Going For It 

When opportunity knocks, shouldn't one answer the door?

Word from the horse's mouth -- or very close to it -- is that U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Memphis will in fact throw caution to the March winds and announce very shortly that he'll seek the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate to succeed Fred Thompson, who became an 11th-hour dropout last week.

Simultaneously, another local congressman, Republican Ed Bryant of the 7th District, has already cast his die in the face of none-too-subtle pressure to step aside from ex-Governor/presidential candidate Lamar Alexander -- and maybe even from the White House itself, which sees the now open Tennessee seat as perhaps the swing one in determining which party controls the Senate.

Bryant evinced real nerve in waiting the minimum amount of time between Thompson's formal bowing-out ritual, which included a Friday night farewell speech to Madison County Republicans (one introduced by Bryant himself) and his own Saturday morning announcement of candidacy in Henderson.

He was in effect daring the White House to stop him and offered the olive branch of a reference to Bush's "compassionate conservatism" -- a slogan which Alexander trashed as "weasel words" during his own futile bid for the 2000 GOP presidential nomination.

So it is already clear that if Bryant leaves the field it will be -- one way or another -- on his shield.

Junior, too, is showing some audacity. If he follows through and goes for broke, he will be disregarding a lot of well-intentioned advice to the tune of: Hold on there, young feller, wait this one out, be patient, you've got time!

Except that Ford may not have time, and he understands that a lot better than many of the cautionary types trying to hold him up -- self-appointed third-base coaches who've never touched home plate in their lives.

Consider: Harold Ford Jr., who'll turn 32 during the course of the primary campaign, has been commanding the kind of respectful, even adulatory, attention from the national media which they reserve for a wunderkind. Indeed, one of Ford's frustrations has to be that -- unlike an Elvis or a Leonardo DiCaprio -- he is in a field that doesn't normally permit shooting stars to go all the way to the top. There are too many built-in stops in the calendar of politics.

Moreover, the media are fickle, and age and attrition are phenomena that occur in all careers. (Speaking of which, what ever happened to Leonardo DiCaprio?) Ford has a chance now to run for an open seat; there's no telling when there will be another such opportunity. Some four, eight, 10, 12 years down the line he won't be any better-positioned for a race and could be far worse off, especially considering that the press will almost certainly have found new and fresher specimens to lionize by then.

There's also the danger, especially after his prolonged flirtation with a possible Senate race in 2000 against the state's other incumbent senator, Bill Frist, that Ford may be accused of crying wolf if he passes up the current race.

Ford understands this logic and has made it himself to various Nervous Nellies and doubters of his acquaintance. He is also far-sighted enough to see that, a few seasons hence, the Ford bench strength has eroded to the point that the clan might not be able to field a potential successor to the 9th District political base, which has been in the family since the mid-'70s.

Right now, there is Uncle John Ford, a large-enough figure -- even if controversial -- to run a more than credible race for the congressional seat.

So the young congressman seems prepared to go for it. Both he and Bryant will attempt to validate the old saw about Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained, a pragmatic version of which might be stated this way: You can't win these things if you're not on the ballot.

History remembers the crapshooters -- Clinton, Frist, etc. -- who gambled on the odds and won. Nobody remembers the play-it-safers who finally didn't even play.

Jackson Baker is a senior editor of the Flyer.

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