New York’s would-be senator admits he gets regular pedicures, avoids the subway, and visits the five boroughs by chopper. Peter Beinart on how not to run for office. Plus, John Branston on the making of Harold Ford.
It was the most embarrassing interview I’ve ever read by a politician not named Sarah Palin. This week, The New York Times asked Harold Ford Jr. about his potential Senate bid in New York. Why does he now support gay marriage, having voted against it twice when he was a congressman from Tennessee? His answer: “maturation.” Hard to know quite what that means, given that in a 2006 television ad he said his opposition was rooted in his “faith” in “God.”
Then The Times turned to abortion. Why is Ford now pro-choice, having previously declared that “I’m pro-life” and “I don’t run from that”? It’s all a big mistake, Ford explained. By “pro-life” he meant his support for “benefits to veterans” and “equal pay treatment to National Guardsmen.” Nothing about abortion at all.
By this point, one assumes, Ford’s flak is lying dead on the floor, having impaled himself with his BlackBerry.
• Richard Wolffe: Why Obama Can’t Stop Meddling Then The Times asked about Ford’s experience in New York. (He established legal residence there last year, still holds a Tennessee driver’s license, and was considering running for office in the Volunteer State as recently as 2008). Turns out Ford was always a New Yorker at heart. New York City, he explained, is one “of really two cities [the other being Palo Alto] in the country where the outlook is always forward-looking.” (Evidently, Memphis—the city where Ford was born and raised and which he represented in Congress—is already being thrown under the bus.) So has he been to all five boroughs? Yes, in fact—by helicopter!—on a tour for business leaders given by “Chief Kelly, Commissioner Kelly” (whatever). And he can’t wait to see Rochester.
Does he take the subway? Not usually, since NBC—where he’s a pundit—will usually “send a car.” But he does occasionally take the No. 6 train, if “it’s wintertime and I can’t get a taxi on Fifth.”
By this point, one assumes, Ford’s flak is lying dead on the floor, having impaled himself with his BlackBerry. How else to explain what happens next? “Jets or Giants?” asks The Times reporter innocuously. To which Ford begins, “I had breakfast about every morning when I am in town or should I say, several mornings, at the Regency.” (Note to aspiring politicians: When trying to establish one’s local credentials, don’t say you have breakfast in the state “when I am in town.” And when trying to establish one’s populist credentials, don’t say you eat breakfast every morning at an ultra-luxury hotel.) Ford, it turns out, favors the Giants. Because he thinks Mark Sanchez will never be able to read defenses as well as Eli Manning? No, because Giants owner “Steve Tisch is my close personal friend,” while he just met Jets owner Woody Johnson “for the first time.”
All good for a laugh, except when you realize that the framers of the Constitution worried about exactly this sort of thing. “If residence be not required [for members of Congress],” declared George Mason in 1787, “Rich men of neighbouring States, may…get into the public Councils after having failed in their own State. This is the practice in the boroughs of England.”
The reference to England is important. In the United Kingdom, a man like Harold Ford—son of a congressman, nephew to state senators, educated at St. Albans—wouldn’t have to sully himself finding a state. He would live in London, making his way among the political and financial elite, and the party would pick out some safe borough for him, which he might occasionally deign to visit. The framers of the U.S. Constitution didn’t want that. Members of Congress were supposed to be from their states, thus limiting the concentration of power in Washington. Ambitious, pedigreed young politicians were expected to live in the hinterlands and succeed or fail based on their ability to relate to the unwashed masses that lived there.
The American system has its problems, to be sure. It encourages provincialism, a focus on the local rather than national interest. But it also produces a certain rough-hewn populism. Voters expect you to know and care about the places they live, even if those places aren’t glamorous or globally significant. And they expect you to be able to relate the things you believe to the place you’re from.
Harold Ford Jr. is taking a blowtorch to all that. He knows nothing about New York. What he knows about is the American overclass, a large chunk of which happens to reside in the Empire State. His campaign is the brainchild, in large measure, of rich donors who went searching for someone to run against interim Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. His economic agenda consists of defending Washington’s bailout of Wall Street, proposing a large corporate tax cut, and opposing caps on executive pay. “I’m a capitalist,” Ford explained, in justifying his position on executive pay. “I believe that people take risk, and there are rewards if they do well; they should lose if they don’t.” This from a man reportedly earning close to $1 million a year from an investment bank bailed out at taxpayer expense.
Ford’s candidacy is a dystopic vision of the political future, a future in which the American overclass dispatches its young into the provinces armed with so much money that it doesn’t matter that they know nothing about the place they’re supposed to represent. Let’s hope that Ford’s candidacy fails spectacularly. New York needs representation in the United States Senate; the Regency Hotel does not.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is an associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.