From Iowa Coal Mines to Pinnacle of Senate


Our admiration for Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, knows few bounds. He is the happy warrior in the tradition of Hubert Humphrey, the prairie populist in the tradition of Henry Wallace, the dirt-common man of the US Senate in the tradition of Sam Rayburn. He is all those things wrapped into one, the son of an Irish coal miner and Slavic mother who hitchhiked his way from Cumming to Ames to take classes at Iowa State University. He was the one who exposed inhumane treatment of Vietnam War prisoners in “tiger cages” with shocking photos in Life Magazine. Harkin and Bishop Maurice Dingmann were the most prominent figures to help hold Iowa together as white crosses dotted courthouse lawns during the Farm Debt Crisis.

All that history runs through the mind as Harkin announced over the weekend that he will not run for re-election in 2014.

It’s someone else’s turn, time for new blood, Harkin said.

Harkin swept into the US House from southwest Iowa with the post-Watergate class that included Berkley Bedell in the Northwest corner. They were a breath of fresh air after having suffered the stale stalks of Wiley Mayne, Bill Scherle and H.R. Gross.

We got to know Harkin when he ran for the Senate against Roger Jepsen some three decades ago. He beat the incumbent and upset the political establishment. It was a sign that Hell might not go Methodist when Iowa votes Democrat. Tom Harkin became the face and heart of the Iowa Democratic Party in a way that John Culver and Dick Clark never could — mainly, by winning, and winning, and winning.

He won with big public works projects back in the home district. Harkin was the impetus for dredging Storm Lake as he was the one who set up the Storm Lake Watershed preservation program. He won Buena Vista County — a Farm Bureau bastion if there ever was one — thereafter. Harkin railed on behalf of family farmers and small livestock producers. He lost more often than he won. He ascended to chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee — the first Iowan since Jonathan Dolliver of Fort Dodge in 1900. Harkin greatly enhanced the conservation and renewable energy titles of the Farm Bill. If you like ethanol, the Wetland Reserve Program and $7 corn, you should love Tom Harkin. He was as responsible as anyone for this current boom.

When Ted Kennedy died, Harkin assumed the mantle as the leading progressive in the Senate as the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. Harkin argued for a public health care option for all Americans. Again, he was frustrated. He has been able to protect college financial aid funding from a Tea Party onslaught, and the prevaricators of greed have not yet sabotaged Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But they are trying. Harkin will spend his final two years in the Senate defending the progressive safety net built over the past 125 years.

We lobbed a few shots over the bow when we felt that Harkin was not doing enough to push the progressive agenda. The Senate has become a place where deals over power were cut instead of common ideals being pursued. Yet, there was Harkin last week arguing to reform the filibuster so power could not be concentrated in the hands of one minority senator.

Sometimes he disappoints. Sometimes he maddens. But Tom Harkin never quits trying. No one can accuse him of forgetting Cumming, or his deaf brother Frank who lived in the house where the senator became a man. It was Frank who inspired him to work his every waking moment on the Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. It was one of the great bipartisan moments in the history of American civil rights. For the first time, all of us were required to make reasonable accommodations to the handicapped. It will be his proudest legislative accomplishment. History will remember.

We most delighted in Harkin when he would cut an opponent into tiny shreds with a smile, dripping with courtesy, with nuns backing him up, and then he would say, “Aw shucks” as he eyed the remains. It was sort of a macabre delight that could make right-wingers seethe so badly they couldn’t shoot straight because their back molars hurt.

Potential successors are lining up. The Democrats mention Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Waterloo, a trial lawyer and true liberal in Harkin’s tradition. The Republicans are talking up the affable Rep. Tom Latham, R-Des Moines, who can win a statewide race if he works at it.

Neither will be a Harkin, who rose from southern Iowa’s coal mines to the very top of American politics. Nobody has that heart, that uncanny sense for the jugular, that ineffable spirit that made you love him even when you shouldn’t. We will be forever grateful to have gone back and forth with him, and will always regard Tom Harkin as one of the great Iowans of all time.

Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake (Iowa) Times. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2013

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