When I think of Tom Harkin, I’m reminded of the scene in True Grit when Rooster Cogburn is surrounded by four bad guys. The odds have finally caught up with him. The main bad guy, Ned, asks Cogburn if he’s ready to accept his fate. Cogburn responds: “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!” as he charges the gang, guns blazing.
For forty years, that scene pretty much summed up Tom Harkin’s interactions with the Republicans. No matter what they threw at him, time and again, he came out on top. In fact, Harkin has the record for defeating the most members of Congress—five—over the course of his career.
I worked for Senator Harkin in the mid-1990s and was around for his ’96 campaign against one of those popular members of Congress: Jim Ross Lightfoot. Harkin had me doing all kinds of crazy things, including a number of tongue-in-cheek endorsements, such as dressing up like a cigarette, “Little Smoky,” and appearing at his opponent’s events to let people know that Little Smoky and the rest of big tobacco were firmly behind Lightfoot. The Sunday before the election, many of the pundits were saying that Harkin had finally run out of luck, but Harkin never wavered in his belief that he’d win. And he did end up winning—by five percentage points.
It wasn’t just the grit he showed on the electoral battlefield, though. Harkin repeatedly used his toughness to try to keep us out of real battlefields. Before his election to Congress, he risked his political career when, as a Congressional aide, he took the now famous “tiger cages” photos depicting the abuse of Vietnamese prisoners. Their 1970 publication in Life magazine changed public attitudes about the war and paved the way toward getting the United States out of Vietnam.
He used his street cred as a Vietnam-era Navy pilot to stand up to President Reagan when Reagan was determined to get the United States into another Vietnam-like quagmire in Nicaragua. He also stood up to President Bush I and tried to keep the United States from entering the Gulf War, accurately predicting at the time that misguided U.S. policy in the region would only lead to more conflict.
The list of Harkin’s legislative accomplishments is long and impressive, but his work on behalf of people with disabilities is most noteworthy. If there was a Mount Rushmore for authors of America’s great civil rights laws, Tom Harkin would be on it for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act—legislation that was monumental not only for bringing millions of Americans out of society’s shadows, but also because it was signed by a Republican President and passed by overwhelming mjorities in both the House and the Senate. It also had global ramifications, since several other industrialized nations followed the lead of the United States.
While Harkin recently retired from the U.S. Senate, he has remained politically active as a leader of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group of progressives from Iowa and New Hampshire that seeks to nominate a true progressive Presidential candidate. Harkin and the rest of the group recently sent a well-publicized open letter to Hillary Clinton and other potential 2016 Democratic Presidential candidates that urges them to stand up for “big, bold economic populist ideas,” including “breaking up the ‘too-big-to-fail’ Wall Street banks,” “establishing a national goal of debt-free college,” “creating millions of clean energy jobs,” “expanding Social Security,” and “reducing big-money influence in politics.”
On an unseasonably warm March afternoon, I caught up with Harkin by phone. He called me from his car as he was dodging rush-hour traffic in Washington, D.C. (now that he is out of office, he is handling his own logistics). The audio of our conversation is punctuated with funny asides: “Hang on, I’ve got to make a U-turn here, I’m going to piss some people off.”
Q: After forty years in Congress, you retired a couple of months ago. How’s that been going so far?
Tom Harkin: So far, so good. I took two months off to clear my head and get away from everything. I went ocean sailing, out on a forty-three-foot catch. I’m back in Washington and Iowa now and starting to work with the Harkin Institute at Drake University.
Q: You were first elected in 1974, when you beat Bill Scherle in a rematch election. One of the big impressions you made on people during that election was jumping on stage and confronting Scherle about not debating you. I can’t imagine a candidate doing something that brash today. How did that come about?
Harkin: Well, he wouldn’t debate me! I ran against him in ’72 and he wouldn’t debate me, so here it was ’74, and I thought I had a viable campaign. I was a viable candidate, and he wouldn’t debate me. So, I found out he was going to be at Simpson College, and I just went up on the stage and said, “Let’s debate!” He said, “Well, we’ll have my people work it out.” And I said, “No!” I asked, “How many citizens right here would like to see us engage in an impromptu debate right now?” Of course, all the students said, “Yes!” And Congressman Scherle just stormed off the stage at that point, so that was that.
Q: You served in the House for ten years and thirty in the Senate. During that time, you earned the unusual bragging right of being the only person in U.S. history to defeat four sitting members of Congress. What was it that enabled you to win all those campaigns?
Harkin: Actually, it was five.
Q: That’s an unusual number. What’s the secret recipe?
Harkin: I don’t know if there’s any secret recipe. Just a lot of hard work. Pay attention to your constituents. I always had a great Iowa staff that did all my great constituent service work. And I found that people would forgive me for a lot of my “liberal sins” because I paid attention to the home front. I worked really hard to get infrastructure items for Iowa, to help businesses in Iowa. When I campaigned, I’d let them throw a punch, but by gosh, I’d throw two back. And, I always said, the first rule in politics is never defend, always attack. I still believe that.
Q: A Harkinism you always used is, “Fight on your own territory, never theirs.” Can you elaborate?
Harkin: A lot of times, candidates for office, especially incumbents, seem to get drawn into their opponents’ arguments, and fighting on their turf, because you want to defend yourself. That’s wrong. Fight on your own turf. Make them come to you. Make them explain why they don’t agree with your position. I think that a lot of times, too many liberals, progressives, lose because they’re afraid to really stand up for what they believe in. I tell you, when you dig down, people are pretty progressive, by and large. It’s been said—well, I guess, I’ve said it many times—that a lot of people say we’re a conservative country, that people are conservative. And my response to that is, yes, that’s true, and you know what the people want to conserve most? The progressive traditions of our country—freedom of speech, and of the press and of assembly. Freedom to dissent. The freedom to practice your own religion or not practice religion as you see fit. The freedom to take control of your own body and not have others tell you what you can do to yourself. It’s the progressive traditions of understanding diversity, and praising diversity, rather than shunning it. Progressive traditions of civil rights and human rights. Yes, we’re conservative! We want to conserve those.
Q: Progressives from the upper Midwest used to be pretty well represented in Congress. Now Tea Party Republican Joni Ernst has taken your seat. What do you say to people who claim 2014 was the year prairie progressivism died?
Harkin: That signal’s come and gone a lot in my life-time (chuckles). I think prairie progressivism is still there. Every once in a while, odd things take place. First of all, Congressman Bruce Braley made some mistakes for which he paid dearly. I’ll give Joni Ernst credit. She ran a great campaign, no doubt about it. She had great TV, she stayed on message, but I don’t think that her opponent really got her on his turf. And then, you just had kind of a bad year for Democrats, period. So I don’t read too much into it.
Q: 2014—as well as 2010—weren’t just bad years for Democrats; the effect has been magnified exponentially because the Republican Party has veered so far to the right. Where did this extremism come from and how do we fix it?
Harkin: There’s no one silver bullet, but money really is the root of all evil. The single biggest problem is how much more money is flooding into politics these days. It not only tends to enable a more extreme candidate to get elected, but because so much money is required to bankroll a campaign, everyone spends all their free time fundraising instead of reaching across the aisle. When I first arrived to Congress in 1975, I would spend several hours every week with Republicans—having lunch, drinking a beer, you name it. But by the time I left last year, that was a rarity. Every moment of free time is eaten up by fundraising. And the advent of all these groups that can threaten passage of this or that with an avalanche of money or a primary opponent has poisoned our politics.
If I had to choose a close second, it would be redistricting. All states should get their redistricting done by a nonpartisan body like Iowa does. These districts at the federal and state level that are gerrymandered tend to produce a lot of extremism—either naturally or by threat of being primaried in the next election.
Q: Looking ahead to 2016, if Tom Harkin was the campaign manager, what would you tell candidates to focus on?
Harkin: The burning issue of our time is the growing inequality in income and wealth in our country, and it’s got to be addressed. We’ve got to stop it. It’s eroding our politics. It’s separating our society into the haves and the have-nots. It’s condemning a whole younger set of our population to not be able to enter the middle class. And, it hits hardest in the prairie areas of the United States, our small towns and communities, where the jobs just aren’t available and the incomes are low. So that, to me, is the burning issue, and the one that they have to campaign on.
Q: Your childhood was, by all accounts, a pretty difficult one. You lived in a small house with six kids and no running water. Your mother passed away when you were young. How did growing up poor shape you as a politician?
Harkin: Let me correct one thing. We did have running water. We had a well and we had a pump, and thanks to the Rural Electrification Administration, electricity to run the pump. We didn’t have hot water; we had cold water! We always had to heat up water on the stove to take a bath on Saturday nights. That’s what we did in those days.
Q: How did you end up going into the Navy?
Harkin: I was looking for a way to go to college. I couldn’t afford it. That was before we had things like Pell Grants and student loans and all that kind of stuff. I did really well in high school and got good grades, and so I applied for an NROTC scholarship, which I got in the regular Navy. I went to Iowa State University, and the Navy was great. I loved it.
Q: And then after you graduated, you started in active duty and they sent you down to Gitmo right after the Cuban missile crisis. You were down there at the same time as Admiral John Bulkeley, one of the most decorated naval officers in American history.
Harkin: Oh yes. As a matter of fact, I got called on the carpet before Admiral Bulkeley one time. He confined me to base for a month, so I couldn’t do anything and I couldn’t fly anywhere. I broke a little rule.
Q: What was that rule?
Harkin: We couldn’t fly over Cuba. But I was out on a night flight with a wingman, and our team was playing the other Navy team in a softball game that night. So I decided to fly over the field and light the afterburners on their plane to cheer on our team. It was night. I made a mistake in my navigation and I flew way out over Cuba and came back in over our base. Of course, that set off all the sirens and the radar, so I got called before Admiral Bulkeley.
He wasn’t too happy, but he didn’t throw the book at me. I think he saw it as a poke in the eye to them, to show that we could fly over their territory and they couldn’t do a darn thing about it.
Q: As an aide to Congressman Neal Smith, you traveled to Con Son Island, Vietnam, where you got into the famous tiger cages and you took photos. You smuggled those out and they eventually made their way to Life magazine. You had the Nixon State Department breathing down your neck demanding that you hand them over and you had to smuggle that film all the way back to the United States. How did you get the courage to do that?
Harkin: Well, I don’t know. I just knew I had to do it. I knew I couldn’t let down the young man who drew the map for me that led me to the tiger cages. I couldn’t let down those 500-plus people who were stuck in those tiger cages, although they had committed no crimes. They were just against the war in Vietnam. And I wanted to show that we were funding this violation of human rights, and to get this to stop. So, I came back, I got fired from my job, and I was told I’d never work again in Congress. (Laughter.)
Q: You were still in the Naval Reserves. How did the guys in your squadron react when those pictures got published?
Harkin: It didn’t bother them. I continued to do my job.I was a good pilot and I had a lot of hours in the F-8, which we were flying. So, it was fine. In fact, a lot of the guys I flew with were people who had been to Vietnam and back and they, too, were sick of the war. They wanted to bring the war to an end, so I had a lot of support from my fellow pilots. And, by the way, there was a story I wrote for The Progressive magazine at that time.
Q: Yeah, you wrote the cover story in October 1970.
Harkin: There you go! I had forgotten what month it was.
Q: Senator John McCain has said we should treat prisoners of war well because if we treat them badly, so will our enemies when they capture American soldiers.
Harkin: You’re absolutely right. And what I didn’t know at the time was that they were actually keeping some North Vietnamese prisoners in those tiger cages in clear violation of the Geneva Code. Of course, we were banging on the North Vietnamese for violating the Geneva Code with our prisoners, like John McCain and others. So we wanted to make sure that we were abiding by the code so that we would come into the court with clean hands on that issue.
Q: So the pictures got published in Life magazine, and a few years later, the United States was out of Vietnam. What impact do you think the pictures ultimately had on helping end the war?
Harkin: I think it mobilized a lot of public opinion, not only in this country, but globally, to show just how repressive the South Vietnamese government was and the fact that we were supporting them in these activities. I think the American people said, look, you know, we can’t control what every government does to its people, but we shouldn’t be aiding and assisting a government in having these kinds of repressive prisons. It added to the public outcry against our involvement in Vietnam.
Q: U.S. mistreatment of prisoners is an issue that never seems to go away. Do you believe the Bush Administration’s torture of enemy combatants crossed the line into war crimes?
Harkin: I do think it crossed a line. When those pictures of Abu Ghraib came out, I thought, my gosh, this is like the tiger cages all over again. Only we were actually doing it ourselves, we weren’t hiring another government to do it. Quite frankly, I don’t think anyone’s ever been punished adequately. They always go after the lower-ranking guys. Some higher-ups’ heads should have rolled on that one. But they never do. It’s the poor schmuck down on the bottom who had to carry it out that gets his head in a noose.
Q: In the cover article for The Progressive about the tiger cages in South Vietnam, you wrote, “I learned how easily moral courage and common decency can be subverted by political expediency. And I learned that you don’t have to go along. And I learned that one person can stand up and make a difference.” It’s been forty-five years since you wrote that. Do you still agree with the idealism of that young man?
Harkin: I sure do. It’s been years, but I still say that I went out with the same progressive values and liberal ideals that I went in with. I made a couple of mistakes, I will honestly admit. In retrospect, there are a few votes I wish I could take back. But, through it all, I kept my support for organized labor, I kept my support for income equality, I kept my support for making sure that kids that come from poor families have access to education. So, yes, I still believe that you don’t have to give up your ideals and go along. One person can still stand up and make a difference.
Jud Lounsbury has served as press secretary for several politicians, including Tom Harkin, Russ Feingold, and Al Gore. He currently lives on a small farm south of Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and four kids, and is a regular contributor to The Progressive.