Tom Harkin gave a memorable speech to the U.S. Senate without saying a word.
Harkin, who had a deaf brother, spoke in sign language to the Senate during the debate over the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.
Former Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska said Saturday it was “the most moving speech I have ever heard” in the Senate. “So the room was silent. It was deathly silent during his entire speech.”
Harkin's days of addressing the Senate are limited after his announcement Saturday that he will retire in 2014. He spent 10 years in the U.S. House and will have spent 30 in the Senate when he leaves.
“It's a day of, obviously, some mixed emotions for me,” Harkin said in a World-Herald interview. “But I made my decision and I am not looking back.”
Harkin, 73, said it's time for him to step aside and let others move up. “It's somebody else's turn.”
When his career started, his U.S. House district included Council Bluffs and southwest Iowa. Later, as a senator, he helped acquire funds for such projects as the Avenue G viaduct and Western Historic Trails Center, both in Council Bluffs.
Harkin developed a reputation as a tenacious advocate for the working class, for farmers and for people with disabilities. He helped draw up the disabilities act and, as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, oversaw the reauthorization of two federal farm bills.
“He's always been willing to fight for working people,” Kerrey said.
Kerrey said Harkin also was a big supporter of federally funded community health centers, which provide medical care to the low-income and uninsured.
“He's a titan of politics in Iowa,” said State Sen. Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs.
Harkin has a keen understanding of the importance of connecting with individuals, Gronstal said. He said Harkin's grasp of that concept influenced other Democrats and has helped make the Democratic Party fiercely competitive in Iowa.
“He always did the grassroots side of the campaign,” Gronstal said. “And that's how you continue to win.”
During campaigns, Gronstal said, Harkin maintained an exhausting pace, appeared in many places, met lots of people and created volunteer organizations that extended his reach.
Council Bluffs Mayor Tom Hanafan said he volunteered to work for Harkin in 1974. When Hanafan ran for City Council, Harkin advised him to shake a lot of hands and, more importantly, listen to people, Hanafan said.
Harkin, Gronstal said, is a scrappy guy.
When he was getting his start in politics, Harkin ran twice against U.S. Rep. Bill Scherle of Henderson, Iowa.
Harkin, who lost to Scherle the first time and defeated him the second, was frustrated by the absence of debates in one of their races. So when Scherle was speaking at Simpson College, Harkin arrived unannounced and walked onstage, asking the students in the audience if they wanted a debate. Scherle declined to play along.
Harkin said Saturday he and Scherle eventually became friends, and Harkin had the Malvern, Iowa, Post Office named for Scherle. Harkin said he doubted he would have beaten Scherle in 1974 if President Richard Nixon hadn't stained the Republican Party over Watergate.
“And he didn't even like Nixon,” Harkin said of Scherle.
Harkin's longtime Republican colleague, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, said he and Harkin rarely agreed on the issues.
“But he and I have gotten along for a long time with open lines of communication, and I appreciate his public service and zeal for Iowa interests,” Grassley said.
Harkin made an unsuccessful run for president as a candidate for the 1992 Democratic nomination.
Harkin, born in Cumming, Iowa, is a lawyer whose father was a coal miner and mother an immigrant who arrived in America with few possessions.
“We had some pretty tough times, and I think that really molds you,” Harkin said.
In Cumming, Harkin said, the “government” was viewed as an entity that existed in Des Moines for other people. Neighbors built relationships and cared for one another in that small town.
But in the late 1930s, Harkin said, the federal Works Progress Administration gave his father a job building a high school and a park beside Lake Ahquabi near Indianola. It was an example of what government could do for people in need.
Harkin said he has many activities that he wants to carry out with his wife, Ruth. It's tough to make family plans when you're in the Senate, Harkin said. Last month some of the Harkins' Christmas activities were pre-empted by work on Capitol Hill.
“It's tough to do things together,” Harkin said.
His wife enjoys taking rides and trips on her bicycle.
“I never get to go,” Harkin said. “I'd like to do that sometime.”
He said his wife recently reminded him of another thing he's put off for 40 years: dance lessons.
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