Wednesday, February 9, 2005



Posted By on Wed, Feb 9, 2005 at 4:00 AM

STARTING THE CLOCK Part One of Two: U.S. Representative Harold Ford Jr. is, as I write, on the cusp of formally announcing his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2006.

The congressman paired up with Governor Phil Bredesen in Memphis last week for a well-publicized forum on “faith-based” approaches to health care -- a joint appearance that was, depending on one’s perspective, either a dog-and-pony show or a useful and innovative discussion with local clergy.

Afterward, he abruptly terminated a press availability in the middle of a serious -- and neutrally posed -- question to him about the outlook for Social Security legislation in the current session of Congress. Then he threw some needlessly spiteful remarks in my direction. To be honest, I found myself torn between forgiving his sins, as the Savior hath commanded, and momentary contemplation of several less charitable scenarios.

In the end, I just decided it was time to dilate briefly on an essential dilemma presented by this rising young politician, who is both gifted, as the existence of an impressive number of largely uncritical political and media supporters would indicate, and flawed, as many who know him best also realize.

The proximate reason for Ford’s petulant behavior last week was his lingering resentment of a recent Flyer cover story, “Tilting Right?” -- which appeared in our January 13th issue and chronicled a rising tide of criticism of the Congressman from prominent members of the blogosphere who were angered at what they saw as Ford’s openness to this or that proposal for Social Security privatization. We sought a perspective from the congressman early on, when there was a good chance of constructing the article around his own point of view. He responded reluctantly, it seemed, and so late in the game that his position, though given prominence and length, had basically to be appended in a separate section.

Trust me: It was hard to pin down Ford on the matter. This is clearly a politician who enjoys being enjoyed, and he greatly prizes keeping his avenues open to the folks across the aisle. On the day in late 1998 that Bill Clinton was being impeached in the House of Representatives, Ford wandered over to the Republican side and spent much time in friendly, arm-squeezing conversation with his GOP colleagues. His own vote on Clinton’s behalf had been tempered by (perhaps justifiable) remarks on the floor that were critical of the then president’s highly publicized philandering. Ford is a master of the kind of ambiguous phrasing that, said on the stump, sounds impassioned -- if vague -- to fellow Democrats but, couched in Congressional-Speak in the House itself, appears conciliatory -- and sometimes more -- to Republicans, many of whom continue to solicit the congressman for a switch of his allegiance.

Even so, what the congressman said in our pages last month, including a repudiation of President Bush’s proposal for diverting portions of the Social Security tax into private investment accounts, was enough to get him off the hook with several of his critics, including the noted columnist/blogger Joshua Micah Marshall, who thereby removed Ford’s name from his “Fainthearted Faction” list of Democrats presumed to be backing Bush’s privatization scheme. There would seem to be little doubt that the clarification of his views which we published, and which the aspiring senator has amplified on since, will serve him well indeed in his forthcoming Democratic primary campaign.

But the congressman was, to put it politely, aggrieved, and in a subsequent phone call allowed as how a couple of us at the Flyer had proved to be sorry excuses for “friends.” (Intimates of Ford’s have since revealed that the congressman, who was once picked by People Magazine as one of its 50 Most Beautiful, was particularly irked over how he was portrayed in an independently prepared cover illustration.) Now, we have often been favorably disposed to the congressman, and Ford has from time to time manifested smoothness in our personal relations, even charm. But he has never been what you would call “friendly.”

And, of course, friendship is somewhat beside the point of the kind of fair-minded journalistic scrutiny we owe our readers and even public officials like the congressman himself. There is more to be said about this up-and-coming public figure whose forthcoming race for the Senate we intend to cover in comprehensive, fair-minded, and -- fear not, revealing -- detail. To be continued.

Political developments to watch: The Shelby County Commission may cross the Rubicon Monday on picking a successor to state Senator Roscoe Dixon, now an aide to county mayor A C Wharton; the county’s Republicans are holding their preliminary caucuses this week in preparation for their biennial convention later this month. Bill Giannini seems the next likely chairman, as his only declared opponent, Terry Rowland, has back-and-forthed on a candidacy; county Democrats square off this weekend to vote on whether their own convention will occur in April, along with other state parties, or in July, as chairman Kathryn Bowers has requested. State Senator Steve Cohen continues his own square-off with Gov. Phil Bredesen in proposing a cigarette tax that would allow the current roster of Tenn-Care enrollees to be maintained.

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