The visit to Memphis Wednesday of former president Bill Clinton was intended, it would seem, to ignite the Get-Out-the-Vote fervor among local Democrats on behalf of U.S. Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr., a rising political star who is locked in a back-and-forth struggle with Republican Bob Corker with less than a week to go before the November 7th election.
Clinton, who was governor in next-door Arkansas for more than a decade before becoming president, has a stout following in Memphis especially in the citys majority black population, key to the kind of large home-town turnout that Ford, an African American, needs to balance Corker strength elsewhere in red-state Tennessee. Taking no chances, Ford plans a series of joint appearance in Nashville on Sunday with Illinois senator Barack Obama arguably the Democratic Partys best sure-fire draw these days (after, perhaps, anybody named Clinton.).
The former presidents appearance in Memphis was at the COGIC (Church of God in Christ) Temple of Deliverance in downtown Memphis, before a mid-morning crowd of several thousand that, however, failed to fill the cavernous church sanctuary that Bishop G.E. Patterson jested (partly in response to criticism of possible church-state conflict) was the best venue in town.
As expected, Clinton hailed Rep. Ford's Senate bid as an opportunity for the country to move "beyond race." Acknowledging possible differences of opinion with the increasingly conservative Ford on some issues, Clinton said, "If we agree on everything, one of us isn't thinking."
Also on the stage with Clinton and Ford were Tennessee congressmen John Tanner of the nearby 8th congressional district and Lincoln Davis of the 4th District, which snakes through all three grand divisions of the state. Tanner and Davis, like Ford himself, are members of the conservative "Blue Dog" caucus, a fact which prompted Clinton to tell the trio that, collectively, they had "taken race out of redneck."
In an allusion to the controversial Republican National Committee TV ad which played off Ford's attendance at a Playboy magazine-sponsored Super Bowl party, one in which a scantily clad woman says flirtatiously, "Call me, Harold," Clinton (who had a problem or two along these lines during his presidency) voiced approval of Ford's response: "'I plead guilty. I like football and girls.'"
Sounding notes of moderation consistent with the Memphis-based candidates markedly conservative stump rhetoric, Clinton said Ford's victory was necessary as a part of an overdue political shift away from the control of the "ideologues" now in charge in Washington to what the former president foresaw as a coalition between legitimate progressives and conservatives in Congress. On Iraq, Clinton disputed Republican allegations that Democrats wanted to "cut and run," saying, "What we want to do is stop and think."
A significant backstory to Clintons visit was some palpable tension involving the race to succeed Ford as representative from Memphis 9th Congressional District. The winner of the 15-strong Democratic primary in August was state Senator Steve Cohen, a brash but effective longtime legislator who has been endorsed by the two local African-American mayors, Willie Herenton of Memphis and A C Wharton of surrounding Shelby County, along with various other prominent black officials and civic leaders.
But Cohen, who is white and Jewish, was never cottoned to by a local ad hoc group of black ministers who insisted that the district should be represented by an African American and maintained that Cohen, who polled some 20 percent of the black vote in August, won only because of the plentitude of black candidates running against him. As it happens, Rep. Fords brother Jake Ford, a political unknown quantity supported by the family patriarch, former congressman Harold Ford Sr., has mounted an independent campaign creating a three-way race between Cohen, himself, and Republican Mark White. The congressman himself has affected a posture of public neutrality, angering some Democrats who believe that party loyalty requires Rep. Ford to reciprocate Cohens own support of his Senate bid.
All this came to a head Wednesday when Cohen, escorted by the two mayors as well as by actress Cybill Shepherd, a native Memphian, took front-row seats for the Clinton event. Rep. Ford publicly introduced the two mayors as a group and Shepherd separately but made no mention of Cohen, a public supporter of the congressmans Senate candidacy. . When Clinton took the dais for his own remarks, however, he made a point of acknowledging Cohen, who received considerable applause.
Meanwhile, Jake Ford was never introduced by name, either by Rep. Ford or by Clinton, but both acknowledged the presence of the Ford "brothers." All of this was the sum total of some complicated behind-the-scenes maneuvering, whereby Cohen had been assured by mutual friends of himself and the former president that Clinton would see to it that Cohen got recognition appropriate to his status as Democratic nominee.
When Clinton did so, introducing Cohen by name, it served as a de facto resolution to this almost Jamesian subplot, which earlier had seen members of the Ford organization working the event attempting to minimize media attention to Cohen, even to the point of heading off photographers who tried to get snapshots of him.
And, in yet another of several personal confrontations that have marked his congressional race, Jake Ford, also in a front-row seat along with brother Isaac, had declined a handshake and aimed harsh words at local Democratic Party chairman Matt Kuhn, who happened by before Wednesday's program began. Kuhn said later that Ford (who, among other problems, has had to acknowledge a youthful arrest record) was apparently miffed at remarks the chairman had made in support of party nominee Cohen during an East Memphis Rotary Club debate last week.
Beyond the burlesque of it all were serious political issues, most of them relating to an ongoing local power struggle between, on one hand, the extended Ford organization (several family members and supporters hold public office of various kinds) and, on the other, various Democrats and unaffiliated activists, both white and black, who think its time to brake the influence of the family, one of whose prominent members, former state senator John Ford, will shortly be tried on charges of bribery and extortion as part of the FBIs Tennessee Waltz sting operation.
For clear and obvious reasons, this simmering drama could also have some effect on the outcome of the touch-and-go Senate race, one in which Rep. Ford has campaigned impressively, with both his own future political power and possible Democratic control of the Senate very much at stake. Ominously, Fords GOP opponent Corker has already made several references to the Ford family dynasty as a potential threat to the states political welfare.
Especially in the last several days of intense, campaigning for both the Senate seat and the 9th District congressional seat, an overlap between the two could generate some serious combustion.