DES MOINES — Sen. Tom Harkin keeps two mementos on the wall of his office, reminders of where he came from. One is a picture of his mother’s birthplace in Slovenia, a house with a dirt floor, a house that her family shared with the animals. The other is the card his father received when he joined the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal.
His mother died when he was 10. His father never got beyond sixth grade and was in his 70s and suffering from black lung and other maladies by the time Harkin was in high school. He watched one of his brothers, who was deaf, struggle and eventually lose his job when the factory owners broke the union.
Harkin learned his politics from those experiences growing up in tiny Cumming, Iowa, whose 2010 population was 351. He saw what the New Deal and Social Security, and later Medicare, did for his father. Out of all that, he came to believe that “government could do good things for people. It could help lift people up and give people hope.”
He has been described in many ways over the years: brash, in your face, a no-excuses Democrat, a partisan and bare-knuckle orator with a zest for political combat. When he announced his candidacy for president in the fall of 1991, he said, “I’m here to tell you that George Herbert Walker Bush has feet of clay, and I intend to take a hammer to them.”
During times of changing political fashions, Harkin never wavered in his beliefs. As the country shifted to the right, as public dissatisfaction with big government rose, as organized labor went into retreat, Harkin continued on the same path. Today he is seen as one of a dying breed of Democrats. At a time when many in his party have run from the label and government’s effectiveness has been called into question by Republicans, he remains unabashedly an old-fashioned liberal.
Richard Bender, who worked for Harkin from 1977 to 2013, told my colleague Phil Rucker this weekend: “To staff, he is not Senator Harkin. He is Tom. There’s too much of a tendency for these guys to become something that’s super-special — the elevator’s always open, the senator sits where the senator wants to sit — and he’s still this little guy from Cumming.”
At the end of the year, Harkin will retire from elective office after five terms in the House and five in the Senate. Among his accomplishments is the one of which he is most proud: passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act. He is also proud of the fact that he has defeated more sitting members of Congress (five) in his elections than anyone else in history.
On Sunday, Harkin will convene his annual steak fry and political rally at a balloon field near Indianola. It will be the 37th and last steak fry. The featured speakers are former president Bill Clinton and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton. It will be her second appearance and his fourth.
With the 2016 presidential campaign looming, more attention Sunday will be on Hillary Clinton than her husband. But in many ways, the event will highlight a relationship between Harkin and the former president that offers a window into the ebbs and flows within the Democratic Party over the lifetime of their careers.
Harkin and Bill Clinton ran against each other for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 — the old-fashioned prairie liberal vs. the Southern New Democrat. Harkin was a throwback to the party’s proudest days under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Clinton was out to redefine the party after the Democrats had lost three consecutive presidential elections to Ronald Reagan and Bush.
The 1992 campaign began with Bush appearing almost unbeatable, with an approval rating touching 90 percent in the winter of 1991 after the Persian Gulf War. Democrats were terribly demoralized. Long before Clinton even announced his candidacy, it was Harkin who began to rouse his party back to life.
In that summer of 1991, Harkin traveled the country preaching his brand of the old-time religion. He offered hot rhetoric that brought audiences to their feet cheering. “It’s time to get up off our knees and fight back,” he would thunder at labor rallies and party dinners.
Clinton entered the race in the fall of 1991 and soon became the front-runner for the nomination, despite the scandals that hit his campaign. A frustrated Harkin lashed back at his rival during the heat of the primaries. He said Clinton had “bought into Reaganomics” and that his tax policies “did to Arkansas what Reagan did to this country.”
Reminded of those lines on Friday, Harkin chuckled. “I wonder who wrote those lines for me,” he said. But then he said this: “It became clear to me that Clinton was much better prepared to run for president than I was and really had it all put together. And watching him in the campaign, I became convinced that he really had the right stuff.”
Shortly after dropping out of the race, Harkin endorsed Clinton. That fall, Clinton made his first appearance at the Harkin steak fry. He came back in 1996, when he was cruising to reelection but when Harkin was in one of the toughest reelection battles of his career. Harkin has never forgotten.
Clinton returned again on a rainy Saturday in 2003. The other speakers included the party’s 2004 presidential candidates. Clinton overshadowed them all. No other speaker has appeared as often.
Yet, though they have become friends and allies, their politics remained at different ends of the Democratic Party spectrum. Even as his party under Clinton and later was moving to the center and becoming more business friendly, Harkin never shed or hid his liberal identity.
“I couldn’t do that,” he said. “So I had to win elections by being the liberal, the progressive that I am, the pro-labor candidate that I am.”
I asked Harkin on Friday where he thinks his party is today and where he fits into it. He paused a few seconds to think. “As a whole, I think the Democratic Party is much more progressive, liberal now — oriented that way now — than it has been for a long time.”
He believes that it has moved back toward the left both because of the Republican Party moving to the right and because of President Obama. “Obama was pretty damn progressive . . . when he ran and the issues he ran on,” he said. “That was a very liberal person. Still is, I think.”
And where does he think Hillary Clinton fits along the spectrum? “Well, I think that’s probably yet to be determined,” he replied. “I think that from what I know of Hillary — I’m not terribly close, but we’ve known each other for a long time — she’s very smart, very intelligent and, I tell you, she is much more progressive in her thoughts and her inclination than most people may think.”
Harkin almost became an airline pilot. He took steps to become a life insurance salesman. He said he narrowly escaped becoming part of a small law firm whose principal later went to jail for embezzling his clients’ money. Now he is about to become an ex-senator. Where does he fit in? “I hope that I’ll continue to have an outlet for my progressive views,” he said. “I’m looking for different outlets for that. But I know one thing. Once you leave the Senate, you’re out. I got that.”