The Protean Politics Of Harold Ford

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A.C. Kleinheider lays into the newly minted New Yorker:

I covered Junior's campaign for U.S. Senate against Bob Corker. In 2006, Ford wanted desperately to leave voters with the impression he abhorred gay marriage and thought it offensive to his faith. He wanted voters to believe that his few votes to restrict abortion amounted to a pro-life record. He wanted voters to believe he had no intention of making any moves against the NRA on firearms legislation. And, more than anything, he tried to get to the political right of his opponent with a fierce advocacy of clamping down on "illegals."

We like to believe -- underneath all the strategy, posturing and maneuvering -- politics really is about something. It may look dirty, but we want to believe everyone has some sort of policy goal, some set of core beliefs for which they fight. But for more politicians than not, politics isn't about anything but politics. Public service is not a calling, and there is no moral center; it's just a job. It's what they do. And Ford is pretty damn good at what he does.

I think he's going to run into a wall up here. Kleinheider has some really damning video of Ford, among other things, exhorting his pro-life credentials. He also links to Harold Ford in 2006, not simply arguing against gay marriage, but arguing for a constitutional ban:

I do not support the decision today reached by the New Jersey Supreme Court regarding gay marriage. I oppose gay marriage, and have voted twice in Congress to amend the United States Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. This November there's a referendum on the Tennessee ballot to ban same-sex marriage - I am voting for it

That quote made me think back to George Wallace who, despite becoming known to the nation as a raving bigot, was known among blacks in Alabama (pre-governorship) as a liberal-minded judge who was especially fair on issues of race. Wallace pointedly refused to join the Dixiecrats when they walked out over Harry Truman's overtures toward segregation. In 1958, Wallace ran for governor with the backing of the NAACP and spoke out against the Klan. But he lost to the Klan's candidate, John Malcolm Patterson. Wallace then switched and a staunch segregationist, and subsequently won his bid for governor. Asked about his switch, he told a reporter:

You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor.

Wallace wasn't alone in embracing bigotry for electoral gain. Patterson, who defeated Wallace, and embraced the murderous Klan, backed Barack Obama for president in 2008, and said of his segregationist days:

"If you didn't do that you wouldn't get elected. You might as well go home and forget it." Even after his election, the issue constrained him. "The law required that the schools be segregated," Patterson says. "And the legislature was not about to change the law. If I had attempted to force some issue myself, the legislature might well have impeached me. Timing is everything. And the timing was not right to do anything about segregation."

This is not to say that Patterson doesn't regret the way he handled segregation, particularly the issue of voting rights. "We were denying black people all over the state, highly qualified folk, the right to vote," Patterson says. "You'd see these country guys on these voting registration boards. They'd call in some guy with a doctorate from Columbia University teaching at Tuskegee and ask him questions about the constitution and turn him down because they weren't satisfactory. This was ridiculous. It was outrageous."


It's tempting to write this off as convenient revisionism, but I actually believe Patterson. When you read about any great societal evil, it's often clear that leadership knows that their actions are wrong, and that the people that they represent are wrong. But the lure of power is strong. More sympathetically, there's often a belief that you can do great good for a majority, if you throw a minority under the bus.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Alabama had in its midst men who knew segregation was a reeking abomination, but embraced it because it allowed them to fix a road in their hometown, build a clinic in the underserved backwoods, or just hook a friend up for a job. Or maybe it was just power--who can tell?

From my perspective, motive is irrelevant. (There's usually a good reason to do evil. That's the nature of evil.) It takes a particular kind of cowardice to throw people's lives aside and bow to the mutually destructive curse of discrimination. I can believe Harold Ford was never actually against gay marriage, and was more concerned with good schools and good roads. But then when he said "constitutional amendment," they stomped the floor.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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