (who disliked his black social conservatism and anti-populist economics) abided him because he was seen as unremovable from office. When he then ran for the Senate he was a real hope for victory and so, again, progressives muted their criticisms, hoping again to be able to shift his positions after he was in the Senate.
His 2006 Senate run is where he laid all the roadside bombs that are exploding around him today. He made numerous campaign ads and videos, and television talk show appearances, where he touted his strong pro-life stance, his support for the Defense of Marriage Act and his opposition to civil unions, his membership in the NRA. He supported the War on Terror and the Patriot Act. These were all winning positions in Tennessee; in New York, they are anathema to political success.
And so what he did shouldn’t be at all surprising. Ford did what Beinart’s artistocrats would do, what Al Gore and Bill Clinton had done before him when they transitioned from the state to the national stage. He simply began to alter his positions to match his new life and home.
He used his once-mentioned waffle of “some kind of civil union” instead of gay marriage as the corridor to let him join pro-gay marriage New Yorkers. His once clear pro-life stance has just been plainly rejected (as Al Gore once did) for the new pro-choice Ford. His 2006 commercial (where he’s sitting in a Protestant church with a gauzy golden cross over his shoulder) would seem to be conclusive in defining him and yet he’s brazening it out as he flatly repudiates everything in it.
Why? Because the stakes are high. He’ll never return to Tennessee; he’s never planned to. He was never one of us and his statement that he’s been a registered New York voter (even as he’s voted in Memphis until 2008) is one more parting backhand to his former constituents and political supporters.