- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2006


Logic suggests that Rep. Harold Ford should succeed Bill Frist as a senator from Tennessee. Mr. Ford is the scion of a Memphis family of undertakers, and Mr. Frist is properly Dr. Frist, a heart surgeon. The undertaker always follows the doctor.

But these aren’t logical times, and nothing is inevitable. The election prospects of Mr. Ford and his Republican foe, Bob Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga, will likely turn on such arcane issues as whether Mr. Ford, who is single and black, has a penchant for rowdy white girls, and whether Mr. Corker’s 18-year-old daughter does, too. She had herself photographed playfully deep-kissing a rowdy white girl, and the result, not necessarily a masterwork of the photographic arts, was posted on the Internet, where everyone with a laptop is guaranteed fame (or infamy) for a minute or two.

Despite such evidence to the contrary, the Tennessee race to the bottom is crucial to Republican prospects of holding the U.S. Senate. Most analysts, some less partisan than others, say the race is a tossup.

Mr. Ford grew up in Washington — he’s a graduate of exclusive, expensive and fashionable St. Albans — and learned politics from his father, the patriarch of a Memphis political dynasty who held the seat in the House before him. The Ford campaign posters, in fact, identify him as “Ford, Jr.,” with the “Jr.” in large, prominent italic type. Junior is running this year as more conservative than he really is; disguising a number of Democrats in Republican drag is a key element of the party’s strategy for taking control of the Congress. The Republicans concede that the 36-year-old five-term congressman is smooth, smart and attractive, but they’re attempting to define “smooth, smart and attractive” as “slick, clever and out of touch with Tennessee.” When the Corker campaign accused Mr. Ford of having dallied with the Playmates at the Playboy mansion in Chicago, the congressman at first hedged, then admitted that yes, he was there. When a reporter pressed him for details, he snapped: “I like football, and I like girls, and I have no apology for that.” Others accused him of dating a sophomore half his age at Georgetown University in Washington.

Ford-friendly Internet bloggers responded with the buzz, illustrated with the incriminating photograph, that Mr. Corker’s success with conservative and family-friendly values hasn’t always extended to his own household. Buzz was all it was until the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the state’s largest newspaper, published the photograph and the story of the rowdy daughter became respectable (more or less) conversation for conservative black and white churchgoing Tennesseans.

Family, in fact, has become the mud of choice. The congressman reacted angrily when Mr. Corker began to talk about the colorful Ford family of politicians, not all of whom have always stayed within the law. The congressman’s father, the first black to represent a Tennessee district since Reconstruction, was indicted on corruption charges but never convicted. The congressman’s uncle, John Ford, a state senator, was one of seven Tennessee state legislators caught in a sting, and convicted of taking a $55,000 bribe in a joint federal-state investigation naturally called “the Tennessee Waltz.”

When Mr. Corker suggested that the Ford family dynasty was a little too rich for Tennessee, the congressman retorted that he would never, ever criticize an opponent’s family. But there’s another family complication. The congressman’s younger brother Jake, with an impressive police rap sheet of his own, came home to Memphis to run for Congress as an independent. The congressman hasn’t exactly endorsed his brother, but he hasn’t exactly endorsed the Democratic nominee, either. When brother Jake lost a debate the other night to Steve Cohen, the Democrat, he fell into a rowdy argument with the audience. “I’m the one who inherited my father’s political sense,” he once told a bystander. “My brother Isaac is the one who got the business sense, and all Harold got was the name.” Politics in the South is always leavened with a touch of the Gothic.

But in Memphis the name is usually enough. Bob Corker is counting on turnout in the mountain counties of eastern Tennessee, the traditional Republican stronghold, which is a long, long way from the Delta counties in the west. Both parties have everything riding on the Gothic.

Pruden on Politics runs Tuesday and Friday.

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