Tom Harkin: ‘It’s somebody else’s turn’

January 26, 2013

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). washingtonpost.com

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) announced Saturday that he will not be seeking reelection in 2014, presenting Democrats and Republicans with key tests of their midterm electoral strategies.

Harkin made the announcement and met with supporters and party activists before making calls to reporters from Des Moines. Here's what he told The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe:

Question: Why now?

Harkin: I wish I had something more profound to tell you, but it boiled down to two things: A promise I made to my wife, Ruth, and to myself that there were certain things that we wanted to do together and things we’ve often talked about, but one year slips by to another, and this job is so all-consuming, you know, you ever get around to it and we wanted to do things before it’s too late.

We are both blessed to have good health, I have no health problems, and regardless of what my Republican friends say, I still have my faculties about me. So Ruth and I have talked about this, and life is fleeting, and it’s just time to do things that we’ve often talked about but not worked in.

And the other thing is, I’m 73, I’ll be 75 at the end of this term, I’ll be 81 going on 82 at the end of that next term, and I just said, it’s somebody else's turn. I’ve got 40 years here. Forty years. It’s time for somebody else. It’s somebody else's turn.

Question: What are those things you want to do with your wife?

Harkin: Well, I hate to even tell you this – but there’s a lot of things. My wife is a great bicyclist. And I’ve never done RAGBRAI (the noncompetitive bicycle ride across Iowa), because they always do it when I’m in session. So there’s one thing. She goes on these great bicycle rides, but I can’t do them. That’s one thing.

I was on the plane riding out with Ruth, and I was writing down what I was going to say, and I turned to her and said, "Well, I guess we’re going to do some things," and she said, "There’s one thing you’ve put off for 40 years." I said, "What’s that?" She said, "Dance lessons." I said, "Oh my God, you’re right." That’s a little thing, but I suppose I could have worked it in some way.

You set up a schedule, and then you’re in at night and you’re gone on the weekends, and my wife, who’s a great dancer, said we’ve often talked about taking dance lessons. It’s a simple thing, isn’t it Ed? But it’s one of those things in life where you say, "Isn’t it the type of thing I should do?" I am now.

Question: Had you decided to retire by the time Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) died last month, or did that contribute to your decision?

Harkin: I had not made up my mind. Did it contribute to it? Well, Ruth and I did talk about that. Again, I was very close with Inouye: I was one of his honorary pallbearers, and he and his first wife, Margaret, and Ruth and I always had times together. And he and Irene, his second wife, we’ve traveled together and enjoyed each other’s company. In August of last year, Inouye was campaigning and just as vibrant as you can imagine, and then we came back for a little bit in September, then in October, then back in November and you could see that something was wrong. And I had a conversation with Danny about 10 days before he died, when he had an oxygen thing on him. He was still fine and still talked about himself, and then two weeks later he’s dead.

You know, it begins to bring home that life is fleeting. I’ve enjoyed my life, I’ve had the privilege of 40 years in the House and Senate, I thank my Iowans for the privilege, but it’s somebody else’s turn.

But I’m not quitting – I’ve got two more years in the Senate, I tend to be very active and beyond that I’m still going to be active in policy and things like that. It’s just in a different way.

Question: Is the Senate not as fun for him as it used to be?

Harkin: Well now you’re the first person who’s asked that question in that way. Everyone has asked if the Senate is dysfunctional. I love the Senate. Would I like to get some things changed? Yes, I’ve been trying to get the filibuster fixed for 17 years, and we took some baby steps this week. I love the Senate. I think we’re going through a little rough period right now, but we’ve been through that in the past, and I think we’ll get through it. It’s one of those historical bumps in the road.

But is it more fun? It’s not as much fun in that we’re so consumed with other things. Here’s what I mean – we used to have a Senate Dining Room that was only for senators. We’d go down there and sit around there, and Joe Biden and Fritz Hollings and Dale Bumpers and Ted Stevens and Strom Thurmond and a bunch of us – Democrats and Republicans. We’d have lunch and joke and tell stories, a great camaraderie. That dining room doesn’t exist any longer because people quit going there. Why did they quit going? Well, we’re not there on Monday, and we’re not there on Friday. Tuesday we have our party caucuses. That leaves Wednesday and Thursday – and guess what people are doing then? They’re out raising money.

The time is so consumed with raising money now, these campaigns, that you don’t’ have the time for the kind of personal relationships that so many of us built up over time. So in that way, fun, I don’t know, there needs to be more time for senators to establish personal relationships than what we are able to do at this point in time.

Maybe I’ll have just a little more time for Ruth and I to polka and tango and do a few other things.

Question: Do you have a preference on who should run in your place?

Harkin: No. Look, and I told the [Iowa] Democrats this morning, it’s up to you. I’m sure that someone will be emerging soon that will want to run. All I ask is that you choose wisely, that you pick someone who is smart, savvy, knows how to organize a good campaign, can raise the money and most of all, who is a pragmatic progressive. I will be more than helpful and supportive, but that’s your decision, not mine.

Question: What’s your definition of a pragmatic progressive?

Harkin: Me. Look at this: The Hill newspaper, April 20, 2010, had an article that says "Ranking Senate partisans." The Hill asked all sitting senators which senator they enjoyed partnering on legislation. And they were quizzed about their least favorite. Get this: After [Sen. Edward M.] Kennedy [(D-Mass.)], the most bipartisan Democrats are Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). That’s interesting, because it wasn’t for attribution, so they could say whoever. And it’s interesting they picked Kennedy, because he was a great liberal, a great progressive, so am I, I’ve never made any bones about it. Pragmatic means, here’s my position, where are you, how can we get together? Being proud of what you believe in and trying to convince others to move your way and thus working out those kinds of agreements.

Question: What will Democrats need to do to hold the seat?           

Harkin: Keep in mind, Iowa is a state where we’re half and half. We have Chuck Grassley and me. We have two Democratic congressmen, two Republican congressmen. We have a Republican governor, but a Democratic state house. We’re a pretty good mix out here. I always think Iowa is a little more unique, but I think Democrats have every reason to believe that they can hold on to this seat with a good candidate, and someone who’s willing to campaign hard. They like a balance, and one thing they’ve always known about me and Chuck Grassley is that although we don’t agree philosophically, when it comes to Iowa, we’re in harness together. So I think people like to have that kind of balance.

Question: What is your current regard for President Obama? Has he been everything you hoped for?

Harkin: I don’t know if I should say this, but look -- I like Barack Obama. He was on our committee when he was in the Senate, I got to know him then. He is so smart. He’s so intelligent. And he is, again, a pragmatic progressive, I loved his inaugural speech this time, with one exception.

But I think he laid out a great vision, and I think he can be a great president. Again, what he did in his first term with health care and the Lilly Ledbetter Bill and others with a Congress that’s willing to meet him halfway, I think we can get some good things done. And I like him personally. I just like him personally. Believe me, I love Michelle Obama – I tell ya – I’ve been involved in healthful foods and fruits and vegetables in schools, and when I first met her, I said, "I’ve been waiting for you for a long time." She’s just been wonderful in that regard.

Question: You said there was one exception: What about his inaugural speech didn’t you like?

Harkin: Oh, I’m going to write him a letter about it. It’s more of a nuanced thing, but it’s important: As you know, the one thing I’m proudest of is the Americans with Disabilities Act.

I’ve devoted a major part of my adult life on issues with people of disabilities. And getting away from the old stereotypes and making sure that people with disabilities are fully integrated and can be employed.

He made one reference in his speech; he said something about letting parents know that if they have a disabled child that they have a place to turn. And I said, "That’s okay," and he talked about immigrants and other issues, and I said, "Yes it’s important for parents to have some place to turn if they have a child with disabilities." But what’s most important is to ensure that those parents and that the child has every right to a complete, fulfilled life as everybody else in that society.

So I would have liked to have him say something about that: That people with disabilities are fully integrated into every aspect of American life, and especially in employment. Two out of every three adults with disabilities are unemployed. It is a national shame. We’re making some steps, we’re moving ahead in that, but I would have wanted him to say something about people with disabilities ought to be fully integrated also. But as I said, it’s a nuance, but believe me, I’m very close to the disability community and they pick up on stuff like that.

Read more on Harkin's retirement and the prospects for both parties in Iowa and share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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Aaron Blake · January 26, 2013