The notorious “Call Me” ad may—or may not—have cost former U.S. Representative Harold Ford Jr. C’92 election as the first African-American senator from the South since Reconstruction. But despite his narrow loss in Tennessee last fall, he emerged from the race as “a rock star, basically.”
By Jordana Horn | Photography by Jim Graham
Tracking down Harold Ford C’92 in the first months of 2007 is no mean feat. To get in touch with him requires running interference with multiple public-relations offices, to say nothing of a stubborn willingness to regularly redial numbers in at least three different states. But that only stands to reason. Having plunged into several new ventures since his narrow loss in Tennessee’s Senate race last fall, Ford himself is probably hard-pressed to know where he is on a given day. One thing is sure though: it’s not where he expected to be six months ago.
“God works in mysterious ways. I thought I’d be sitting on the floor of the United States Senate,” Ford says matter-of-factly in a telephone interview during a quick break between meetings. The day we speak is just his third day on the job in Merrill Lynch’s New York office as a vice chairman and senior policy adviser (he’ll split his time between the company’s offices there and in Nashville).
Ford spent the past decade as the Democratic representative from the Ninth District of Tennessee [“Profiles,” February 1997]. He passed up certain re-election to run against Republican Bob Corker for the Senate seat vacated by Bill Frist. After months of tumultuous campaigning, capped off by a controversial (and arguably racist) ad campaign against him by the national Republican party, Ford lost the race by a difference of three percentage points, with a margin of about 50,000 votes out of a bit more than 1.8 million cast.
Finding himself out of elected office for the first time in his adult life—he won his Congressional seat just months after graduating from the University of Michigan Law School in 1996—Ford has more than enough on his plate to keep him busy. There is his job at Merrill Lynch, in which he will be an advisor to senior management on domestic policy, a member of the firm’s public policy and social responsibility management committee, and will work with business development in institutional and retail markets. He will also serve as a visiting professor of public policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, teaching a course on American political leadership.
And he hasn’t abandoned politics entirely. In January he was appointed the new chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). In his first policy address as DLC head, Ford challenged his party to renew its commitment to innovative problem-solving, saying that the DLC would promote an “Ideas Primary,” through a series of forums across the nation, and a new website, IdeasPrimary.com, meant to “foster a real debate on issues rather than process, money, or horse-race considerations.” Still, for many political observers, Ford’s present is incidental, a forced pause between his past accomplishments—which considerably outstrip those of your average 36-year-old—and the heady promise of his political future.
The image of Ford hard at work in his new office, surrounded by half-unpacked boxes, calls up a common metaphor that Ford and others have used to describe his political outlook: He is perhaps one of the most difficult politicians around to put into a predictable ideological “box.” Though a true-blue Democrat, he is also very much his own man.
“He is an example of someone who, in some ways, is too good for politics,” says Frank Luntz C’84, the Republican pollster and cable-TV focus-group maven who taught political science at Penn as an adjunct professor in the early 1990s. (Ford and another former student turned Democratic political operative, Kenneth Baer C’94, make cameo appearances in Luntz’s recent book, Words That Work. In a chapter setting out 10 rules of “effective language,” Luntz tells a story the thrust of which is that Ford delivered his well-received, centrist keynote speech at the 2000 Democratic Convention after Luntz had read and been “appalled” by the partisan address that Baer, then a Gore speechwriter, had crafted for him.)
“He doesn’t play the game the way everybody does, or do it the way everyone does,” Luntz continues. “He’s his own guy, and he tells you exactly what he thinks and feels, regardless of the personal consequences, and that’s why so many people like him, but it also has made his political life more difficult on occasion.
“He’s in the center, in the mainstream of politics … and in party politics, being in the center is not a good thing.”
At times, Ford’s approach seems to be a matter of framing a position on a polarizing issue in non-confrontational terms. For example, Ford characterizes himself as pro-life, and supports a ban on partial-birth abortion, but on his website, he says that his strong Baptist faith informs his perhaps bigger-tent position that he “will continue to work to eliminate abortions in our country without criminalizing what is undoubtedly one of the most tormenting and difficult decisions a woman will ever have to make.”
And while many of Ford’s positions track prevailing national Democratic views—he opposes the death penalty, supports universal health care coverage, and is against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—others definitely do not.
For example, while Ford is no Joe Lieberman (whom, however, unlike many other national figures in his party, he endorsed over Democratic nominee Ned Lamont in the Connecticut Senate race), he has been one of the few Democratic voices telling other Democrats to be more supportive of the war in Iraq. This even as party activists have steadily raised the bar for candidates in terms of opposing the war and calling for a withdrawal of troops.
In January he wrote:
“Democrats should not adopt an ‘I told you so’ approach after the Iraq Study Group’s central finding that the situation in Iraq is dire and that we need to change course. Positive and concrete options are needed—including careful consideration of partitioning the country—to bring enough stability and security to Iraq to convert it from civil war to independence. The Iraq Study Group’s 79 recommendations are a good start, but we should not be afraid to be even bolder if that is what it takes to get things right. Any solution in Iraq may require sending more troops in the short-term to stem the violence—but we should do so only if Iraqis demonstrate the willingness and the ability to rebuild their own country now. With a consensus plan in place and a realistic endgame in sight, the American people will unite behind a greater short-term commitment.
More recently, as debate heated up over linking funding for the war to a deadline for withdrawal, Ford continued to stress the need for opponents of the Bush Administration’s Iraq policies, up to and including the “surge” in combat troops, to propose their own “Plan B” for salvaging the situation rather than simply setting timetables for getting out. To that end, in an op-ed originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Ford called for redefining the U.S. mission in Iraq as “one of training, anti-terrorism operations, and deterrence of foreign intervention and wide-scale ethnic cleansing, while supporting internal and regional efforts to reach a political settlement of ethnic conflicts in the country.” Such a shift in course would by its nature result in a significant drawdown of combat troops—similar to those foreseen in many “deadline for withdrawal” proposals, he said—but without compromising U.S. security interests, triggering a full-scale civil war, or handing extremists a propaganda victory.
“A precipitous withdrawal,” he added, would drive Iraq into the arms of Iran and open the possibility that the country could become a staging area for future terrorist attacks. “A rapid and complete withdrawal from Iraq isn’t really a ‘Plan B’; it’s a ‘Plan Zero’ for liquidating the whole Iraq engagement as hopeless.”
Ford’s willingness to challenge the party’s leadership is longstanding. Back in 2002, with the Bush administration riding high and Democrats seemingly in a quandary, he even went so far, at the ripe old age of 32, as to run for House Minority Leader. He lost, badly, to a certain representative from San Francisco named Nancy Pelosi, but his challenge had the no-doubt expected result of leading political pundits to speculate as to Ford’s political future, and how a victory against Pelosi might have affected the country.
Contrasting Ford with Pelosi, “a savvy but utterly predictable liberal whom Republicans will delight in caricaturing,” Jack White wrote in Time in December 2002, “I wonder if House Democrats will someday regret that they chose Nancy Pelosi instead of brash, young Harold Ford, Jr., to lead them for the remainder of George W. Bush’s first term.”
In November of 2006, Democratic commentator James Carville caused a ruckus when he floated the notion that Ford ought to replace Howard Dean as the head of the Democratic National Committee. “Suppose Harold Ford became chairman of the DNC?” Carville speculated on Meet the Press. “How much more money do you think we could raise? Just think of the difference it could make in one day.” Instantly, the Internet was aflame with angry rebuttals, stating that Ford was not liberal enough to represent the true Democratic party.
As a member of Congress, Ford was a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of “conservative to moderate” Democrats in the House that was formed to give less liberal members of the Democratic Party a more unified voice. The DLC’s members, in contrast, often characterize themselves as “new Democrats,” taking positions somewhat to the left of the Blue Dogs on social issues, while assuming a more centrist stance on economic and trade-related issues. In fact, the National Stonewall Democrats, a grassroots network for lesbian, gay, and bisexual Democrats, voiced their opposition in January to Ford’s appointment as head of the DLC. Although Ford has voted in favor of adoptive rights for gay couples, he had alienated a large component of gay rights supporters by supporting the ban on benefits for same-sex couples as a congressman, as well as the Federal Marriage Amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
Salon’s Thomas F. Schaller was among the doubters on the selection of Ford as DLC chair. “[M]uch like the Republicans’ selection of Florida Sen. Mel Martinez to head the Republican National Committee after an election in which the GOP hemorrhaged Latino support, tapping Ford is a backward-looking attempt to fight the last war,” he wrote in January. Schaller also joined others in noting fundamental obstacles in Ford’s path towards Democratic leadership: “Where Ford may find trouble connecting is with two people who are now among the nation’s most powerful Democrats, Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean. He sought the job of one, was touted as a replacement for the other, and is an ideological peer of neither.”
Ford doesn’t think his positions are overly complex—or contradictory—in the least. “Where I stand on issues is all consistent with who I am,” he says plainly. “I’m for good education. I believe we have to find ways to pay for health care for people who work day in and day out. We have to reduce our dependence on a commodity that has put us in the weirdest position, where we’re funding both sides of a war at the same time.”
Ford is also an aberration from the norm for politicians—wherever they fall on the ideological spectrum—in that he is the only member of Congress to have made People magazine’s list of its “50 Most Beautiful People,” back in 2001. An attractive, charismatic, and never-married Congressman also being something of an anomaly, his dating habits have attracted unwelcome speculation—but more on that later.
Even as an undergraduate history major at Penn, Ford made an impression. Virtually all who met him recognized Ford as exceptional, says English professor Herman Beavers. Ford studied English with Beavers and was also involved in a black-male-student support group that Beavers headed. The group met weekly to discuss a wide range of issues, including potential directions for the campus black community.
“[Harold] was in the first group of students we pulled into the group, and even [though he was] an underclassman, you could see that the juniors and seniors listened intently to what he had to say,” Beavers recalls. “The discussions were lively, and at times, heated, but Harold could present arguments with a relentless precision which made him stand out.”
Everyone in the group was a leader, Beavers notes; leadership skills were among the criteria for being invited to participate. “But it was clear, almost from the beginning, that Harold was going to have a life in the public sphere.” One clear signal was the tremendous “confidence and understanding” Ford showed when interacting with elected officials such as members of Congress and then-Virginia Governor Doug Wilder during Black Caucus Weekend the year Ford was a college sophomore, Beavers recalls.
Not that Ford was likely to be intimidated by these political movers and shakers. After all, he was the talented and charismatic scion of Tennessee’s leading African American political family. His father, Harold Ford Sr., was a Congressman from Tennessee for more than 20 years (it was his seat that Harold Jr. would win when the elder Ford retired). “It was very clear that his family had high expectations, and I think he did not disappoint them,” Beavers says. And despite coming from a life of privilege, Ford was clearly well aware of the fundamental inequities in American society, and felt a degree of personal responsibility to attempt to rectify them.
“Never have I seen a student so able to cross lines of race and class as easily and with as much grace as Harold Ford,” Beavers says. “This is not to suggest that his commitment to black student issues could be questioned—his legacy at Penn includes being one of the students who started The Vision, the black student newspaper—but it is to say that his belief in the political process was, even then, unimpeachable.”
Above all, even as a student Ford’s discourse was always marked by his fundamentally pragmatic outlook. “Teaching Harold Ford remains one of the highlights of my time at Penn, not because of what he has achieved since leaving, but because he really embodied the kind of student with whom you could engage in the give and take of intellectual debate,” Beavers says. “I certainly wish him well and I know we have not heard the last of Harold Ford; he will be back in public life very, very soon.”
Luntz echoes Beavers’ praise and prediction, calling Ford “one of the best products Penn has produced in the last 20 years,” and adding that “Penn alumni ought to be proud that he was a student at Penn, and they should look at him and not just who he was in the past, but hopefully who he will be in the future.”
Ford himself recalls his time at the University fondly. “I was there to get a good education,” he says. “I was proud to be part of starting The Vision, a monthly newspaper that dealt with issues not covered by The Daily Pennsylvanian, but I was also a columnist for the DP.”
Asked about campus racial tensions that occasionally boiled over during those years, in the beginning throes of the maelstrom of “political correctness” and in the wake of the Rodney King beating in California, Ford takes a larger view. “Most college campuses were dealing with opening their curriculums, diversity, and multiculturalism,” he says. “And, like most great universities, Penn continues to make great strides forward.”
Whether his subject was the contentious Senate hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court, challenges to black Republicans, or a satirical attempt to convince former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke to run for president, Ford’s DP columns were marked by a contemplative approach to the issues of the day rare among collegiate columnists. Read in hindsight, many seem to reflect ideas that would later play out in his political life.
In a March 1992 column, he lamented that “[a]lmost every black person in his or her lifetime has been asked to assume the massive burden of speaking for the entire race,” and went on:
How many white students—and be honest, now—have read a controversial column by a white columnist and then categorically accused the entire white race of being guilty of what the white columnist wrote about?
Probably not many.
And why not?
Because you cannot generalize or stereotype an entire group of people just because they share some characteristics. I cannot speak for 30 million black Americans.
Isn’t it enough that I speak for myself?
The last line of that passage resonates through Ford’s political existence. While he has made a point of staking out his own positions, his race has nevertheless come into play in virtually every context in which he finds himself—most notoriously in the political advertisement paid for by the national Republican Party that may have cost him the Tennessee Senate race.
Although, if elected, Ford would have been the first African American senator from the South since Reconstruction, he “was not running on the historic nature of the campaign,” says his pollster Pete Brodnitz ASC’94. “He was not asking voters to elect him because of that, in order to break ground.” Rather, Ford stressed issues such as defense and energy policy, and how to better prepare today’s children for the workplace of tomorrow, Brodnitz adds.
But if race was not an issue in daily play for Harold Ford, the ad—now known as “Call me”—pushed it to the forefront of national discourse. In a series of quick cuts set up as “man/woman on the street” interviews, a cross-section of voters “volunteered” statements about Ford, such as: “Harold Ford looks nice—isn’t that enough?” and “So he took money from porn movie producers—I mean, who hasn’t?” But in the scene that ignited the national controversy, a young, white actress playing the stereotypical “dumb blonde,” tube top and all, talks about meeting Ford “at the Playboy party.” Then, at the end of the ad, she winks and says coyly to the camera, making the familiar hand gesture of holding a phone near the ear, “Harold—call me.”
The insinuation that bachelor Ford was lingering at Playboy parties with flirtatious blonde white women, and that this was offensive, “struck me as an ad with strong racial overtones, especially here in the South, playing off fears of interracial relationships,” Vanderbilt University political scientist (and new colleague of Ford) John Geer says.
Thanks to the mutually reinforcing impacts of the national media and YouTube, the ad was seen all over the country and was roundly denounced in virtually all quarters. The NAACP’s Washington office called it “a powerful innuendo that plays to pre-existing prejudices about African-American men and white women.” Even Ford’s opponent, Bob Corker, called the ad “distasteful.” But Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said that he saw nothing wrong with the content of the ad.
Ford himself won’t comment about the ad—or speculate on whether racism was the motivation behind it. “That race is over with,” he says, in a tone which brooks no further comment. “I don’t even think about it. The past is a platform, the future is a ceiling. I think the people that ran the ad would be better off answering that than me.”
Despite the widespread denunciation it received, the national attention the ad drew hurt the campaign overall, Brodnitz feels. “The press corps ended up fixating on it,” he says. “Harold Ford himself did not go out to the press and call that ad racist. What he did point out is that that ad, and another one, talked about pornography, and both were being broadcast during prime family time on television. He called it smut. But people didn’t really hear it—no one asked him, ‘What do you mean by that?’ The press was focused on the racial angle.”
According to Brodnitz, the ad was “a big distraction from what Ford wanted to talk about” that cost the campaign a week. That was followed by what he calls “some of the worst public polls I’ve ever seen,” showing—erroneously, he says—that Ford’s support had collapsed. “We spent another week combating that misapprehension, because if there is one thing the press likes to report as much as race, it’s process. So there were two valuable weeks when he needed to talk about change, and it was very hard to talk about anything else during those weeks.”
But that ad was only one manifestation of a larger problem at the end of the campaign, Brodnitz adds. “We were facing six different negative ads about Ford running at the same time. The press corps didn’t do anything to clarify what was true and what was false, and there were outrageous lies. It wasn’t just that one ad, but it was the combined effect.”
In fact, the other ads, which, Brodnitz contends, spread lies about Ford’s voting record, were more devastating than any sexual innuendo. “We couldn’t get the press to point out that they were false. And because of resources, we weren’t able to rebut these various outrageous accusations and do what we wanted to win. It was just a tough choice to make at the end.”
And regardless of race, Ford had an uphill battle ahead of him, says the pollster, who has worked for Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and other prominent Democrats. Apart from the issue of “him possibly being the first African American senator from Tennessee, for most of the time, the conventional wisdom was that the bigger obstacle was that he was a Democrat, and that the Republicans were going to try to paint him as a doctrinaire liberal,” Brodnitz says. “That’s always their playbook.”
While Tennessee currently has a Democratic-controlled state legislature, includes a number of Democrats in its Congressional delegation, and has a Democratic governor, it is nevertheless a very conservative state in terms of ideology and attitude—more so than Virginia, for example, says Brodnitz, despite the fact that there are more Democratic officeholders in Tennessee. “In Tennessee, more people approve of President Bush, and more people approve of the war in Iraq,” he explains. “So the context was a little tougher in Tennessee across the board.”
Rather than Ford’s race, the campaign’s biggest concern going in was money, Brodnitz says. “Ford felt very strongly about the need to be very clear about where he stood, which meant getting on the air relatively early with advertising, which meant raising a lot of money.”
Attempting to gauge whether the “Call me” ad hurt Ford in terms of the race’s final outcome is “an interpretive minefield,” says Richard Johnston, research director for the National Annenberg Election Survey. “[Ford’s] was the one Democratic race in which the Democrats gained ground and then lost it,” he adds. “It wouldn’t surprise me if part of the story was that it was an African American candidate, but maybe not so much. It could be a depressing race story, but it’s not clear that the ad is a necessary component of it.”
Brodnitz points out that the Tennessee exit polls only captured people who voted in the voting booths on Election Day—but 40 percent of Tennesseans, for varying reasons, cast their votes before Election Day. “So you have to take those polls with a little bit of skepticism,” Brodnitz says.
While becoming a senator would obviously have been the candidate’s preference, the campaign’s outcome was, in the aggregate, a positive one, says Vanderbilt’s Geer. “Harold Ford lost the race, but he came out of it as a rock star, basically,” he says. “You usually don’t lose and end up advancing your career. He did.”
So, what next for Ford?
“He picked a tough state to be born in,” Brodnitz says. “I think he’s got a very bright future, and just has to see how things develop—who happens to be running in a particular race, what the political environment looks like—but he’s very young.
“And he’s one of the very rare people in the Democratic Party who, even in loss, really won the respect of people throughout the country,” he adds. “The reality, in Tennessee, is that most people have to run twice before they win.”
“When he walks into a room, he has a Clintonesque charisma—you just notice him,” Geer says. “He’s a very young man, and there’s a lot of possibilities for him. He had to be very disappointed with the election outcome, but he’ll be a force in national politics for quite a while.”
Even Luntz, whose clients have run more to red than blue, looks forward to seeing Ford back in politics. “I desperately want him back in the political process, as a leader in that political process,” Luntz says. “He is the very definition of a unifying force. He is the definition of a people person. He has all the attributes that we are so desperately looking for in politicians today, and just can’t seem to find. He’s a great human being, as well as a good leader.”
Luntz even has a few words of advice for the Democrat on managing his political ascent. “I’d like to see him as governor,” he says, but perhaps not so much with an eye towards the well-being of the good folks of Tennessee: “That would make him a viable presidential candidate in the not-too-distant future.”
For now, though, Ford has to take a step back. As the chair of the DLC, he is not even permitted to endorse any particular candidate in the impending presidential race—a race which he will obviously observe with great interest from his front-row seat.
“The role I hope to play, and will play, is to create forums and opportunities for Democratic candidates to lay out their visions and plans on a variety of subjects: children’s health care, tackling the seminal problem facing parents of how they afford college education, how America restores its standing in the world,” Ford says. “I hope the campaign doesn’t veer too much in the vein of personal attacks and personal destruction.”
There is no bitterness or recrimination over his own recent experience in that statement; rather, it seems to come out of his belief that there is work to be done, and his hope that someday he will be the one to roll up his sleeves to do it.
“While I was in Congress, the economy expanded and capital markets grew tremendously as more market participants in the world economy emerged and matured,” Ford says. “And then, obviously, 9/11 happened, and radically transformed every bit of policy, from domestic policies and civil liberties to our standing and stature in the world.
“The two biggest questions we face as a nation, going forward, in terms of solving huge challenges are: How serious are we, as a nation, in reducing our dependence on oil as an energy source? And how willing are we to engage the world, as we seek to mitigate poverty, mitigate the spread of AIDS, and mitigate the spread of disillusionment in countries around the world?”
These questions, for Ford, are clearly much more than rhetorical. But for the time being, he’s working on behalf of shareholders rather than constituents.
“I didn’t choose to be out now—I just wasn’t elected to the Senate. I have a great passion for public service, but I’m excited about the opportunity I have now,” he says. “I have every intention of running for public office again, and God willing and voters permitting, I hope at some point to be there.
“But it’s not for me to forecast,” Ford laughs. “For now, I’m just learning how to get to the eighth floor and switch elevators.”
Jordana Horn C’95 L’99 is a frequent contributor to the Gazette.