The Harkin legacy

November 30, 2014 | 5:00 am
Senator Tom Harkin throws out a pitch during his staff's softball game on the National Mall in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
Chapter 1:

'Disability champion of champions'

On a warm, muggy July evening, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin has joined his young staffers for softball on the mall.

The Capitol forms the left field backdrop for the dozen or so games being played on the National Mall this evening. The Washington Monument could be the right field foul pole.

Not content to toss just a ceremonial first pitch, Harkin stays in the game until coaxing a ground out to third from the Arkansas Naturals' leadoff batter.

Harkin gathers his team to fire it up with a story about the last time he played in a staff softball game. It was 1989, against Iowa Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Tauke's staffers. Bottom of the seventh. Bases loaded.

Harkin preserved a 14-11 victory with a diving, rolling catch in center field. The victory was especially sweet for Harkin because Tauke was his re-election opponent.


Pep talk over, Harkin jumps in a staff member's car, pulls off his Harkin's Heroes T-shirt, buttons the collar of his dress shirt, knots his tie and swaps his athletic shoes for black oxfords before arriving at a rooftop reception where he is to be presented a lifetime achievement award for his work promoting the rights of people with disabilities.

In the span of minutes, Harkin has gone from one to another of the enduring passions of his 40-year congressional career — young people and disability rights.

There is no other issue that Harkin is so closely tied to as improving the lives of people with disabilities. And no issue that he cares about so deeply.

“It's been the great cause of my adult life,” Harkin says, using American Sign Language to sign “I love you” to the crowd as he receives the lifetime achievement award from the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD). Despite “great wins, we have not reached the Promised Land, but we've come a long way.”

That commitment is what makes Harkin the “disability champion of champions,” says Lisa Ekman, a policy consultant with AAPD.

Sometimes it might seem that his fight to expand disability rights has been the sole focus of Harkin's 40-year congressional career — five terms in the U.S. House and five terms in the U.S. Senate. However, the Iowa Democrat, who was a vocal supporter of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, has had a major impact on overhauling the nation's mental and physical health care systems.

A 30-year member of the Agriculture Committee, Harkin oversaw passage of two farm bills that included provisions to reward farmers for good conservation practices and increased investments for soil erosion, water quality, wetland restoration and wildlife habitat. He also added a pair of childhood nutrition measures.

For 25 years, Harkin was either the chairman or ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) appropriations subcommittee, where he helped set spending priorities for half of all nonsecurity spending, implementing and improving more than 1,000 programs dealing with issues from early childhood education to global health and the AmeriCorps.

Since 2009, as chairman of both the HELP Committee and its appropriations subcommittee, Harkin has set the committee's policy agenda as well as its funding priorities.

Senator Tom Harkin speaks at his steak fry with guests Rep. Bruce Braley, former President Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and his wife, Ruth Harkin in Indianola on Sunday, September 14, 2014. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Chapter 2:

A Midwest liberal

Without a doubt, Harkin's proudest achievement is the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Rather than culmination of his efforts, ADA passage was the beginning of his fight to expand disability rights and bring disabled Americans into the mainstream of society in school and work.

His success in seeing the ADA signed into law signaled the first-term senator, an old-fashioned, unabashed Midwest liberal could — and would — work with even the most conservative Republicans to achieve his goals.

If you ask people, we all say we love him. He's been in the trenches with us.

- Marca Bristo

President and CEO, Access Living President


In what today seems an unlikely alliance, Harkin worked with Kansas Republican Sen. Bob Dole to win passage of the ADA. Reflecting on their joint efforts, Dole suggests their compatibility stems from shared Midwest sensibilities.

“Coming from Kansas and Iowa, sometimes the politics didn't make any difference,” Dole says. “We were friends before the ADA. Tom was very interested and very important to getting it done. Tom gets a lot of credit for it.”

Harkin and Dole still are working together on their shared priority, which is proof the fight is not partisan, but personal, according to Ekman. “Everyone knows someone in their family who is disabled,” Ekman says.

In Harkin's case, that someone was his late brother, Frank, who was deaf. When he introduced the ADA in the Senate in 1988, Harkin delivered part of his speech in sign language so his brother could understand it.


At the AAPD reception, the praise and gratitude flow freely from those whose lives have been touched by the ADA and Harkin's continuing efforts to expand the rights and opportunities for people with disabilities.

AAPD President Mark Perriello calls Harkin an “unparalleled advocate  a true American hero  (who) will forever be a disability champion and friend of the disability community.”

Former California U.S. Rep. Tony Coehlo, an AAPD board member, describes Harkin as a “political leader who has changed lives  a real fighter who has been there every time we needed him.”

Harkin works his way around the reception, signing to the hearing-impaired, hugging friends, posing for pictures.

“I love him,” says Marca Bristo, who believes she was the first disabilities rights advocate Harkin met when he arrived in the Senate. “If you ask people, we all say we love him. He's been in the trenches with us.”


“He's a sweetheart,” adds Madonna Long, an advocate for accessible taxis and other modes of transportation.

“He's passionate about people being able to travel about freely,” says Long, who represents Pride Mobility Products, which makes power chairs, scooters, lifts and ramps for people with disabilities.

Harkin's success is in his ability to work with people in both parties to move legislation, Long says.

“He has the magic to bring people together,” she says.

Sen. Tom Harkin and former President Bill Clinton talk to members of the press at Harkin's final steak fry in Indianola on Sunday, September 14, 2014. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
Chapter 3:

'Never defend'

Bringing people together is not a quality Iowa Republicans would ascribe to Harkin. It might have something to do with the fact he's defeated five Republican members of Congress — U.S. Reps. William Scherle, Tom Tauke, Jim Ross Lightfoot and Greg Ganske, and Sen. Roger Jepsen. No one else has defeated as many sitting members of Congress.

To be sure, Harkin's “attack, never defend” strategy was never meant to endear himself to Republicans.

In his first campaign for the Senate in 1984, Harkin trailed Jepsen by 9 percentage points until he ran a television ad claiming that when Iowa farmers drove their tractors to Washington, D.C., to talk to Jepsen about farm debt, the incumbent fell asleep.

He accused Jepsen of voting for “every gold-plated Tinker Toy that the Pentagon and defense contractors have ever wanted.”


In 2002, in a prelude of campaign “trackers” to come, two Harkin campaign aides resigned over allegations that they had sent a former Harkin staffer armed with a tape recorder to a Ganske meeting to secretly record the event.

If he were writing his memoirs, Harkin would title it, “I'd Do It All Again.”

“It's been worth it,” he says. “It's been a good life. “I've done literally everything I wanted to do.”

That includes flying the fastest jet, flying off an aircraft carrier, having a long, satisfying marriage and family life, and serving in both the House and Senate where he moved “important legislation stuff, progressive things.”

“I've been blessed,” Harkin says.


There is one thing on his wish list Harkin didn't accomplish. He wasn't elected president, but he has no regrets that he dropped out of the race and endorsed Bill Clinton.

“I'm not certain I really wanted it,” he says. It's not something I thought about for a long time and planned for.”

He believes he could have been a good candidate run a good race and won election.

“I think I would have been a pretty good president,” Harkin says, “but I don't think I would have had another happy day in my life.

“Once you're president, you're in a bubble and you never get out of it. I've watched presidents, and your life just becomes so constrained (that) you have no freedoms after that. I like a certain anonymity.”


Being a senator has given him a platform to engage and get things done without stripping him of his private life.

Although Harkin attacked Clinton, charging that he “bought into Reaganomics,” and that Clinton tax policies “did to Arkansas what Reagan did to this country,” the two men have enjoyed a good relationship.

“I wonder who wrote those lines for me,” he chuckled when reminded of them this past summer before Clinton delivered remarks at Harkin's 37th annual steak fry in Indianola.

“I am here more than anything else because the shining light of Tom and Ruth Harkin shows that politics can be a noble profession,” Clinton told the steak fry crowd, “and that good people can work together to find common ground.”

Taking the stairs


Harkin cites his age in explaining his decision to retire. He would be 81 at the end of another six-year term. However, there are no signs the Vietnam War era Navy pilot is slowing down.

As he hurries from a committee meeting to cast a vote in the Senate chamber, Harkin staffers run to keep up.

“He walks a lot and he walks fast,” former press secretary Kate Cyrul warns.

When he gets to the subway that runs between the Senate office buildings and the Capitol, Harkin looks around for other senators.

“You don't want to be the last one to vote,” Harkin says.

He shares a car with Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Cory Booker of New Jersey. Booker and Harkin discuss Michelle Alexander's book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” and their plans to buy copies of the book for colleagues.

They agree to split the costs — a bargain at 45 percent off list price, Booker says.


In deference to his age — he's 75 — Harkin says he pays more attention to what he eats and walks as much as he can. He and his wife, Ruth, take a “brisk, one-mile walk” most mornings, enjoys hiking and is looking forward to exploring Iowa's bike trails in his retirement.

He estimates the many trips each day between the Hart Senate Office Building and the Capitol, including the stairs to his seventh-floor office, add up to another mile.

When First Lady Michelle Obama launched her Let's Move program to promote physical activity, Harkin tweeted:

“Hey @FLOTUS, I like to move by taking the 138 stairs up to my office every day! #LetsMove.”

Once a week, Harkin goes to the Senate radio and TV studio for an on-the-record conference call with Iowa reporters. The question-and-answer sessions sometimes run a half-hour or longer, depending on his schedule and reporters' questions.

Told that a photographer visiting from Iowa can't shoot pictures in the studio, Harkin objects.

“Who makes these rules?” he wonders aloud.

The Senate Rules Committee, a studio staffer gently answers.

“We've got a lot of rules around here,” Harkin huffs. “Bizarre.”

Senator Tom Harkin removes his jacket as he leaves the Capitol for a bill signing at the White House in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, July 22, 2014. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
Chapter 4:

A pat on the back

In the outer room of Harkin's office, Monte Shaw waits for a few minutes of the senator's time. Shaw is a former member of the Republican Party of Iowa State Central Committee and, a month earlier, was a candidate for the party's nomination in Iowa's 3rd District.

However, today “it's business” that brings the executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association to Washington, D.C.

He wants to talk to Harkin about renewable fuels and the effort to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from lowering the renewable fuels standard.

“It's not a partisan issue,” Shaw says. “I've never minded working with anyone from any party on an issue on which we agree. It's not personal. It's not partisan. It's business.”

It's business for Harkin, too. As chairman of the Ag Committee he included renewable energy measures in the 2002 and 2008 farm bills that helped stimulated the development of the Iowa ethanol and biofuels markets.


It's midafternoon when Harkin dashes off to the Senate floor to cast a vote and deliver remarks on the Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities (CRPD). As senators come and go in the chamber, Harkin is visited at his desk by a succession of colleagues.

He engages in a lengthy and animated discussion with Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Soon New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and Arizona Sen. John McCain join the conversation. As the conversation breaks up, McCain gives Harkin a friendly pat on the arm.

When it's the appointed time for Harkin's remarks, he has to wait at his desk, which has been prepared with a desktop lectern and a glass of water, while Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions and Ted Cruz engage in what appears to be a well-scripted back-and-forth on the proper role of the judiciary.

Forty-five minutes later, it's Harkin's turn. He stands, buttons his suit coat, makes last-minute notes on the papers spread out before him and launches into a short history of the ADA, noting that the 24th anniversary of its passage and Dole's 91st birthday are approaching.

He bounces on his feet as he talks about the bipartisanship that made passage of the ADA possible. He gives credit to Dole and Bush. He quotes McCain's comments in support of the treaty.

Senators should “listen to the better nature of our angels,” Harkin says.

As he talk, Harkin grows more animated, his voice louder and stronger.

“We've come a long way,” he says. “So why shouldn't we be progressive enough to join the rest of the world in ratifying it?”

The seriousness and passion of Harkin's remarks are in stark contrast to the bored-looking Senate staffers and disinterested tourists in the gallery who are Harkin's audience. He is the lone senator in the chamber.

A staffer moves about the chamber, aligning senators' chairs a uniform distance from their desks.

A succession of stenographers record Harkin's remarks, perhaps the only ones listening attentively.

As Harkin concludes, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin arrives to deliver a floor speech. He offers impromptu praise for Harkin's effort on the treaty and the ADA, which is the basis of the CRPD.

“He changed the country. He changed the world” with passage of the ADA, Durbin says. “He held America to a higher standard.”



In a Congress roundly criticized for gridlock, Harkin chairs the Senate's most productive committee, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

On this day, Harkin is heading a “standing” meeting in the Capitol's ornate Presidents Room. Surrounded by portraits of President George Washington and his cabinet members, committee members are on their feet as Harkin leads them through an agenda of agreed-to legislation.

Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the HELP Committee's ranking Republican, gives Harkin credit for the panel's productivity.

“On the Democratic side, you probably have 12 of the most liberal members of the Senate, including Tom Harkin,” Alexander says. “On the Republican side, you have 10 conservative Republicans, including me.”

Still, he says, the committee that includes socialist Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, progressive Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and libertarian Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, has found a way to report out 25 bills and see 21 signed into law.


“These are important laws,” Alexander says, adding that the HELP Committee has jurisdiction over about 40 percent of what the Senate does. “Health, education, labor, pensions — that's a lot of stuff.”

The key, Alexander says, is that he and Harkin are “principled, but results oriented.”

“We understand that our job is not just to be just Democrats or Republicans,” Alexander says. “After we make our speeches, the American people expect us to get a result if we can.

“The Senate uniquely is a place to develop a consensus, and a consensus is the way you govern a complex country like the United States of America.”

Hillary Clinton, who served on HELP during her brief Senate tenure, made a similar observation at the Harkin steak fry earlier this year.

“Throughout his career, Tom has gotten results by finding common ground where he could and standing his ground when he should,” she said.

Senator Tom Harkin greets Lawrent Chinhakwe, 9, of Washington D.C. and other members of a tour in the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
Chapter 5:

The Details

It's Wednesday morning and Harkin is hosting a weekly breakfast for Iowans in Washington. Along with a spread of pastries, fruit, coffee and juices, Harkin makes himself and his staff available to hear from his constituents.

Russ Dierenfield of Storm Lake is concerned about proposed EPA water rules and the possibility turkey growers will face a shortage of LP gas for a second winter in a row.

“This is a good opportunity for us to talk details with (Harkin's) staff,” he says. “We're just asking him to take a look at our issues.”

Gretta Irwin, executive director of the federation, applauds Harkin's informal gatherings as a way for the group's “farmer-voter-members to connect with their federal legislators.”

“They get to hear stories about how the federal government's rules and laws impact farmers,” she says. “At times they hear stories they haven't heard before.”

Harkin moves from one group to another, posing for pictures, telling stories, listening to concerns, asking and answering questions, and referring people to the appropriate staff member.

The food goes largely uneaten.

'A good turnout'


Before a news conference with Republicans senators and Bob Dole to call for support of the CRPD, Harkin is planning strategy. Some representatives of disability-rights groups want to push for a vote before the Senate's summer recess. Harkin and others caution they need time to change minds before a vote.

“There are a couple of people whose arms we need to twist,” says Dole, who favors waiting. “Maybe both arms.”

There is a sense of urgency at the news conference where Harkin is surrounded by fellow veterans, including Dole and Sen. McCain as well as a handful of Senate Republicans.

McCain, who has served alongside Harkin for more than a quarter of a century, refers to him as “dear friend.” The banter continues when Harkin asks McCain to speak.

“Call on the oldest and most senile first,” McCain quips.

Turning serious, he speaks of 40 years of bipartisan efforts to make the world a more accommodating place for people with disabilities — many of them military veterans.


“I hope the Senate can rise above the smoke and debris of fights on the Senate floor” to pass the CRPD, he tells reporters.

As he leaves the news conference, Harkin is stopped by a television reporter asking about reports of undocumented immigrant children entering the United States.

Harkin looks around as if searching for an answer before dismissing the reporter's question.

“My head is elsewhere,” he apologizes and dashes off to his next meeting.

As he goes, press secretary Kate Cyrul scores the news conference for him.

“There was a good turnout” of reporters, she says, adding that Jeremy Peters of the New York Times said he would write about the issue and ABC senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny, who is familiar with Harkin from his days as a Des Moines Register reporter, was in attendance.

Senator Tom Harkin looks at a 1970 issue of Life Magazine in which the story of his investigation of the infamous “tiger cage” cells at a secret prison on Con Son Island in South Vietnam was published in his office in Washington D.C. on Thursday, July 24, 2014. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
Chapter 6:

Tiger cages

A consistent thread running through Harkin's congressional life has been his commitment to human rights — for the disabled, for children, the elderly and those living in poverty.

That zeal became evident early on in his congressional career. As an aide to former Iowa U.S. Rep. Neal Smith, Harkin accompanied a congressional delegation to South Vietnam. There, he independently investigated and photographed the infamous “tiger cage” cells at a secret prison on Con Son Island.

The prisoners, including many students, were held in inhumane conditions and were being tortured, according to Harkin's eye witness account that was published in Life Magazine in 1970.

The United States had been condemning North Vietnam for its treatment of prisoners — “Rightly so,” Harkin says, “but we were doing the same thing.”

As a result of his report, prisoners held by the South Vietnamese were released.

He keeps a copy of the Life article in his office along with the original of Pat Oliphant's Washington Post opinion page cartoon about the tiger cages.



Harkin, according to Roll Call, is the 33rd wealthiest member of Congress. Unlike some of his colleagues over the years — Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Ted Kennedy, for example — he didn't start off that way.

His $11.85 million net worth comes primarily from his wife, Ruth, through her work and investments in United Technology and ConocoPhillips, where she served on the board of directors until earlier this year.

He grew up in a two-room house in Cumming that he shared with his parents and five siblings. His mother, an immigrant from Slovenia, died when he was 10. Harkin's father was a coal miner for more than 20 years and later in life suffered from black lung disease.

"I'm living proof that in America, if you have the gumption and you want to work hard, you can do about anything you want."

- Tom Harkin

Retiring U.S. Senator


“We called it miner's cough. Everybody had it,” Harkin says at a HELP Committee hearing on the disease.

He was pushing for tougher rules to protect the health of miners despite coal company objections that compliance would be costly.

“Of course, it is,” Harkin says, “but what's the cost to a miner who lives out the remainder of his life unable to breathe, hooked up to an oxygen machine, unable to do even some of the most rudimentary things in daily life?”

In some ways, his father was lucky, Harkin says.

“Most of them (coal miners) didn't live that long,” he says later. “My dad lived until he was 82. He was a pretty tough old guy. Most of them never died in their 60s.”

Although he's traveled a long way from that hardscrabble childhood to the chambers of the U.S. Senate, Harkin says he has never forgotten where he came from and how he got to where he is today.


“I'm living the American dream,” he says. “I came from nothing in terms of economic stature or status. I'm living proof that in America, if you have the gumption and you want to work hard, you can do about anything you want.”

He's quick to add that he's had some lucky breaks.

“But if you're not prepared, even if you have the best of luck, it ain't going to help you much,” Harkin says. “Preparation is the gateway to good luck.”

Harkin is quick to admit that the government has had a big supporting role in his success. From his father's job with the Works Progress Administration at the height of the Great Depression and the Social Security checks his 70-something father received while Harkin was in high school to his ROTC college scholarship, the experience he gained in the Navy and the GI bill that helped him through law school, “the government gave me these opportunities.”

When Harkin graduated from Dowling High School in Des Moines he earned an ROTC scholarship and attended Iowa State University, where he received a political science degree in 1962.

He was in active duty in the Navy from 1962 to 1967 and was in the Naval Reserve until 1974.

Harkin didn't see combat, but flew damaged fighter jets from Vietnam to a repair base in Japan.

“The worst part,” he says, “was flying those old, battle-damaged planes over open ocean water. You're out of radio contact. You're out in the middle of nowhere.”

After his military service, Harkin considered becoming a commercial airline pilot. He also thought about selling life insurance.

Instead, after he and Ruth earned law degrees at Catholic University in Washington, they returned to Iowa. She was elected Story County attorney in 1972.

Harkin didn't fare as well. With a campaign war chest of just $22,000, he lost to Republican U.S. Rep. William Scherle. Two years later, with $120,000 in campaign funds, he defeated the incumbent.

Harkin and Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley were sworn is as House members the same day. Six years later, Grassley defeated Democratic Sen. John Culver. Harkin didn't become a senator until 1984.

In his first re-election campaign against U.S. Rep. Tom Tauke, Harkin spent about $6 million — the most expensive Senate race in Iowa history at the time.

Today, Grassley and Harkin are the Senate's most senior state delegation, ranking fifth and sixth, respectively, in seniority

The office


For someone who has spent 40 years in Congress, including 30 in the Senate, Harkin's quarters in the Hart Senate Office Building are remarkably ordinary.

Decorated with black-and-white photos of Iowa State Fair scenes and the Iowa Capitol, the outer office seems austere. A pair of desks are elevated on wooden blocks. A potted plant looks in need of a green thumb.

In the corner, a bookshelf holds the Annals of Iowa along with several Iowa-themed books. The centerpiece of the office is a popcorn machine, much like you would find in the concession stand at a high school gym or a theater. It's the second popcorn machine to grace Harkin's office. The first one wore out. Harkin took it home and in his spare time returned it to working order.


The machine attracts a steady stream of visitors when Harkin staffers fire it up most every afternoon.

Not everyone has been a fan, however. A former Senate Rules Committee chairman threatened to banish it because the cleaning staff complained about the popcorn trail in the hallway outside Harkin's office.

Harkin's inner office bears many mementos of his 40 years of service, but he points out there is no “I love me” wall of pictures with celebrities and dignitaries.

There are drawings of his mother's childhood home in Slovenia. Another by one of his daughters of the senator riding a horse. There's also a rug bearing the “Goodweave” mark, indicating that no child labor was used in producing it.

He also proudly displays his father's WPA card. He points out it's dated July 19, 1939, just four months before the future senator was born.

“My dad was 53 years old, he had a sixth-grade education and had a wife, five kids and one on the way,” Harkin says.

The Senator's parents had lost their 40-acre Madison County farm.


“But FDR gave him a job” that paid $40. 30 a month, Harkin says. “That's why my dad was such a fan of FDR. He saved his family.”

Three-quarters of a century later, Harkin believes FDR was on to something.

The WPA “built things,” Harkin says. “I'm a strong believer in infrastructure projects. They last a long time and they give people jobs.”

Another prize possessions in his office is an 1859 letter from his great-grandfather, Daniel Harkin, which may explain the senator's politics.

“We figured he was just some dumb Irishman who came over here, started farming and had a whole bunch of kids and his kids had a whole bunch of kids — you know, that whole Catholic thing,” Harkin says.

His great-grandfather advised a nephew in Strawberry Point that, rather than going west to look for gold, he should “marry a good, religious wife, attend to your religious duty, work hard on your farm days and sleep sound nights. Raise corn, hogs, wheat, cattle, potatoes and babies and vote the Democratic ticket.”

“How about that?” Harkin says, as he roars with laughter. “How about that?”

He winces when he says he paid $1,100 to have the letter preserved.

Senator Tom Harkin eats lunch in his office at the Dirksen Senate building in Washington D.C. on Thursday, July 24, 2014. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
Chapter 7:

Working things out

Most days, Harkin eats his lunch — soup, usually — at his desk. Sometimes he eats in the Senate Dining Room, which is open to senators, their staffs and guests.

He misses the old, members-only dining room across the hall where relationships were built and legislative deals struck.

“We'd sit in there, Fritz Hollings, Bob Dole, Jesse Helms,” Harkin recalls. “We'd tell stories, talk about our families, what's going on back home in our states.”

Eventually, he says, they talked about legislation and how to get things done.

“No staff. No reporters. Just senators,” Harkin says.

“There's none of that now,” he says. The members-only dining room sits empty most of the time.

He relates a story about visiting Helms's office, hoping to persuade the North Carolinian who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee to take up a United Nations treaty on child labor — one of Harkin's longtime causes.

Good legislation where you really work things out and reach good compromises depends more on personal relationships.

- Tom Harkin

Retiring U.S. Senator


Helms was no fan of the UN and Harkin had to listen a lengthy diatribe. Eventually, Helms allowed Harkin to make his case. The treaty won unanimous approval, due in part, Harkin says, to those informal, lunch-table conversations that allowed senators to get to know each other — not as Democrats and Republicans, but as people.

“Good legislation where you really work things out and reach good compromises depends more on personal relationships,” he says.

Unfortunately, the opportunity to make those personal relationships has fallen victim to the time senators spend traveling, campaigning and raising campaign funds, he says.

Senators don't arrive in Washington until late Monday. Democratic and Republican caucuses meet separately on Tuesdays. There's formal action on Wednesday, Harkin says, but that's also the day for fundraising lunches. Most senators leave Washington before the end of the day Thursday.

“There's no time to get to know one another,” Harkin says. “No chance to get work done.”



Seniority has its privileges in the Senate. In Harkin's case, it has landed him a hideaway with a million-dollar view. From the window, he looks directly down the National Mall at the reflecting pool, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.

Hideaways — the Senate officially prefers the term “Capitol Office” — date back to the early 20th Century when senators and their staffs moved out of the Capitol to the first Senate office building. They had larger offices there, but were farther from the Senate floor, so many were given private Capitol offices.

All 100 senators have hideaways now, but they are assigned based on seniority.

Their locations are not disclosed, and the Senate does not reveal what it spends on the private offices.

Harkin's hideaway is not opulent, and he says he doesn't spend a lot of time there.

President Barack Obama “camped out here during his inauguration,” Harkin says, as he points to the wall where a framed thank-you card from the president hangs.

His hideaway is furnished with a couch and upholstered chairs, a desk and a table with four chairs.

There's also a painting by a former staffer of his home in Cumming.

“This is temporary. I don't own it,” Harkin says about private office. However, the house in the painting, “That's my own. I was born there.”

Harkin pauses at a bookshelf before selecting a volume, “101 Great American Poems.” He opens it to “My Childhood Home I See Again,” which Abraham Lincoln wrote when he visited his boyhood home during one of his campaigns.

“It's a fantastic poem,” Harkin says. He thumbs the pages. Standing in the middle of the hideaway, he begins to read aloud.

He pauses. “I'm not going to read it all,” Harkin says. Then continues for several stanzas.


My childhood's home I see again,

And sadden with the view;

And still, as memory crowds my brain,

There's pleasure in it too.

O Memory! thou midway world

'Twixt earth and paradise,

Where things decayed and loved ones lost

In dreamy shadows rise,

And, freed from all that's earthly vile,

Seem hallowed, pure, and bright,

Like scenes in some enchanted isle

All bathed in liquid light.

“Abraham Lincoln,” he concludes. “A very profound poem.”

There's a liquor cabinet, too. Harkin rummages in it before pulling out a bottle of Templeton Rye.


On occasion, Harkin says, he makes Manhattans for himself and Sen. Lamar Alexander. Although the ranking Republican on the HELP Committee represents Tennessee, which is known for its sippin' whiskey, he appreciates the Iowa whiskey, Harkin says.

Since announcing his decision to leave the Senate, Harkin frequently has said that he's retiring, “but not retiring from the fight.”

Although there's much more Harkin wants to see done, especially ratification of the CRPD, he feels fortunate to have been around long enough to see the results of his efforts.

“One of the most satisfying things in my life is that I've been blessed with is to live this long and to see what has happened in our country because of one bill I sponsored and worked like the dickens to get through,” he says.

“Not by myself,” he adds. “Nobody gets anything done around here by himself. I led the charge on the ADA and I've lived long enough to see what it's done.

“It's a very satisfying thing to see,” Harkin says. “I will miss that, doing things, making changes, making a difference.”