In late 2008, not long after Hillary Clinton had accepted president-elect Barack Obama's invitation to become secretary of state and resigned her New York U.S. Senate seat, we were tipped by a confidante of Harold Ford Jr., a sometime New Yorker, that the former Memphis congressman and unsuccessful Senate candidate from Tennessee in 2006 hankered for Clinton's vacated seat and might try to wangle the appointment.
Almost as soon as the item appeared in this column, Erik Schelzig of the Associated Press's Nashville bureau was favored with a statement from Ford that he had no such intention.
The incident demonstrated a number of things, among them that Ford — however mighty he had risen in the world, as head of the Democratic Leadership Council, as well-rewarded Merrill Lynch executive, and as established talking head on national TV (first Fox and then MSNBC) — was still sensitive to what we said: that the erstwhile Memphian had shifted his center of gravity at least as far as Nashville, where, among other things, he was an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University — and that Schelzig is a good wire man.
What it did not demonstrate, as was made clear this past week, was that Ford had given up on being a U.S. senator from New York.
Although Ford's renewed interest in the seat became hot political news with the publication of an article last week in The New York Times, it was first foreshadowed in late November by Politico.com writer Glenn Thrush.
Political writers chronicling events in the Empire State are writing about little else these days other than Ford's ambition. The Democratic Party's hierarchs, among them Senate majority leader Harry Reid and President Obama himself, have weighed in on the subject, the latter two as opponents of a Ford challenge to interim U.S. senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
New York's senior senator, Charles Schumer, is also put off by the idea (probably because he reportedly plays Svengali to Gillibrand's Trilby). But Ford has his proponents, including New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, and he added considerably to the stir when he announced that he would not be "bullied" into not running by persons however well placed.
Rather famously, Ford has always enjoyed being talked about as a candidate for this or that office. In 1999-2000, he floated the idea of a candidacy for the Senate against incumbent Bill Frist for as long as possible and then some — only acknowledging there would be no race when the last statewide reporter, well into the campaign year, finally stopped speculating on it.
At least one bio in the New York media this year has suggested that Ford "decided" not to run for Fred Thompson's suddenly vacated seat in 2002. Actually the deciders were the state Democratic powers-that-be, who, still smarting from the prolonged tease of two years earlier and going by seniority rules, had made it clear that they would back Nashville congressman Bob Clement for the run — ultimately a losing one — against Republican Lamar Alexander.
It is in that context that, following the national Democratic debacle in the 2002 elections, the still junior congressman launched and lost his quixotic challenge to Nancy Pelosi for the right to lead the party in the House.
There was nothing indecisive about Ford's run-up to the 2006 campaign for another open U.S. Senate seat, Frist having decided against reelection. This time seniority worked for Ford, and his star power was obvious. But for his ill-considered ambush of one of GOP opponent Bob Corker's press ops, leading to a showdown that the Republican, possibly tipped in advance, plainly won, Ford might well have taken the election.
Other factors in Ford's narrow defeat were a lingering aura of suspicion here and there, especially in rural West Tennessee, about some of the charismatic young congressman's family connections and a growing distaste in progressive circles for his ever-mounting public conservatism.
Like his undeniably populist father and congressional predecessor, Ford had begun his rise from the political left. The issue he was talking up against Frist for the aborted 2000 challenge had been that of patients' rights legislation.
But by 2006, well into the Bush era, Ford had tacked hard right, backing the Republican president in Iraq, publicly dallying with the idea of privatized Social Security, voting for an unforgiving bankruptcy bill as the representative of a congressional district that led the nation in bankruptcies, and even siding with congressional Republicans who demanded federal intervention in the case of brain-dead Terri Schiavo.
He was ambiguous on the issue of abortion and reliably against a cause whose time had not yet quite come — that of same-sex marriage — voting for a constitutional amendment to ban it outright.
Such were Ford's derelictions from prevailing Democratic dogma that even his puzzled uncle, then state senator John Ford, mere days before being busted in the Tennessee Waltz scandal that would land him his first federal rap, would wonder out loud to me on a car trip from Nashville to Memphis, "What's Harold Jr. doing?"
What he was doing, of course, was practicing realpolitik as he saw it. It didn't work for him in 2006, not quite. But Ford still swears by the principle. It's just that in New York, especially with ambitious Democrats dependent on votes in the socially liberal Big Apple, the issue-pendulum swings the other way.
Hence his now-famous response to NBC's Matt Lauer, who this week extracted an unequivocal on-air endorsement of same-sex marriage from Ford, who went on to explain that, like such eminences as Bill Clinton and his current antagonist Schumer, he had been brought to change his mind.
"I'm of the opinion now that nothing is wrong with that," Ford said.
To Be Continued. '
Much of last week's column was devoted to chronicling the funeral of former Tennessee lieutenant governor John Wilder, who died at the age of 89. As moving and well-attended as the last rites for the venerable Wilder had been, that event in Somerville clearly evoked the end of a life cycle.
It was otherwise in Memphis this past weekend, as the friends of Lauren Hesse concluded what had been a week-long vigil with the funeral Saturday of the young activist — she had made it one day past her 44th birthday — at St. Anne's Catholic Church.
Appropriately, Hesse was buried in the casual garb that had been hers as a mainstay of so many local causes and cultural institutions — the Center for Southern Folklore, the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, and Celtic music events everywhere.
Most of these involvements were in tandem with her longtime partner, Steve Steffens, otherwise known as the well-read blogger LeftWingCracker. She had relatively recently been brought into the orbit of young and youngish progressives who meet weekly at R P Billiards on Highland under the rubric of Drinking Liberally.
By the time of her unexpected and premature passing, apparently brought on by heart failure occasioned by an asthmatic attack, Hesse had become as central a figure as any in this group of bloggers and political activists and had wholly captured their affections.
From the onset of her illness to the time of her burial, Hesse was attended by her loving family, by friends, and by a host of well wishers from the political world — mostly Democrats but some independents and Republicans as well. It was rank-and-file and Who's Who all at once, and it was informed by a spirit, not of a completed life cycle, as in the case of Wilder, but of an interrupted life and one that was continuing in the work and thoughts and lives of those Hesse left behind.
Walter Bolton, a deacon at St. John's Church and an uncle of the deceased, struck exactly the right note when he observed that survivor Steffens, as a Buddhist, was like himself, as a Catholic, in believing that Lauren's soul was eternal.
And you could see evidence of that in the days after the funeral when Steffens and his fellow bloggers went back to work. It was still them writing, but there were indelible traces of Lauren Hesse in what they did. You could tell.