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. >>

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Harold Ford's Next Move By Jordana Horn
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