This morning, Senator Tom Harkin made an announcement that he will be retiring from the U.S. Senate once his current term is over in 2015. I leave this announcement in his own words:
I have been thinking hard about the decision whether to run for a sixth term in the United States Senate for a number of months – even more these last few weeks. I’ve reached a decision, and what I’ve decided really boils down to two things. First, I’m going to fulfill a promise that I made to my wife Ruth, and that I also made to myself. It’s a promise that we’re going to do certain things together – and that we’re going to live together in a way we’ve often talked about – before it gets too late. That’s a decision I believe many Iowans can relate to, either because of their own circumstances, or perhaps those of their parents. I have the privilege to be able to make this decision on my own terms, which not everyone can, and I’m deeply grateful to the people of Iowa that I do have that opportunity. I’ve been extremely fortunate. I was born here in Cumming in modest circumstances. My father was a coal-miner with just an 8th-grade education. My mother arrived to this country as an immigrant with virtually no earthly possessions. This state and this country have allowed me to enjoy a life and career beyond anything I imagined as a boy or young man.
Second, I’m 73 years old right now. At the end of this term I’ll be 75. When the current Congress is over, I will have served in the United States House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate for a total of 40 years. After 40 years, I just feel it’s somebody else’s turn. I can’t put into words what an honor it is to serve Iowa. And I don’t by any means plan to retire completely from public life at the end of this Congress. But I am going to make way for someone new in this Senate seat. I think that is right not just for me, but for Iowa, as well.
Senator Harkin is a man this writer knows well, and rather than bore you with the basic factoids that other writers elsewhere will, I will do something rare for me, and speak personally about him.
It was the cold winter of 1991 in the state capitol of New Hampshire; Concord. I was to stay with my mother and stepfather for the holiday season; a special treat, as I did not get to see them very often. It was also election time, and for the new year festivities in Concord during an election season – the ramp-up for the first national primary, the decorations, and celebrations – were notably full of candidate signs, shirts, and other memorabilia. It was then that I, a teenager who did not pay much attention to politics despite being in a political household, first heard the name Tom Harkin. My mother and stepfather were supporters of Iowa’s senator and his campaign, and took me to several rallies in support of him. At the time, the Democratic primary showdown looked to be between Harkin and Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, with nobody expecting much out of the other candidates such as Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Douglas Wilder of Virginia, and only a passing mention – and two people in front of the Endicott Hotel holding signs – for some unknown Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton.
I got to hear, and meet, Senator Harkin during that campaign season as he crossed the state to speak to crowds before the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. My parents supported him for his positions on the handicapped and disabled. When I met him, I found him a smiling but relatively quiet man, at least compared to the other candidates who were crossing the state at the same time. While I witnessed former Senator Tsongas puff up his chest before he spoke before the crowd, Harkin has sloped shoulders and seemed more at ease and friendly with the audience before him.
After the election, I followed and corresponded with the Senator from time to time. If a piece of legislation concerned me, his was one office I reached out to. And I always got a response, rather than a dismissal or the simpler move of ignoring someone not of his home state. Even as he passed the age of 70, his eyes still were smiling as he spoke to the crowd. He fought for the people, not just of his state, but for the United States. For me, he defined what it meant to be a statesman.
Even now, he still pushes for positions he feels will be for the benefit of the nation as a whole. And while many members of Congress are detached from the people they represent, a pattern fueled by new hyper-partisan gerrymandered elections, Harkin remains incredibly attached to the people of his state. Last year, Senator Harkin passed a notable mark, having helped over 100,000 of his constituents, directly, in a matter involving the federal government. See the video as he spoke about on the day he did so:
When he retires, Senator Harkin will have been in the Senate for 30 years, not even close to a record. But in those 30 years, he has supported many of the pieces of legislation that help you and me every day, from the expansion of the Civil Air Patrol, which helped track oil spills from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, to the introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act. With the ADA, he introduced it by speaking not only verbally, but in sign-language. And it is the ADA that guarantees Tom Harkin’s place in this nation’s history. To remember, watch this video of then-President George Herbert Walker Bush signing the Americans with Disabilities Act into law, on July 26th, 1990, a proud moment in this nation’s history:
Tom Harkin will be missed once he leaves the Senate. He exits to pass the torch to a younger generation, understanding that this is a transition period for the nation. And yet, his departure does not leave a hole, but, instead, an ideal for the next generation to live up to and surpass. There will never be another Tom Harkin, but thanks to his years of service, the legacy of his contribution will forever be a part of our history.
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