The Trouble with Harold Ford, Jr.

If you believe, as I do, that with the retirement of Daniel Patrick Moynihan from the U.S. Senate the brightest flame in government was snuffed, you might also marvel at how the seat that once belonged to the distinguished gentleman from New York has been eyed and picked over by only the least worthy successors. Clinton, Kennedy, Gillibrand — two beneficiaries of their own surnames with a shared sense of entitlement the size of the Hudson River, and one gubernatorial appointment who has so far made cheerful consensus and a perfect NRA rating the fresh face of New York exceptionalism.


To this sad assembly it seemed natural, not to say foreordained, that Harold Ford, Jr., a former representative from Tennessee and lately an MSNBC news analyst, Merrill Lynch executive, and Democratic Leadership Council chairman, should announce his membership.

If you read closely Ford’s extensive interview with Michael Barbaro of the New York Times this month — no easy feat in itself — then you came away with the following understanding of the prospective legislator:

1. Even though he donated to Kristen Gillibrand’s campaign two days after she’d been appointed senator in 2008, and did so solely at the request of an unnamed mutual friend, Ford sees no contradiction in opposing her now or in mildly assailing her legitimacy as unelected.

2. Most of Ford’s time in Manhattan has been spent being driven from his home to the MSNBC studio on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue — except when it’s too cold and difficult to hail a cab; then he takes the subway.

3. Ford took a guided tour of the five boroughs with Sir Harold Evans and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, and because their helicopter landed in Staten Island, he can safely say he’s been there.

4. Ford’s appreciation of New York football is limited to the time he’s spent at either team’s home venue as the invited guest of the respective owners of the Jets and Giants (the Jets win by that metric).


5. Ditto baseball (the Yanks take it).

6. Ford became a supporter of gay marriage because of the political pressure he faced as an opponent of it.

Just as your mandible begins its slow ascent back into place, Ford outdoes himself as a shameless carpetbagger in yet another hometown newspaper, the Daily News, announcing that he’s a regular Joe Chardonnay, chauffeured to work only once a week, and on strict network executive orders. Oh, and he “loves the smell of New York,” a claim that not even the Tammany princeling Al Smith, who professed to be educated at the fish markets of Fulton Street, ever hazarded.

As the blogger Adam Holland reminded me recently, there are other, more sobering reasons why Gotham doesn’t need Ford.

In August 2008, Ford mentored a Democratic primary candidate for his former congressional seat from the ninth congressional district of Tennessee, located in Shelby County and which encompasses most of Memphis. Ford’s protégé was Nikki Tinker, who was challenging the more liberal incumbent of her party, Steve Cohen, who in the event won the nomination and then re-election.

Cohen was originally elected in 2006 after defeating Tinker in that primary as well. His success represented a regional milestone as he became the only white congressman from a black-majority Southern district, a fact that rather upset Tinker, who, in her second run against him, took the tack of manufacturing or condoning anti-Semitic ads against Cohen. The most notorious of these was a semi-literate leaflet produced by Rev. George Brooks of Murfreesboro, TN, a city that falls outside the ninth district, that read:


Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen and the Jews Hate Jesus. So Memphis Christians must united and support ONE Black Christian to represent Memphis in the United State Congress in 2008. Simply because this Congressional district is predominantly black. And Christian, in terms of religion, who love and believe in JESUS, while Jews do not.

Tinker took a full two days, before being buttonholed by a reporter from the Associated Press, to disavow the contents of this leaflet, although its blighting presence in and around Memphis had been much discussed in the local press up to that point. Her reluctance may have been due to an overt sympathy with Rev. Brooks’ sentiments since it didn’t take long before the Tinker campaign put out its own Jew-baiting television spot, couched in only slightly more refined form. In the ad, a black child, hands clasped together, recited a prayer while the narrator intoned: “While he’s in our churches clapping his hands and tapping his feet, he was the only senator who thought our kids shouldn’t be allowed to pray in school.”

Former Shelby County Commissioner Walter Bailey defended this disgraceful piece of innuendo, which was subsequently removed from the Tinker website. After the scandal reached national headlines, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama denounced the ad somewhat lamely as an “incendiary and personal attack,” and the frequently empurpled MSNBC pundit Keith Olbermann named Tinker the “Worst Person in the World” on August 6, 2008. Even Tinker’s own formidable support base began to distance itself from her: Emily’s List, a pro-choice women’s political action committee that had been her biggest organizational fundraiser, condemned the campaign message which it had probably helped finance.


But why anyone should have professed shock at Tinker’s tactics is a mystery since, according to Eric Kleefeld of the liberal Talking Points Memo blog, she was all too willing to discuss her take on racial politics and electability in the Deep South to anyone who bothered to listen:

A Washington Dem source told Election Central that the roots of Tinker’s strategy were apparent as far back as a 2006 fundraiser. “I was at this event where she said that she didn’t think this other guy Steve Cohen was gonna win because the constituents weren’t gonna support somebody who doesn’t accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior,” the source said. “Everyone’s jaw kind of dropped, and certainly we didn’t write her a check.”

Noticeably, Ford waited an entire news cycle before calling out his protégé for her cynical and desperate broadside — a torpid damage control reflex compared to the swiftness with which Ford had handled his own brother’s chauvinism that same year. Indeed, what made the whole House race in Tennessee even more bizarre was the presence of Ford’s sibling Jake on the ballot; he also ran for the ninth district seat in the general elections of 2006 and 2008, but as an independent.

In 2008, Jake Ford announced at the outset of his campaign that Memphis owed it to itself to elect a black politician over a white one, which, even before the Tinker melodrama commenced, drew Harold’s immediate censure: “I want to make clear my brothers’ comments are not mine. I reject them. … I don’t believe any candidate’s fitness for office should be measured or determined by race or gender.”


Need it be mentioned at this point that the ninth district seat previously belonged to one Harold Ford, Sr.? The paterfamilias of this miniature Kennedy clan had openly backed his son Jake in both elections, while his other son and namesake ostensibly supported Tinker. Harold, Jr. had cultivated her, after all, and together with his new wife, Emily Threlkeld Ford, donated the maximum legal amount to her campaign in 2008. Are we to believe that he knew absolutely nothing of her racial and religious bigotries or her low regard for voters’ intelligence in Shelby County?

In 2010 the significance of this odd event seems paramount. Before Massachusetts gave up its partisan fealty out of loathing for the presumptuousness of the local Democratic establishment beholden to one lackluster gene pool, Tennessee opted to make up its own mind as to whom to dispatch to Washington. It ended a minor dynastic succession and rebuffed the worst appeals to prejudice made on behalf of one family and its groomed surrogates. New York has passed on shabby political inheritances before; it should do so again.


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