I was annoyed the first time I met Tom Harkin. We were supposed to meet outside the Fremont County Courthouse in Sidney, Iowa, and he was late. I don’t remember how late, but late enough that I was annoyed.
He was a freshman congressman, a Democrat swept into a Republican district in the 1974 throw-the-bums-out vote after Richard Nixon’s resignation. I was a summer intern for the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, Iowa. Harkin was traveling around the district, as he usually did on congressional breaks, and would be stopping in Sidney, so I was supposed to interview him for a story.
He showed up eventually, apologizing for the delay, and we sat down to talk at a picnic table outside the courthouse, which had already closed. It was a warm summer day when it would have been more comfortable to talk indoors or to give me a quick interview and hop into his air-conditioned car to head for wherever his evening stop was. But we talked until I ran out of questions, easily a half hour, maybe closer to an hour. If he had a next stop on his schedule, I am sure he was even later for that. But I had waited from him, and he was generous with his time.
I don’t remember the issues we discussed. What I remember is his passion and sincerity. He really cared about people and this was a classic liberal who wanted to use the power of government to make people’s lives better. I remember being impressed and wondering whether he would get his ass kicked in the next election in a district that historically belonged to the Republicans.
But I also wondered if he had staying power. He had the right mix of charm and fight, I thought, to have a successful career in politics. And already I could see that he had mastered the art of constituent service. An aide drove around the district holding “office hours” in small towns, listening to complaints and helping people work out their problems with the Agriculture Department, Social Security Administration or whatever corner of the federal government was troubling them. (Harkin’s staff helped my father-in-law get a passport when the State Department balked because of his lack of a birth certificate, a problem that hadn’t kept him from going overseas in the Navy during World War II.)
Well, Harkin did have staying power. He carried that Republican district four more times and then in 1984, he ran for Senate in a state that had two conservative Republican incumbents. He beat one of those Republicans, Roger Jepsen, in 1984 and won four more Senate terms. Harkin announced today that five terms is enough. He’ll retire rather than seeking re-election in 2014 (he’d have won easily again). (more…)