December 15, 2003


Harold, in the wings: Political stage could someday see a very new President Ford, observers say (James W. Brosnan, December 14, 2003, Memphis Commercial Appeal)

In two years, when Ford reaches the qualifying age of 35 "his name, I think, will automatically go into the hopper, permanently," University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said.

"If you could look into a crystal ball and say, over the next 25 years, who would be the first African-American president and all you knew is who is there now, you would have to say Harold Ford Jr. and Jesse Jackson Jr.," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution.

Former president Clinton said at the recent awards dinner at the National Civil Rights Museum, "I hope I live long enough to vote for him myself."

Heady stuff for a four-term congressman who has yet to chair a committee hearing, yet to shepherd a controversial piece of legislation to passage, and yet to fulfill some personal goals: getting married, starting a family, passing the Tennessee bar exam.

"I'm flattered," Ford said in response to the presidential speculation. But: "It's not something I wake up thinking about. It's not something I go to bed thinking about."

Observers say Ford has stepped into the spotlight through a combination of innate talent, politics and drive that surfaced early in his life. [...]

In 1996, running his first campaign for public office, Ford was elected to succeed his father.

Arnold Perl, chairman of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, said the younger Ford learned from his father's emphasis on constituent service. Harold Ford Jr.'s efforts his rookie year to win $66 million in federal aid for their two-mile runway, Perl said, was "the most effective case of representation I had ever seen."

But Ford also signaled that his interests would go far beyond the district.

"I saw the same thing in Harold that I saw with Bill Clinton when he was 26 years old, in a positive way," Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., said. "He is really smart. He has a sixth sense about politics that is unmatched in my generation and in his." [...]

Ford Jr. also joined the moderate "Blue Dog" coalition and has amassed a more conservative voting record than his father or current African-American congressmen. He was one of only four members of the Congressional Black Caucus to support the war with Iraq.

Ford bristles at comparisons to other black officials.

"Why do you keep putting me in that box?" he said. "Why can't it be, 'One of those Democrats, or one of those Blue Dogs, in support of it?' "

But Ford also acknowledges that some of his frequent appearances on cable television talk shows can be attributed to the fact he is an African-American moderate whose views run counter to stereotype.

"I think my thinking closely parallels where people my age think, be they black or white," Ford said. [...]

Becoming the first African-American senator from the South since the post-Civil War era would be a huge boost to Ford's White House hopes. But if he loses, he could be tagged, like one of his mentors, former vice president Al Gore, with the label "Can't Carry His Home State."

"It's a big risk," Sabato said. "But in politics, everything is a risk if you want to be president. You can't play it safe."

Of course, the biggest question involving Ford or any other black presidential candidate is when or whether Americans will ever elect an African-American president.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 92 percent of Americans would consider voting for an African-American as president, compared to 37 percent in 1958.

That's just measuring social acceptance, said David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the leading black think tank.

Polls show that Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican, is the only black American who could be elected president now, Bositis said. Ford's best chance is to be selected as the vice presidential nominee first, he said.

When you have a young man on the make, clear some room for him to make it with you and he'll take it. Mr. Ford's path to the top lies in the GOP, not the Democratic Party--woo him.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 15, 2003 4:58 PM

He's going to have to do something besides being a congresscritter from the permanent minority party, as Gephardt is finding out. And the Senate has proven to be a poor route for both parties.

He should be setting himself up to succeed the current Dem governor of Tennessee if he really does have such aspirations.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at December 15, 2003 5:32 PM

IIRC, he has a 70 ADA rating; not quite GOP material. However, he'd be a good standard bearer for a centrist alternative party if he moves a bit to the right.

Posted by: Mark Byron at December 15, 2003 5:57 PM

Given his relatively youthful age, he may be positioned just about right to run in 2012 or 2016, by which time the core Democratic voters will probably be tired on banging their heads against the wall nomiating liberals and will be more interested in just winning the White House back with a moderate, which is how Clinton was nominated in 1992 after 20 years of liberal nominees and only one successful election (and it only due to Watergate).

Posted by: John at December 15, 2003 6:40 PM


Which do you think he has in greater proportion: ambition or devotion to liberalism?

Posted by: oj at December 15, 2003 7:13 PM

How seriously can you take the political opinion of someone who thinks Jess Jackson Jr. has a shot at the presidency?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at December 15, 2003 7:24 PM

AOG - very good question.

The first black President in our lifetimes will be a Republican, unless there is an event on the scale of the Great Depression.

No black Democrat could be nominated now, not because of racism, but because of sheer foolishness (from Jesse Sr. to John Conyers to Eleanor Holmes-Norton to Kweisi to Barbara Lee to Cynthia McKinney to Al Sharpton and on and on). Harold Ford knows better than to hang with those losers.

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 15, 2003 10:10 PM