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).
(Chuck Grassley, the other conservative Republican representing Iowa back then, was re-lected to his sixth term in 2010. Iowans have voted in 11 straight Senate elections for two genuinely nice people who are among the most conservative and liberal senators.)
I’m sure I couldn’t count how many more times Harkin’s and my paths have crossed again in our careers (but he was late often enough that he reinforced the memory of that first time). Most of the encounters have seemed rather random: An editor would assign me to cover an event involving Harkin, or in the process of covering an issue, I found out the senator was involved and gave his office a call. Though I never covered politics full-time, I spent more than two decades working for three different Iowa newspapers and the Omaha World-Herald, which covers western Iowa, and Harkin was an omnipresent figure in Iowa news. And when I was editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette in 2008-9, he met at least a couple times with our editorial board.
We always got along well. I remember his press secretary once being angry about something I wrote, but Harkin was always friendly (he seemed to remember who I was, even though I kept changing papers).
That occasional relationship deepened in 2009 when my youngest son, Tom, went to work for Harkin (I then stopped attending editorial board meetings if Harkin was visiting or we were discussing issues relating to his work). Tom still works for Harkin as a legislative correspondent, handling defense, immigration, child labor, veterans and foreign affairs issues.
Through it all, I’ve seen again and again Harkin’s passion for helping people:
- As a reporter at the Des Moines Register in the 1980s, I dealt with Harkin in covering a now-obscure issue that was a big deal among retirees, the Social Security “notch.” Explaining the issue back then took really long stories and I’m not going to do that here, but “notch babies” thought they were being shorted on their pensions and Harkin became one of their champions.
- Any Iowa senator is going to gain some expertise in agriculture and be an advocate for farm programs. But I could always see that Harkin’s passion for agriculture was genuine. He was first elected to the Senate during a farm crisis and ag issues have always been a top priority. The best example I recall of his mix of knowledge and passion was his visit to the Gazette shortly after the 2008 flood. Before we could talk about the flood recovery issues of Cedar Rapids, which were severe, Harkin had to show us the photos he had shot from his airplane of farm fields. You could clearly see that fields using conservation practices the senator had championed and passed federal subsidies for, such as terraces and grass strips, had not suffered erosion from the rains and floods as severely as fields without terraces. (Photography is a longtime interest of Harkin’s. His first national fame came as an aide to Iowa Congressman Neal Smith, when he photographed the “tiger cages” where the South Vietnamese Army detained and abused prisoners.)
- Harkin, whose brother, Frank, was born deaf, was the chief Senate sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act, one of the most profoundly helpful pieces of legislation in my lifetime. He has long been an ardent advocate for better treatment of people with disabilities.
- When my niece, Mandy, was trying to get her newly adopted daughter out of Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, Harkin took a personal interest and his staff was instrumental in speeding paperwork to get visas for Maya and for other orphans with adoptive families waiting in Iowa to come home just a week after the quake.
- I like that child labor is one of the targets of his passion to help people. Tom Buttry accompanied Harkin on a 2011 visit to Ghana to inspect U.S.-funded projects to end the employment of children in the cocoa industry (that’s Tom in the blue shirt in the background in the video below). Child labor is not a divisive issue; nearly every American recognizes it as an abhorrent practice. But it’s a low priority for lots of politicians, who have hundreds of pressing matters demanding their attention. Not for Harkin: He thinks the U.S. government can help those children and he works to make it happen.
I know why that young congressman was so late nearly 40 years ago: His passion focused his attention on the task at hand, rather than whatever came next. That worked out OK for him. And a lot of other people.