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Posts Tagged ‘Tom Harkin’

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…)

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Update: Maya Esther is in the United States. Read the update.

A journalist gets an unusual perspective on disaster stories.

Chances are you remember the Oklahoma City bombing from the horrific television images of the demolished building or the heart-rending photograph of a firefighter carrying a dead baby from the building. I remember the bombing from the grit in the air I could feel and taste covering the aftermath in downtown Oklahoma City.

You may have forgotten about the catastrophic mudslides that hit Venezuela in 1999. I will never forget walking with a woman on a devastated mountainside as she pointed at homes where she and relatives once lived. “Es mi casa,” she said, gesturing to some rubble, part of it recognizable as the top of a wall, the rest of her home swept away or buried in mud hardened like concrete. Another woman recalled that horrible night, gesturing downward with her arm, talking about the terror that came rushing down the mountainside, repeating, “cadave” — corpses sliding down in a torrent of mud.

My role as editor of The Gazette during the 2008 flood has received plenty of attention, so I won’t belabor it here. And I recently recalled my role covering the 9/11 attack from a distance. In a career that started in the 1970s, I have covered dozens of tornadoes, floods and other disasters as a reporter and editor. The stories are emotional. You can’t help but feel the human impact, sharing joy and heartbreak with people you interview. But you develop a sort of professional shell that helps you function and keeps you from feeling too deeply.

This week I learned a bit of what it’s like to be one of those people I used to cover, waiting anxiously to learn whether a loved one had survived, trying to bring her to safety. (more…)

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My youngest son, Tom, starts work in Washingon today as a legislative correspondent for Iowa Demcratic Sen. Tom Harkin. To avoid any appearance of conflict, I have told my colleagues at The Gazette that I will avoid any involvement in stories involving Harkin or editorial board discussions that involve Harkin. I may not always know immediately when we are discussing an issue on which Harkin has taken a leadership position, but will withdraw from those discussions when I do become aware.

Tom is a political science graduate of Marquette University and previously worked as an analyst for the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves.

As I have reported previously, my oldest son, Mike, was worked for Chuck Hagel, who was a Republican senator from Nebraska but did not run for re-election last year. Mike held several positions for Hagel, ending as his chief of staff. Hagel is now chairman of the Atlantic Council of the United States and a distinguished professor at Georgetown University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Hagel is less likely to be in the news for Gazette readers, but I would similarly avoid involvement in news coverage or editorial board discussions of Hagel.

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Leaders at all levels are failing Cedar Rapids.

We need to get tough. We need to get mean. And we need to do it now.

I remember after last June’s floods, I got tired of all the e-mails I would receive, both from Iowans and from people outside the state, who found some sort of virtue in comparisons between gritty Iowans who weren’t begging for federal handouts and the pathetic people from New Orleans who did.

That was balderdash then and it’s way past balderdash now. The federal government and the state government have an obligation to help in disasters. Iowa leaders at the local, state and federal level need to be loud and insistent about meeting that obligation faster and stronger than anyone has so far.

This is no handout we need. No community can absorb a disaster without help. Iowans’ tax dollars have supported federal relief for disasters ranging from hurricanes to earthquakes to terrorist attacks. We shouldn’t be begging for a handout, but insisting on justice.

B.J. Smith of Cedar Rapids runs a pleasant blog called “Iowa Nice,” celebrating how nice this state is. That’s an admirable trait to our culture, but let’s not forget that Meredith Willson also described us in “The Music Man” as “Iowa stubborn.” We need to put Iowa Nice on the shelf for a while and turn Iowa Stubborn loose on Washington and Des Moines. Along with Iowa Furious and Iowa Indignant.

At the local level, we are leaderless. From the day the waters hit, people have been asking where Mayor Kay Halloran was. Some council members have been more prominent than she has in responding to the challenges of the flood. City Manager Jim Prosser is an administrator, but the city has no strong leader.  

The change in city government is no excuse. Leadership is not a function of structure but of the ability of the leaders and how they respond to challenges.

County supervisors are not in as strong a position as city officials to lead in this disaster response, but they certainly have enough power that someone could fill this vacuum.

Gov. Chet Culver and state legislative leaders sounded downright timid in their explanations about why the Legislature did not meet in special session last year to address this problem. They feared that making state money available would mess up our chances for federal aid. Or maybe a swift state response, accompanied by strong leadership demanding a swift federal response, would have underscored the urgency of the problem.

Instead, nearly eight months after the floods, the Legislature last week approved less than 1 percent of the need.

Senators Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley have more than a half-century of experience combined in the U.S. Senate. What good is that experience if they can’t deliver better federal aid more swiftly than they have following the worst natural disaster in their state’s history?

President Barack Obama (and for that matter, President George W. Bush before him) got his launch to the White House from Iowa. Both of them visited flood zones and flood victims. Was that a photo opportunity rather than a call to action?

Editors normally don’t like it when their bosses get involved in community affairs. It makes us uneasy because people might think that involvement will skew our coverage. The Gazette Company CEO Chuck Peters joined a trip to lobby Department of Housing and Urban Development officials in Washington last month and Publisher Dave Storey will be in Washington this month to lobby with other Chamber of Commerce members.

That doesn’t bother me right now. I can deal with any conflicts and perceptions their involvement might create. Mostly I hope they get something accomplished. This leadership shouldn’t have to come from the business community. But it’s about time it came from somewhere.

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