Former congressman Harold Ford, Jr.

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Former Tennessee congressman and author of More Davids than Goliaths explains why all ‘Goliaths’ are not bad, but all ‘Davids’ are good.

In '96, at age 26, Harold Ford was elected to represent Tennessee in Congress and served five terms. He sat on the Financial Services and Budget committees and was a member of the House Blue Dog Coalition. Since narrowly losing a bid for the U.S. Senate, Ford now chairs the Democratic Leadership Council, a think tank for moderate Democrats, works in the financial services industry and as a news analyst and teaches public policy. He's written two books, including More Davids Than Goliaths, and is active with several nonprofits and foundations.


Tavis: Tonight, though, we kick off the week with Harold Ford, Jr. The former Tennessee congressman is now the chair of the DLC, the Democratic Leadership Council, and author of his memoir, “More Davids than Goliaths: A Political Education.” Harold Ford, Jr., good to have you on this program.
Harold Ford, Jr.: Delighted to be here, sir, thank you.
Tavis: You been all right, man?
Ford: I’m doing well. Everyone should see “Waiting for Superman.” What Guggenheim did and what Canada is doing every day should inspire – I don’t care what kind of work you’re in, but it certainly should inspire those who want to see reform in the education circle, so I hope people see the movie.
Tavis: I’ve seen it, and it is a moving film. One of the things I’m sure that Jeffrey and Davis and I will talk about is the debate that’s kicked up since the film has started being reviewed – that it’s pro-charter and anti-union. What do you make of that?
Ford: Well, I hope there is a debate about whether or not – not just the movie, but whether or not the results we’re seeing in schools, whether we’re finding greater success in one model or the other. I think probably the most pointed and poignant thing that has been said is that it seems our education system is set up to benefit adults when it should be directly, squarely and comprehensibly, if not completely, aimed at how do we fix kids’ problems and answer the challenges they face day-to-day.
So I love the debate. I’m a charter school guy, I’m a pro-reform guy. I’m not an anti-union person, and I hope Canada is able – Jeffrey is, I think, the best in this space, and we should scale up what he’s doing in Harlem. I’m a supporter; I know others believe in what he’s doing. The president’s a supporter. So if it sparks a debate, fair enough, and hopefully we can all walk out of the room when the debate is over and say, “Let’s do our best to help kids.”
I talk a little bit about education in the book and reform in the book being one of the things that got me in trouble at times. You talked about sometimes your success has created some adversaries and people who talk about you.
I’m not at your level of success, but I do know that when I was in Congress I oftentimes sparred with some of my colleagues, largely because I believe you have to try different things at times, and in the educational world there’s no doubt many of our kids are not doing well and can certainly use some different models and some alternatives on that front.
Tavis: I want to get into the book in just a second here. To your point, though, Congress, PBS – PBS ain’t bad, but Congress ain’t bad. Congress ain’t bad, either – I take your kind remark, but you ain’t done bad, Harold Ford, Jr.
Let me ask a quick question, though, about education, since you went there, about the debate that has – it’s not just going to kick up a debate; as you know, it already has. I’ve rarely seen – this is, like, Michael Moore-ish in the sense that only Michael Moore can put a documentary out that kicks up this kind of debate before people even see the film.
So this movie, to give Davis Guggenheim and Jeffrey Canada great credit, this debate is everywhere, from Oprah on down, given what this film is about, and I get that, because we all care about education. But the president, in every speech he gives about education, respectfully, mentions as his examples Jeffrey Canada, Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee in Washington.
Those are examples that he mentions every time he speaks about education. Same is true for Arne Duncan, education secretary. But when Fenty was in trouble in D.C. and he called the White House and asked the president to campaign for him, the president didn’t show up for Adrian Fenty.
Now Fenty has lost, everybody expects Michelle Rhee’s on her way out. What that says about education reform in D.C. I do not know, but since we’re talking politics here, what happens when you’re in trouble after having run the president’s game plan for four years, and you call him to show up to campaign for you and he doesn’t show up?
Ford: Well, that’s a conversation between Mayor Fenty and the president. I won’t get in the middle of that. It’s probably not appropriate for the president to engage in and undertake political involvement in local political races.
That being said, the centerpiece of Fenty’s four years in office was education reform. This president has made – our president now has made that a focus. Race to the Top, the enormous amount of autonomy he’s given his I think very able secretary in Duncan.
But what I hope happens from the movie is that if indeed some politicians have to go up – and there may have been other issues in the D.C. race; I didn’t follow it closely enough.
Tavis: Yeah, I didn’t either.
Ford: What I hope is that we don’t ignore the numbers – the number of kids who are not prepared when they graduate high school, the number of kids who are on a wait list to finer spots in charter schools, the number of kids who Jeffrey Canada has enabled.
He approaches it differently than some of the charter proponents, as you know, who argue a year or two here, a year or two there. Jeffrey Canada says, “This is a generational challenge. I will take your child in kindergarten and guarantee they graduate from college.”
Tavis: All the way through, yeah, sure.
Ford: That’s the concept that allowed you and I – the way people embraced us and encouraged us, that’s what we have to do with every child. If this movie forces us to figure out what’s working in charters, what’s not, what’s working in public schools, what’s not, fair enough. I think that’s what we all have to hope for.
The president, I suspect he will remain – I have no doubt he will remain committed to it, and if he doesn’t, I think there will be those who will call him on it, including Jeffrey Canada. Meaning if the president doesn’t remain committed to the kind of reform that has allowed us to reach this point.
Tavis: I hear your point. I’m sure the mayor and the president will talk at some point down the road, I suspect. I only raised it not to cast aspersion on the president, but to say –
Ford: No, no, I know – no, I know.
Tavis: – but to say that if this is your signature issue in the White House, if you believe in this and you’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars behind it –
Ford: Billions.
Tavis: Millions behind it – billions, in fact – and these are your friends who have raised this issue for four years and you cite them in every speech you give, if you believe in that I think the American people, whether the person wins or loses – my granddad used to say all the time there’s some fights you have to fight even if you lose.
Ford: Because it was a referendum on whether or not (unintelligible).
Tavis: On that issue –
Ford: I would agree.
Tavis: Okay.
Ford: No, we don’t disagree.
Tavis: Okay.
Ford: I probably would have gone and campaigned, but we don’t –
Tavis: I digress, all right. (Laughs) Now, speaking of Davids and Goliaths, in that race, Fenty started out as a Goliath four years ago. He became a David. He was up against this major giant. He lost in that case. But for this wonderful title, “More Davids than Goliaths,” why do you call the book that?
Ford: I grew up in church. You and I can relate to this. I grew up going to Sunday school, vacation bible study. My vacation bible study pastor, a pastor named Reverend Payne at Greater Mount Moriah in Memphis, would open every vacation bible study with, “There are more Davids than Goliaths; more answers than problems.”
At nine and 10 and 11 years old, that went in one ear and out the other until I got older and began to understand it more. My dad taught me about it. I talk a lot about my family’s involvement in politics. My dad would say to me, “Remember, all Goliaths are not bad, but all Davids are good when you’re in politics. You have to be a voice. You have to be a representative. You have to be an advocate for those who don’t have a voice.”
I tell stories about working in my dad’s office at eight and nine years old, doing case work. How I learned politics not from the standpoint of raising money and doing attack ads, but helping people, meeting people – the same way so many members of Congress, whatever racial background and I would even argue political persuasion, the way politics I think should be in many ways.
I talk about my Senate race and I talk about really the positives from it. It was a terrible, terrible loss, it was a painful loss, but Bill Clinton said something to me that night I’ve never forgotten. He said, “The way you behave tomorrow morning,” meaning that Wednesday morning after the race, “will determine whether or not you’re elected to office ever again. Get up and do what you were going to do had you won the race, because you ran a valiant race. You didn’t win, but you have nothing to be ashamed of. Because what they did to you, you shouldn’t do that to the voters.”
So I talk about that, and I don’t talk about it. I’m now in New York. I gave thought to running for Senate in New York this year. There’s no exploration of that there, but it’s really how I grew up in politics, and people who enjoy politics, particularly young people in it and looking to get in it I think might enjoy the read.
We made “The New York Times” best seller list a few weeks – we’ve been out about six weeks now and so the Lord has blessed me in that regard.
Tavis: You went right past this, and I appreciate given that you are a television star these days you know how the time gets away from you really fast, so I appreciate your crib notes about the book for the viewer.
But let me just drill down a little bit further in the time that I have here on your Senate race, which you ran past a moment ago. It was an historic race and there were a lot of folk around the country pulling for you to win that race. You would have been the first Black senator from Tennessee, and you were subject to this racist, vicious attack ad.
There are a lot of people that may not have known Harold Ford before that race or may not have even paid attention to the race until this ad.
Ford: Right, or pay attention to me.
Tavis: Exactly. But when this ad appeared, this racist ad appeared, everybody started talking about Harold Ford. As you look back on it now, tell me about how you navigated your way past that kind of ugliness.
Ford: I remember seeing the ad. The ad that got so much national attention was an ad that tried to take me on for – it lied about my position on some social issues. But the feature of the ad was a woman who happened to be White who appeared to have no clothes on who said that she met me at a party and then she ended the ad, they come back to her at the end, saying, “Harold, call me.”
They could have used a Black woman, but I think it was obvious. I’m in an interracial marriage, I think they were trying to draw – I wasn’t married then, but I think they were trying to draw that issue out in a way that would be painful. I’d heard from the local Republican party chair in Tennessee, the former one, early in the campaign, that believe me, no race issues will come up here.
About three weeks out I was ahead by a few points, according to most of the public polling. He phoned and said, “Remember all that stuff I told you?” I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “Believe me, it’s all out the door now and the gloves are going to come off.”
That ad ran and it got a lot of attention. I watched it the first time on my campaign bus and all I remember thinking was that’s brilliant. They know that if I respond and say I think this has a racial element, it will alienate a lot of voters in Tennessee. If I say nothing, it will alienate some voters in Tennessee.
So it was a brilliantly constructed ad. I thought out my response, I had planned this. I knew I was Black when I started the race, (laughter) that this issue may arise. I thought they might try to hedge this in or wedge this in somehow. My answer, and I talk about it in the book, was to have my current governor and my former Democratic governor both basically give people a permission slip to vote for me, saying, “Harold’s our kind of guy.”
I was going to end the ad with one of them grabbing on my knee and saying, “Boy, I already told them – you’re all right.” But I couldn’t get one of the governors to do it. The current governor would, the former governor wouldn’t. He had helped me, but he just refused to do the ad. The lesson I learned from it and what I share in the book, for those in politics, you’ve got to make sure you have not only a second plan but a third plan in backup, and my second and third plan was just to get out and work.
We worked and worked and worked; we just couldn’t overcome, I think, right at the end the kind of animosity and the kind of feelings it conjured for some. We got close, but couldn’t push it over the line.
Tavis: There’s so much in the book, I can’t do justice to it in a 12-minute conversation. In the minute and a half I have left here, one of the things that so many people were inspired by, given your life in politics, is that you got elected to Congress at the ripe old age of 26. Is Congress a place these days that appreciates young people? Is it a place that young people would appreciate?
Ford: I think so. Every place needs young energy every five to seven, eight to 10 years. I was not a proponent of term limits in my time in Congress, but more and more I think we have to have some limits around how people can serve, whether it’s fundraising limits or campaign finance reform, to really force and allow more voices to be heard.
I don’t begrudge Congress or the people in the ninth district. I dedicate the book to the voters in the ninth district of Tennessee for giving light to my dream, and the fact that a Barack Obama, who just eight years ago very few Americans, six years ago, had ever heard of could be elected president, I think it shows there’s a yearning in the country.
Even the rise of the Tea Party and some of these new candidates, it shows that Americans are hungry for new ideas and don’t place the premium that some in politics do on you’ve got to be around 20 years or 10 years before we give you a chance to run for office. They want ideas, and people want answers.
So I hope Republican, Democrat, Tea Party alike, that young voters put their ideas up and offer themselves as candidates.
Tavis: His name is Harold Ford, Jr. His new book is called “More Davids than Goliaths: A Political Education.” It is the memoir of a young life that is still being lived (laughs) with a lot more life in it, I think. Harold, good to have you on the program.
Ford: Thank you, sir. Congratulations to you too.
Tavis: Congrats to you on the book.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm