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For Speaker, This Is Not His Father's Politics

Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., who will give the keynote address, is considered a new African American political leader, more pragmatic and less liberal than his predecessor in House seat.


He's the son of a member of Congress, born in Tennessee and raised in the nation's capital. He's a Democrat who wants his party to chart a centrist, pragmatic course.

Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., in short, has a lot in common with Al Gore, the man who asked him to give the keynote address tonight at the Democratic National Convention.

There are some obvious differences--Ford is black and more than 20 years younger than the vice president. But those are big reasons Gore plucked Ford from the obscure back benches of Congress and asked him to assume a high-profile role at the convention.

A longtime friend of Gore's, the 30-year-old Ford presents the face of youth and diversity that Democrats want to project--especially since Republicans tried to appropriate that image at their convention.

Ford also is a rare breed that Gore wants to nurture: An African American who favors the "New Democrat" credo of fiscal conservatism and pragmatism over the liberal, more ideological style of an older generation of blacks.

"Harold really represents a new generation of African American leadership in the post-civil rights era," said Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democratic Network. "He knows how to balance traditional social positions with a more modern economic approach."

That combination may be particularly valuable to Gore at a time when some black Democrats have been raising questions about the conservative positions of his running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.

Ford said Monday he planned to use his speech to tell voters more about Gore. "The Al Gore we know in our state of Tennessee is full of integrity, full of honesty," Ford said.

Gore is a friend and former House colleague of Ford's father, Harold E. Ford Sr. The elder Ford was the first black elected to Congress from Tennessee and served in the House for 22 years. His final years there were shadowed by controversy: He was indicted in 1987 for allegedly trading his political influence for an illegal loan; a jury acquitted him in 1993. He retired from the House three years later, and bequeathed his Memphis-based district to his son.

Ford spent much of his childhood in Washington, where Gore helped him gain admittance to the exclusive St. Albans prep school, the vice president's alma mater. Ford went on to college at the University of Pennsylvania and received a law degree from the University of Michigan.

When he ran for the House, he openly embraced his father's legacy. But when he took office, he charted a path that diverged from his father's liberal voting record.

He supported a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning. He's indicated a willingness to consider school vouchers.

Asked about the discrepancy between his record and his father's, Ford said he saw it as a generational difference that reflects how much political circumstances have improved for blacks--thanks to the efforts of people such as his father.

"He grew up in a different time," Ford said. "He had to battle different things. I'm the beneficiary of that."

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