Hill Bookshelf: Life in the Shadow of His Father

Harold Ford Jr.'s Political Career Seemed Inevitable, but Did He Really Want It?

Posted September 3, 2010 at 2:44pm

There are two kinds of political autobiographies: the retrospective, walk-into-the-sunset memoir, and the narrative-building, entrée-to-greater-things glorification. The former serves to polish legacies; the latter paves the way for political gain.

Harold Ford Jr.’s “More Davids Than Goliaths,” published during a campaign season in which he very publicly almost ran, rests squarely in the latter category. But it seems unlikely to sway voters for whom Ford has been an imperfect fit. If you already begrudged Ford his moderate Democratic politics and apparent inheritance of his father’s office, the book offers you few apologies.

The five-term Tennessee Congressman is known most recently for approaching the race for the New York Senate seat held by Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand and then quickly retreating, after New Yorkers caught on to his hasty switches to the liberal side on hot-button issues such as gun control and gay marriage.

Such a reversal of philosophies makes one wonder what motivates a person to enter politics in the first place — a question perhaps inadvertently answered by the anecdote on Page 1 of “More Davids,” in which a 4-year-old Harold records an advertisement for his campaigning dad, former Rep. Harold Ford Sr. (D-Tenn.). What does it mean that Junior has been politicking since before he knew what it meant?

The younger Ford never emphasizes a reason for his devotion to politics, other than it being instilled in him by family tradition. He writes far more about campaigning and engaging with his constituents than he does about pushing any set of policies. He denounces ideological steadfastness as “a precursor to failure when one was searching for answers to hard policy questions,” as if political philosophy and expectations of policy outcomes can be neatly differentiated. And he even seems to relish defying Democratic authority, writing that criticism from the left only emboldened him.

“I don’t think the party label means much to him,” Ford Sr. said to journalist Dana Milbank in a 1998 New York Times Magazine profile.

Can you fault Junior for the inevitability of his political career and the lack of organic inspiration that might come with it? Maybe his flip-flopping is just another way of saying he stays true to his constituency. “The policies I supported came right out of what I felt the people in my district needed and wanted,” Ford writes. Isn’t this the vaunted post-partisanship of which we dream?

If it is, it’s not quite working for Ford. Aside from getting chased out of New York’s 2010 Senate race, a failure his book never mentions, he suffered a discouraging 3-point loss in the 2006 Senate race after the GOP ran a series of shamelessly racist ads down the stretch of the Tennessee race. And in 2002, Nancy Pelosi trampled him 6-to-1 in her ascension to Democratic House leadership. Ford failed to even win over the Congressional Black Caucus; in his book, he chalks that up to the group having “become the establishment.”

Regardless of whether the CBC is the establishment, Ford certainly is not. He has failed to find a constituency that appreciates both his heritage and his politics. As long as he has his National Rifle Association membership, anti-gay-marriage voting record and ideas about Social Security retrenchment, his career goes nowhere in New York. And going back to his demographically difficult home state with his tail between his legs hardly seems to be an option. For a politician who says he speaks only for his constituency, he has ironically failed to find one to embrace him, other than the one in his father’s former district.

Ford writes at great length about the process of running for his father’s seat, framing it as an election won with only scant direct assistance from the locally beloved 11-term Congressman. Ford Sr. was the first African-American elected to Congress from Tennessee and is still the only African-American Democrat ever to unseat an incumbent Republican in Congress. He never lost a Congressional race. Having built his career in a predominantly white district, overcome the local election commission’s attempted sabotage in his first election and beat politically motivated charges of fraud in a six-year ordeal of a trial, Ford Sr. was not going to gift-wrap the seat for his son.

“It would be naïve and disingenuous of me to say that my name and connections were not enormously helpful,” Ford Jr. writes. “They were. But … there would be no simple transfer of loyalty and commitment from my father’s supporters to me.” Indeed, he seemed to have started rather humbly — speaking at dozens of elementary school graduations as his first public appearances — but, unavoidably, supporters’ praise often included: “He reminds me of his father.”

Clearly, the inheritance factor has not extended beyond Tennessee’s 9th district. Ford ends most of the chapters in the beginning and middle of the book with the refrain, “I was still learning.” If another memoir is in the 40-year-old’s future, he still has a little more learning to do.