When he retired from politics, Wendell Ford was asked what his greatest accomplishment had been and he answered, "Getting elected."
If he couldn't think of anything else he had achieved with his enormous political skills, one can hardly fault those called upon to remember him following his passing for being abstract.
The comments from the political establishment when Sen. Ford died were a toast to mediocrity, which Ford relentlessly pursued in his half century of getting elected.
This non-specific praise was sprinkled with undoubtable anecdotes attesting to his personal kindness and thoughtfulness. His primary eulogist pronounced him a "colossus" which has to do with size and carries with it no connotation of quality.
There is no doubt the man had enormous political skill, the ability to count and get votes, but the fact that these skills were never boldly employed in behalf of the state or nation puts him right up there with Bill Clinton, who generically praised Ford, and who himself had legendary political talent, likewise used only to promote himself.
Ford's main function in the U.S. Senate was to round up and count votes and, after four terms, one is pressed to associate him with any legislation of consequence.
He did support whiskey, tobacco and gambling, and some people point that out as if it were a positive thing. He is best remembered in my county by the coal operators who told the Courier-Journal — after the statute of limitations had expired — that they had made cash donations to him at an unreported Wise County Va., meeting before he was elected governor.
The coal people did get what they paid for. In those days you could get a strip mine permit in a day and the mountains of my region still bear the scars of that neglect.
No eulogist mentioned Ford's skills at avoiding prosecution but, to be fair, those things are seldom brought up at a funeral. The statute of limitations kept him from federal indictment for crimes involving insurance policies sold to state government by preferred agencies who kicked back. Those crimes were also state crimes, with no statute of limitations, which could have — and should have — been prosecuted. But raw political power kept a series of attorneys general at bay, every one of whom was planning to run for governor and saw no need to let doing the right thing interfere with their political futures.
Ford hated Republicans back when it was cool to do so and all you had to do to be elected was to run against President Herbert Hoover.
He apparently made an alliance with one Republican. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1969 when he and Republican Gov. Louie Nunn struck a bargain that helped get them both elected.
Nunn used his political magic to remarkable ends. The state was broke and he increased taxes to perform a series of progressive measures for which he forfeited his political career and is now all but forgotten.
Ford just looked forward to the next election.