Thursday, August 3, 2000

Ford vs. Forrest: a Losing Skirmish?

Setting out to do some sharpshooting at George W's expense, Memphis' congressman misfires.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 3, 2000 at 4:00 AM

PHILADELPHIA -- U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Memphis, where Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest is enough of a legend to have streets and a park named after him, found himself coaxed out onto a shaky limb Wednesday, having boasted that he would “get” Vice President Al Gore to denounce the general, a statue of whom looms prominent in Memphis

The congressman, in the Republicans’ 2000 convention city as part of a Democratic “truth team,” talked with reporters at the media pavilion outside the convention center in the role of an “Al Gore advocate.” In the course of rebuffing the Republicans’ efforts to identify themselves with the principle of diversity, Ford said that Bush was "pandering" to hard-core conservatives and cited Bush's refusal to take a stand against the flying of the Confederate battle flag at the South Carolina state capitol as an example.

On the theory that the sins of the goose are as culpable as those of the gander, a Tennessee reporter asked Ford point-blank whether Gore, as the Democrats’ presidential standard-bearer, should denounce a three-foot bust of Forrest in the state Capitol building. Forrest is, in fact, the most memorialized state hero of any state in the Union, and Tennessee, by statute, recognizes Forrest's birthday each year as an official holiday.

But the general, a master military tactician, has not worn well historically. He was a slave-trader before the Civil War, was accused of massacring black troops in the middle of it, and is credited with founding the Ku Klux Klan after it. That’s three strikes in anybody’s ball game, even if Forrest-- like another bigot of the past, baseball player Ty Cobb - performed unquestionably great deeds within his professional specialty. .

Questioned about the comparison of Forrest's statue to the South Carolina flag flap, Ford said the statue is different because it "doesn't fly over the state capitol."

And when pressed on the issue, Ford said, in what amounted to a throwaway phrase, "I'm not defending Nathan Bedford Forrest. I will write this down, and I will have a conversation with the vice president about it. And we will get a denunciation (from Gore)."

By Wednesday morning, when the news was breaking at various points across Tennessee, gaining for it (and him) notoriety. Ford probably could not have anticipated, the congressman had occasion to rethink his statement. Though early in the day Jodi Bennett, Ford’s press secretary, was saying that Ford would follow through and ask Gore to say something about Forrest the next time he saw the vice president, the congressman had issued a clarification by afternoon, maintaining that it was unnecessary for Gore to make a pronouncement concerning Nathan Bedford Forrest, on the ground that his views concerning racial bigotry were well known.

One thing is for certain: with the votes of his home state looming especially crucial, it is highly unlikely that Al Gore will go out of his way to denounce any legendary son of Tennessee, however difficult it might be to explain Forrest away by today’s social standards. And Harold Ford Jr., whose breathtaking mile-a-minute policy raps have astounded many an observer, may find himself slowing up the next time he approaches a curve. UPDATE (8-3-00).

Said Gore spokeswoman Ellen Melody on Wednesday:

”Of course Al Gore strongly opposes the Ku Klux Klan and everything it stands for. But as for Nathan Bedford Forrest, the NAACP has never asked him to take a position as they did with the Confederate flag in South Carolina. And you obviously don't see a Confederate flag flying over Tennessee’s state capitol...

”George Bush failed to take a stand on it (the South Carolina flag),” she said. “The Republicans are basically embarrassed by their failure to lead on this issue.”

As for further Gore commentary on the statue, she said none was available-- pointing out that the vice president is on vacation in North Carolina.

(All who think either the congressman or the vice president will rush to re-enter this controversy stand on your heads. But don't hold your breath!)

---

Gibbons Upset by Skahan Tactics

District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, attending the Republican convention in Philadelphia, said Wednesday he was "disgusted" by the campaign tactics of Criminal Court candidate Paula Skahan, who, said the D.A., is violating judicial canons governing electoral conduct by her nonstop attacks on candidate Phyllis Gardner, an assistant in his office.

Gibbons called the attacks, which have been featured in ads, press releases, and campaign statements by Skahan and surrogates, "unprecedented and based on misrepresentations." Of the charge that Gardner was ever subject to censure or a finding of judicial misconduct for her conduct of the Georgian Hills child molestation case of 1988-9, Gibbons said, "It's a lie. It never happened."

(Gardner did have a conviction overturned by a state appeals court, based on the destructon, while in her office's possession, of raw interview footage with children at a Georgian Hills day care center.) Respond to Jackson Baker at: baker@memphisflyer.com

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