Chameleon 

The political nihilism of Harold Ford Jr.

"I want to personally thank the many across our state and country who urged me to run for governor. There will be another race and time to ask for your support."

Those were the words of Harold Ford Jr. bowing out of the race for Tennessee governor just 10 months ago — nearly two years after he now claims he moved to New York to live with his new wife.

Yes, despite holding a Tennessee drivers license and being on the voter rolls in Shelby County until two weeks ago, Harold is a New Yorker now and boasts an issues portfolio entirely consistent with the progressive electorate of that state.

Of course — as countless pundits, prognosticators, and politicos have noted — his portfolio didn't always look so cosmopolitan. In fact, when his interest in the New York Senate seat first became public, I immediately thought Ford, while a lifelong Democrat, might have to think about eschewing the closed primary and make an independent run for the seat. After all, a dramatic switch from good ole boy Tennessee Southern Democrat to New York liberal in three short years just wasn't plausible.

But Ford is far more brazen than anyone imagined. Junior has not merely adapted to New York; he has done a clear, abrupt, and unabashed about-face. He has turned his back on just about everything he stood for in 2006, when he ran for Senate against Bob Corker.

Amazingly, he's not even asking New Yorkers to accept and understand a dramatic transformation storyline. Instead, he's denying any significant alteration of his politics. Ford asserts that he has not suddenly become pro-gun-control, gay-friendly, pro-choice, and pro-immigrant. He maintains that he always has been. Ford and his new New York spokesman bristle at the insinuation that Ford's record is not completely consistent with his new progressive electorate.

Ford is by no means the first politician to try and sneak one by the voters, but he may very well be the first to attempt a transformation of this magnitude in the age of YouTube. There aren't just dry records of his anti-gay-marriage votes in the Congressional Record and bland newspaper accounts of his right-wing 2006 campaign in Lexis/Nexis — there's video. A lot of it.

On gay marriage, one of the few areas Ford concedes even the slightest evolution, his conversion story is that despite being against "gay marriage" (rhetorically speaking), he has supported civil unions from the moment he entered Congress in 1997. When asked for evidence of this assertion, spokesman Davidson Goldin said it was "undisputed."

Asked again for evidence the media could use to confirm the claim, Goldin provided none. No vote in the Congress. No clips from old news reports.

I covered Junior's campaign for U.S. Senate against Bob Corker. In 2006, Ford wanted desperately to leave voters with the impression he abhorred gay marriage and thought it offensive to his faith. He wanted voters to believe that his few votes to restrict abortion amounted to a pro-life record. He wanted voters to believe he had no intention of making any moves against the NRA on firearms legislation. And, more than anything, he tried to get to the political right of his opponent with a fierce advocacy of clamping down on "illegals."

We like to believe — underneath all the strategy, posturing, and maneuvering — politics really is about something. It may look dirty, but we want to believe everyone has some sort of policy goal, some set of core beliefs for which they fight. But for more politicians than not, politics isn't about anything but politics. Public service is not a calling, and there is no moral center; it's just a job. It's what they do. And Ford is pretty damn good at what he does.

In 2006, Ford lost in a Republican state where his race and family name were a severe handicap. He convinced more than a few Reagan Democrats — and probably a few Reagan Republicans — that he, a Memphis Ford, was on their side.

He didn't do it because he believed any of what he was saying. That much is clear now. And he didn't do it for the greater purpose of serving progressive ideals. He did it to win a race. He needed poor and middle-class redneck whites to vote for him, so he donned a camouflage hat and stood in front of a Confederate flag. In New York, he needs to rally the black vote, hold onto Wall Street, and mollify white progressives. And one way or another he'll do that, too.

Ford's nihilistic attitude toward politics may be an extreme example of the typical officeholder, but he is not unique. Ford just happens to gamble bigger and play the game at a higher level than most.

(A.C. Kleinheider is blogger/aggregator for the Nashville Post and the City Paper up thataway, where this essay first appeared.)

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