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Harold Ford Jr., former congressman turned commentator, gives views at WashU speech

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 8, 2009 - As former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. contemplates a bid for Tennessee governor or other elective post, he also is pondering some of the dilemmas facing a fellow Democrat now in office, President Barack Obama.

Ford's presidential suggestions:

  • When it comes to Afghanistan, listen to your generals in the field.
  • When it comes to domestic issues, listen to your gut at home.

The former congressman -- who's now a TV commentator, author and college instructor -- told his audience gathered Wednesday in Washington University's Graham Chapel that it's OK for the president to "be deliberative,'' but he also needs to be decisive.
"Ethics is not always about getting along or being bipartisan,'' Ford said. "Ethics is about leadership."

Ford's hour-long remarks largely ignored his own political past, including his combative, racially tinged and unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate from Tennessee in 2006. Instead, he focused more on the national challenges facing Obama and Congress, notably Afghanistan and health care reform.

In the case of the former, Ford recommended that Obama needs to listen to the advice from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who the president put in charge of the NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the American military in the Middle East.

McChrystal, said Ford, has been "more right than wrong."

If Obama isn't going to follow McChrystal's advice for a significant increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan, then the president might need to consider replacing him, Ford continued.

"The next two or three weeks will be interesting," said Ford in a brief interview after his speech.

Despite McChrystal's outspoken public lobbying for more troops -- including an appearance on CBS' "60 Minutes" -- Ford disputed talk of a rift between the general and Obama. He also rejected any comparision with the early 1950s controversy over the Korean conflict that prompted then-President Harry S Truman to oust his own outspoken general, Douglas MacArthur.

As for domestic issues, Ford said that Obama needs to remember that job creation and growth remain the public's top priority.

When it comes to health care, Ford predicted that Congress will pass a measure that -- at minimum -- revamps the health insurance industry. For example, Ford said that barring denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions, and curbing some other insurance practices that restrict coverage would go a long way toward expanding the number of Americans with quality insurance.

While he supports a so-called "public option," Ford said he doubted that the Senate will go along with the idea. He suggested that supporters of health care change go for at least limited success now, and then seek more changes later when Congress appears more receptive.

He argued that August's contentious round of congressional town halls drew attention away from the legitimate issues of rising bankruptcies because of illness, skyrocketing premiums and the United States' status of spending more on health care than other developed countries while lagging behind many of them when it comes of general medical care.

Rationing already exists in the United States, Ford said. "If you've got a lot of money, you get the absolute best care."

But for average or low-income Americans without coverage offer get substandard or piecemeal care, he asserted, while those with insurance can find themselves denied coverage by their insurers.

Although he enjoys town halls, Ford said that at many of them held in August, "the nuts got the better of the sane people."

Ford also outlined a proposal of his own that he acknowledged will likely not get anywhere: barring members of Congress -- especially in the Senate -- from raising money during at least their first year in office.

Ford went into detail as how such a restriction might be implemented. His aim, he explained, would be to force new members of Congress to focus more on what's best for the country and less on what's best for their campaign warchests.

In the interview, Ford said he was still mulling over his future and whether he might return to politics. If his new wife supports the idea, he added with a chuckle, "I hope to run again."

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