Borg: Tom Harkin is vacating his seat in the United States Senate but leaving an indelible record. Five Senate terms, 30 years in all and before that five terms, ten years in the House of Representatives. During those 40 years in Congress working with seven presidents, four republicans, three democrats. Senator Harkin's mark is probably most brilliant in establishing national standards for improving the lives of people with disabilities. But that doesn't overshadow soil conservation, child nutrition through the public schools and laws protecting American laborers. He spent 30 years on the Senate's Agriculture Committee, 25 years leading the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Senator Harkin, I wish that I had kept a log of the number of times you have been in that chair at the Iowa Press table but it has been many times.

Harkin: I've been here a lot and I have enjoyed every minute of it. Well, maybe not every minute but most of the time.

Borg: We hope it's enjoyable today. It will be for us. Across the table, Gazette Political Writer James Lynch and Radio Iowa's News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Senator Harkin, you are as Chairman of the HELP Committee in the Senate wheeling and dealing in these last days of the current Congress. Are you second-guessing your decision to step away given all that is happening right now?

Harkin: Well, I wouldn't say second-guessing, Kay, but kind of a feeling of yeah I'm going to miss it, sure, because I enjoy this. I enjoy being a Senator. I love the job. I love the Senate. People say oh the Senate is broken and all that. It's dented a little bit, banged up a little bit but still functional. And I have been working on the, obviously the appropriations bill, the Omnibus Bill, I hope that we'll have next week. But, again, it's time for me to move on. It's time for me to retire. It's time for younger people and new people to come in.

Henderson: What will be your role in helping shape the Iowa Democratic Party in the future? After election losses, Scott Brennan, the chair of the party, has said he doesn't wish to continue. Are you out recruiting a chair? What role will you play?

Harkin: No, no I'm not doing anything like that, of course. Well, look, I'm going to be doing a lot of work with the Institute at Drake, the Harkin Institute on Public Policy and Civic Engagement at Drake. In fact, on the 30th of this month this big semi pulls up to the Hart Office Building and we load, well not we, they load several hundred boxes of my stuff and it comes out here to Drake, all my records and everything like that. So I'll be doing a lot of -- I hope to be doing a lot of work with that Institute on a non-partisan basis. But, look, I am a democrat and I love my party and I want my party to be good and I want them to have good policies and good candidates. So, yes, I hope to be supportive in some way. But I don't intend to be any kind of godfather or something like that. I just want to be supportive and helping in whatever way I can.

Lynch: Following on that, now that the campaign is over and you can speak candidly, what can you tell us about the advice you gave Bruce Braley in the campaign and what advice you'd give him now as he prepares to re-enter private life?

Harkin: Well --

Borg: Not that you have any experience in entering private life.

Harkin: That's right, what do I know about it?

Borg: But back to the question, what advice before the campaign?

Harkin: As a matter of fact, Bruce just said to me the other day, he texted me and said, see you in the unemployment line. So, look, I talked a lot with Bruce about the campaign. Look, he's been a great Congressman, he has contributed a lot and I thought he ran a good campaign. A couple of mistakes were made. We all know about that. But, look, this was a wave. I've seen waves. I came in on a wave in 1974, the Watergate wave. And so I've seen these waves move back and forth. And this was just one of those years. And plus I will give credit where credit is due, Joni Ernst ran a great campaign. In fact, I've said before I don't know who did her ads and all that but is he available for the democrats to use in the future, or she, whoever that is? So she ran a really good campaign. And this national wave that was moving, a couple of mistakes made in the Braley campaign and that was it. But my advice to him was always just, you know, you grew up in Brooklyn, Iowa, you're from a small town, your mother has been a school teacher in eight decades and your family, you're Iowa through and through, let people know you're an Iowan. That is who you are.

Lynch: Would he have been better off if he had had a primary campaign and go through that?

Harkin: That's a possibility, James, that's a possibility that perhaps a primary and working things out and stuff, that's Monday morning quarterbacking. You know, heck I can do it, I can Monday morning quarterback as good as you can, James.

Henderson: You mentioned '74, your actual first campaign for Congress was in '72.

Harkin: That's true.

Henderson: I'm wondering if you could compare and contrast your first campaigns in the '70s with the last one you ran in this century? What has changed?

Harkin: Money. In my first political campaign I spent $20,000. Now that was a kind of a wave here. That was an anti-McGovern wave here. Two years later the wave went the other direction with Watergate. I think in that year I spent a little over $100,000 in winning a congressional seat. Think about that compared to today. And they weren't as biting, I've looked at some of the ads that we ran and stuff in those days, they weren't as harsh and bitter and tearing people down. It just wasn't that way. And we didn't have all this outside money coming in. There was money that we spent on our campaign but there weren't a lot of this outside money coming in.

Henderson: I'm wondering, though, I've heard you say the campaign credo for the Harkin team is, always attack, never defend. Where did that come from?

Harkin: It comes from me, I said that.

Henderson: Why?

Harkin: Well because -- people always took that wrong -- they took that as saying well Harkin just is attacking somebody. That's not what I meant. What I meant was that people want to know what you are for positively. What are you for? What can you go out and how can you make the difference between you and your opponent on that basis? And that’s what I always meant by being on the attack, being on the side of pushing forward, not just saying well defending myself and getting back on my heels because the other side is attacking me. I've always said, don't answer attacks. If someone is attacking you with something don't answer. You've got to say, okay, they're attacking me on this, here's where it's wrong and here's why I'm right and they're wrong. You've got to come back with that because if you don't, people think that if they attack and you don't answer it that there must be something to it. So you've always got to respond to that not in a defensive way but turning it around in a positive direction of what you're for and why your way is better than theirs.

Lynch: Senator Harkin, you mentioned you’re going to be doing a lot of work with the Harkin Institute at Drake and I think some people might be curious whether you think the lawn at Drake would be a good place for a steak fry?

Harkin: I don't know. I know what you're getting at.

Lynch: I thought you would.

Harkin: I know what you're getting at. Listen, people have asked me if I'm going to continue the steak fry. I actually said this year was my last one. I mean, these take a lot of effort and we never made much money on them, quite frankly, but they were just a good kind of uplifting get the charge to go into the election kind of thing. And it was a good way of showcasing our candidates. But I don't know. I don't know what I'm going to do. Not connected at all with the Institute at all, this would be something that the party would do or something like that. I just really want to emphasize, the Institute at Drake is totally bipartisan, we have a bipartisan board. In fact, I have a former chair of the Iowa Republican Party on the board, I have republicans on the board. I want it to be a totally nonpartisan entity and Drake has set it up that way.

Lynch: So you're not closing the door on the steak fry? You're not saying never?

Harkin: Well I did but now people are talking to me about maybe revisiting that never again.

Lynch: So stay tuned.

Harkin: Stay tuned, yeah, stay tuned on that one.

Henderson: You mentioned the Harkin Institute is going to be getting a huge volume of your records from your 40 years. As researchers dig through that, what surprise will they find?

Harkin: Who knows. I may be surprised to find some things in there. In fact, it's interesting that as Drake has had an archivist out in our office going through things and we've had the Senate archivist, they know how to do that stuff, I have no idea how to do that. And then digitizing all of the old stuff that is still on paper. And once in a while they come across some very interesting tidbits, shall we say, of legislation and letters and things like that, that I had forgotten about long, long ago. So there will be kind of -- I'm sure there will be some surprises. I have no idea what they would be.

Lynch: Looking ahead, Senator, to 2016, you have said that you think it's about 50/50 whether Hillary Clinton will run for president or not. I'm wondering what advice, solicited or not, you would give her as far as winning the Iowa caucuses this time. What does she need to do here in Iowa?

Harkin: Well I think she needs to understand that she can't take it for granted, that she's going to have to campaign hard and it looks like others are going to be out here too. I'm hearing about other people coming out here on campaigning. And you've got to get out. And I did have one bit of advice. I said, don't just go to Des Moines or Waterloo or Cedar Rapids or Dubuque. Go to the rural areas. Start out in smaller communities in Iowa. Let them know you care about rural America and small towns and communities. You can get the cities later on but plant your flag in rural Iowa.

Lynch: Will Secretary Clinton and the party be better off if she faces some strong opposition on the primary trail?

Harkin: Well, probably, probably. But I think she will. I think there will be some other democrats. I see Jim Webb is now making motions on that. I don't know what Bernie Sanders is going to do. But certainly Martin O'Malley is going to be here, the former Governor of Maryland. I know he has been here a lot. I like him a lot. I admire him greatly. So I think you’re going to find people like that here.

Henderson: You ran for president yourself in --

Harkin: Did you have to bring that up?

Henderson: -- in 1992. In retrospect, what did that teach you about America's political system? And was it a good thing or a bad thing that you were unsuccessful?

Harkin: Well what it taught me is that America is a very complex nation, that we are truly one from many and that you really have to understand that complexity and that we're not all the same thinkers, people differ in regions and how they think and how they approach problem-solving. The second part of your question is do I regret running? No, I had a great -- I enjoyed my run for president. I can't say that I had a bad experience. I think it made me a better Senator by giving me a broader view of what this country is about. But -- I really, honestly I really wasn't prepared to run for president. I hadn't really spent a lot of time thinking about it before, I had thought about being a Senator or being a Congressman and I was really just focused on Iowa. But this came along and I just wasn't really prepared to do that. I said once, I think I could have, I think if I had -- I could have run a better campaign. I ran a bad campaign. It was this old song that Harkin wanted to run for president in the worst way and he did. But I think I probably could have been, I think I could have been a decent president but I wouldn't have had another happy day in my life.

Borg: Was that an impulse decision?

Harkin: Well it wasn't impulsive. It was just that I thought we were really moving in the wrong direction and I didn't see people moving forward on this. I got in the race before Bill Clinton and I think Paul Tsongas was the only one in the race at the time I announced.

Borg: I want to take you back in your career. You have had a military career, 40 years in Congress, in which not only have you worn a uniform is my point, but you have influenced diplomacy throughout the world in some of the decisions you have made in Congress. As we are discussing this, President Obama is appointing a new Secretary of Defense now and people, it's said, have turned down that job and wouldn't take it. And so this is maybe a second or third choice. That brings me to the question, if people are turning down that job, is the U.S. less able to influence world affairs now and influence its own security than it was when you first went to Congress?

Harkin: That's an interesting question, Dean. I think in some ways we've got a long road ahead of us to get out from underneath the big mistake we made, which was the Iraq War and how we deal with the Middle East and how we deal with these forces of radical Islam. And I just, look, when I first came in the world was kind of a simpler place. We didn't have the -- 9/11 had not happened, we didn't have worldwide terrorism and things like that, that we have now.

Borg: Was there a decision that you made, disregarding the Presidents over the years and their decisions, decision you made that you wish you had back as we talk about this subject?

Harkin: Oh sure.

Borg: Which?

Harkin: When I voted to support President Bush on his, on the Iraq War. Worst vote I ever cast in my life.

Lynch: Senator, you have been described as the champion of champions for people with disabilities and there's some concern in the disabilities rights community with you retiring who is going to carry that torch. Are you passing off the torch to someone else? Or do you expect to stay involved in the fight for disability rights, including that convention for the rights of people with disabilities, the international convention?

Harkin: Well, as you know, the Americans with Disabilities Act is the premier thing that I look upon with satisfaction of what I've done in my political life, my senatorial career. And I've had, I've been very blessed and the people of Iowa have given me the opportunity to stay there long enough to actually after 25 years see what it has done to this country. It's amazing the changes that have been made in how people with disabilities have access to life now and to transportation and education, enjoyment, jobs, everything. It has been remarkable to see this. Now, you ask about leaving and giving the torch on. A lot of people are going to step forward. It's sort of like, you know, for all the last 20 years people, when issues of disability come up they say well that's Harkin, let Harkin take care of it. But now that I'm gone other people will step forward and there are others who care about this on both sides of the aisle. I've had a great partner in John McCain for all these years. New people will step forward, Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, a republican. On the democratic side, Bob Casey from Pennsylvania, Sherrod Brown from Ohio, Chris Murphy from Connecticut are all there but they have not done much because I was there. So my leaving now opens it up for them now to come in and carry the ball forward on disability rights issues.

Henderson: You were elected in the same year that Chuck Grassley was elected to Congress. You have spent the entirety of your careers serving in D.C. together. You have polar opposite political views. What is your working relationship?

Harkin: I think we have a great working relationship. In fact, I was very touched on my birthday, on November 19th, just a few weeks ago Senator Grassley got on the floor and gave a wonderful tribute to me and I had known that he was coming so I went to the floor and then we had a little exchange back and forth and it was really heartfelt. We've had a great relationship. And, again, it just shows that people with different philosophies and different views of society and the role of government can actually work together. We may vote different but when it comes to Iowa there's not much daylight between us.

Henderson: We talk about changes you have helped make through legislation. I'm wondering how you have been changed by being part of that process and by being a politician.

Harkin: Well, the issues I have worked on, disability issues, children's health care, the health care bill itself, prevention and wellness programs and health care that I have championed for all these years, it just, for me it has given me a wonderful perspective on life and how some people have tough lives, especially kids. Some kids really have tough lives. The circumstances of their birth, their poverty, where they may live in high crime areas, absentee fathers or mothers and these kids need, they need to have hope that they can make it. And that is the one thing I have always believed in, Kay, that government can give hope to people. Government can give hope. It was true in my family. I always tell the story about my family. We had nothing. My father had a sixth grade education, my mother was an immigrant, we had nothing. But, as my dad said, I got a letter from Franklin Roosevelt once and he gave me a job. So, that is what it has done for me. It has given me a better grasp on how government can help people at the bottom move up that ladder of opportunity.

Borg: Senator Harkin, that's a perfect way for us to close. Thank you for that philosophical insight and thank you for over the years being our guest here on Iowa Press. And we want you to know that you're always welcome back and we'll have you back.

Harkin: Even not as a Senator I can come back? Thank you, Dean, very much.

Borg: And next week, Iowa State University's Steven Leath will be here with us at the Iowa Press table. Major decisions, increasing enrollment during his three years, leading Iowa State and a current efficiency review causing some faculty and staff concern there. A conversation with Steven Leath, usual times, 7:30 Friday night and noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. Thank you very much for joining us today.