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WASHINGTON -- The car is small, white and cramped.

After a whirlwind of news cameras, famous faces and the Hollywood-like quality Washington, D.C. has taken on now that the sun has come out and the cherry trees are all in peak bloom, the slightly shabby vehicle helps to demystify the life of Harold Ford Jr -- an energetic congressman from Tennessee, a University of Pennsylvania graduate and a 33-year-old political maverick.

It's early afternoon and Mark Schuermann, the congressman's chief of staff, is already sitting in the driver's seat as Ford's press secretary, Anthony Coley, squeezes in back, right next to a baby's car seat complete with three or four goldfish-shaped crackers wedged in its crevices.

The congressman ducks into the front passenger seat, reluctantly tugged away from a news conference in front of the Supreme Court and an extended chat with a CBS reporter. Once inside, he is handed a sheet with what are supposed to be his speaking points for the engagement scheduled in 15 minutes.

Schuermann begins driving and Ford begins doing what he does best -- multitasking. While rifling through his papers, he also manages to answer the questions of a young journalist.

Suddenly, Ford sees some acquaintances standing outside of a restaurant, and the car pulls over. He runs out and begins chatting. A short while later, he's back -- just long enough to poke his head in the window and say he's going into the restaurant, but don't worry, it'll only be a few seconds. He disappears into the steakhouse's glass doors.

But inside the car, Coley and Schuermann are used to this -- they exchange banter and field an almost constant stream of phone calls. Periodically, one of them will remark that someone should really go in and get Ford soon.

Neither moves.

Schuermann points out the window at Mike McCurry -- former President Bill Clinton's press secretary -- walking by. He comments that Washington, D.C. is full of these minor celebrities.

Eventually, the two men decide to call the congressman. After all, it's getting late, and he might miss the window of opportunity for the talk he is going to give.

"He really sounded like he was about to leave," Schuermann says, after hanging up the phone, apparently surprised that Ford was willing to disengage from a conversation so easily.

The current fourth-term congressman is constantly referred to as a rising star -- both by members of the media and his own Democratic Party.

And he is good-looking enough to have been named one of People magazine's 50 "most beautiful" in 2001. After all, he's a bachelor with a past -- he mentions that he once was engaged to a fellow Penn alum, but apparently, two Quakers don't a marriage make.

But it wasn't even his good looks that landed him as the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in 2000.

The thing is, Ford really loves talking to people.

In an age when politicians are accused of being more eager to cozy up to money than people, Ford likes nothing more than chatting with anyone who wants to talk. His loquacity is the first thing that everyone mentions -- from his press secretary to College senior Mahendra Prasad, who interned for him last fall.

It's this outgoing nature that on March 4 -- Ford came to Penn as part of the Fox Lessons in Leadership program, attended by Robert Fox himself -- kept him surrounded by a mob of students, all eagerly awaiting the chance to ask him about job opportunities or about things he had said at the preceding talk. Despite being dragged away every few moments to be photographed with Fox or an important University official, Ford would immediately rush back over to talk with students.

On April 1, after attending the oral arguments on the Michigan affirmative action case at the Supreme Court and then participating in a large-scale press conference, Ford was still itching to talk. Coley kept urging him to finish, telling the various students and fans who surrounded the congressman that each comment would be his last.

But each "last comment" gave way to just one more and, eventually, Coley literally had to drag Ford away.

On the one hand, Ford is just another Penn alum.

He has fond memories of Hill College House, where he spent his freshman year, and is familiar with the University lingo. Like most former students, he is pleasantly surprised when he comes back to campus and sees all of the changes that have been made since his 1992 graduation.

But while he was here, he was the one making the changes, including co-founding The Vision, the University's black newspaper.

"There was a bunch of us who thought the DP was a bunch of racist kids," Ford says, in a talk to the University community.

"Instead of us begging the DP to write differently about us, [we said] let's start our own paper...."

Yet incidentally, he wrote a DP column -- "Papa Don't Take No Mess" -- during his sophomore and senior years.

When he is asked why he was considered such a radical while at Penn but is now considered a fairly moderate Democrat, his answer is twofold.

"I don't think I was perceived as a radical on campus," Ford says. "I won the Spoon Award -- [the highest honor given to a male senior active on campus] -- when I was there.... I get perceived right now as a moderate because I don't necessarily do things like my colleagues do. I thought it was time to do something different."

He even remembers where he was when George H. Bush declared war on Iraq the first time.

"I was at 43rd and Spruce at a friend's apartment, doing things I wasn't supposed to be doing," he says with a smile.

"It really was a time when I sort of blossomed as, as a person and came out sort of intellectually as a person... and found some intellectual underpinnings, if I could be so bold and call it that, and found kind of my academic self," Ford explains, sitting in that same cramped car in Washington, D.C. a few days after his talk, choosing carefully the words that sum up his college career. "I found I had a great joy for writing and expressing myself that way."

But this past March, though only two hours away geographically, Ford was light years away from that underage beer on Spruce when the current war was declared.

He was eating dinner at a restaurant just blocks from Capitol Hill when President George W. Bush ordered the first round of bombing to begin in Baghdad -- if that's even when one thinks the current war began.

Because Ford doesn't.

"Well, I consider that declaration [of war] the day we were attacked -- Sept. 11 -- in the morning," Ford ruminates for a moment, and then continues. "I was in the congressional dining room having breakfast. And I received a series of phone calls to let me know what happened had happened."

Ford, like many Americans, feels the war is the biggest issue currently on the nation's plate.

"I think Saddam Hussein should be disarmed.... He's a bad, bad man," Ford says to the Penn community.

He makes it clear that he supports the war and the troops now that it has begun -- he doesn't understand how you can support one and not the other.

And he's not just talking about U.S. and allied troops.

"The people fighting the war are just like our kids," Ford says, referring to the Iraqi youth currently in the Gulf.

Still, at this point, he wants the United States to win. Then he wants the United States to establish a democracy in Iraq.

A real one.

"Everything we blow up will have to be rebuilt," Ford tells the attentive crowd.

Now the nation is abuzz with news about the University of Michigan's Supreme Court case on affirmative action. But for Ford, this case holds a special, personal significance.

"At Michigan, I was part of the first class at the law school being affected by the new admissions policy," he says. "I was accepted and matriculated and then graduated in '96."

In fact, Ford is the only sitting congressman who graduated under the University of Michigan affirmative action policies currently being challenged.

As a black man, Ford contends that he himself got to where he is in part due to such affirmative action policies.

"I was let in" to Michigan Law, he explains, "and another selective university called Penn, and I hope I have not let the universities down -- I haven't embarrassed them with some of my career choices."

Every single American, black or white, female or male, underrepresented minority or not, has benefited from affirmative action, Ford tells a group of reporters in front of the Supreme Court.

"I wish we weren't here having this conversation. I wish 250 years ago, people who looked like him weren't told what to do for free by people like her," Ford says, pointing first to a young black man and then to the reporter, a young white woman. "But we've made a lot of progress, and she can't do that anymore to him and he can't do things to her anymore, and we're a better society because of that.

"I contend she's a better person and he's a better person because laws now allow them to work together, to go to school together, even date if they choose to."

He hopes one day allowances like affirmative action will no longer be necessary -- he just believes that to declare today that day would be a travesty to the American people.

First, you notice the two televisions pushed up against a wall. Then you see the third, set up on the other end of the room.

The congressman is in the Supreme Court, but the TVs in Ford's office are eternally tuned to CNN, Fox and MSNBC.

"This is where he does his thing," Coley explains. "He loves to monitor the news."

Coley insists that the office may be nice, but it could be nicer. As a congressman increases in seniority, his office improves, too. This room is fairly large, with comfortable-looking chairs and photos everywhere.

Still, the view is of the roof of a building below the Cannon Building. There is always room for improvement.

Next, you are directed to the map on his wall, with Afghanistan centered in the middle. After the tension in that area began, Ford realized how little most people really know about the region, and he got his staff to put up this map.

The final stop on the office tour is a photo of Ford at the 2000 Democratic Convention, then a photo of him practicing to use the teleprompter. At the convention, speakers are required to have speeches prepared and read off a prompter. The only problem was that Ford didn't really know how to use one.

"He is notorious for not using notes," Coley says.

In this way, as in most others, Ford seems to have been born for politics, and in fact, he was.

His father held the seat he now holds in Congress just before he did.

"It's sort of a second nature in a lot of ways," he says.

Right now, though, Ford sees himself more as an innovator than a traditionalist. He is a new voice in a party that has lost enough lately to warrant a change -- the first of the next generation of American Democrats.

"You have to change the thought in people's mind that we are obstructionist and that our primary purpose is to oppose the president," he begins, trying to squeeze as many ideas as possible into the little time he has for conversation.

So just what does Congressman Harold Ford Jr. see as his greatest accomplishment?

"I haven't done it yet, hopefully," he says with the glibness of a man full of large achievements and larger dreams.

As of now, Ford is a congressman, and he has made it clear that he wants to run for Senate at some point in the not-too-distant future.

And after that?

Well, there has been some talk of an eventual run for the presidency, and though it remains pure speculation, after considering Ford's track record and watching him in action, it seems far from impossible.

A Penn graduate.

A black man.

An independent thinker.

Only time will tell.

Photo by Ari Friedman

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