Tom Harkin preaches old-time liberalism without apologies

On Politics Today

February 07, 1992|By Jack W.Germond and Jules Witcover

Manchester,N.H. -- SEN. TOM HARKIN, the Iowan who has literally worked his way through a long and successful political career, went to work the other day as a history teacher at Manchester West High School as part of his campaign to win New Hampshire's Feb. 18 Democratic presidential primary.

It was, by his count, his 109th "work day" since 1974 as a congressional candidate, congressman, senator and now presidential candidate, taking on a real job to put himself in the shoes of voters and get a better idea of what they have to cope with.

Over the last 18 years, Senator Harkin has been a one-day farmer, truck driver, construction worker, grocer and all manner of other occupations, in an exercise that obviously has sought more than work experience. He has been after voter approval, and it has worked for him impressively in Iowa.

Whether the work-day angle will pay off for him here, however, is far from certain, judging from the fact Senator Harkin has been mired in single digits in most of the polls now blanketing New Hampshire. In most, he trails Gov. Bill Clinton, former Sen. Paul Tsongas and Sen. Bob Kerrey and is scrambling to achieve a respectable showing that will warrant pressing on after this primary.

As a history teacher, however, Senator Harkin demonstrated to a class of about 30 students that he will not have to go unemployed if he ever leaves politics. Learning that the class was at this point studying the early progressive movement in America, Senator Harkin led the students impressively and deftly into a discussion of the populist movement of which he is the latest champion, making some points for himself in the process.

"The populists were mostly landowners, small business people, wage earners, people who thought they had a stake in society, they owned something," he said. "A lot of people think the populists were ragtags, that they were down and out," he said, but "they felt the power of government should be used differently than what it was. They saw the government being used basically by the privileged few, the big trusts, the big corporations. . . . "

From the populists, Senator Harkin segued into liberalism, illustrating from responses drawn from the students that it shared many of the objectives of the old populists -- and in the process made a defense of his own unabashed identification as a liberal.

When one student named Thomas Jefferson as one of the first American liberals, Senator Harkin recited at length from a Jefferson speech and from the Declaration of Independence. And by way of defending liberalism, he pulled from his wallet a dictionary definition that said a liberal, among other things, was one who favored "progress and reform," representational government and "concepts of maximum individual freedom possible," especially regarding civil rights. Senator Harkin added: "If you want to take that as the definition of liberal, I can claim to be a liberal."

As one who has often been dismissed as an old-hat liberal to boot, Senator Harkin told the students: "I tell people in Iowa, ' Don't just read the label, feel the cloth. ' And with that he was off and running, preaching the gospel of liberalism as if he were on the campaign stump -- which of course he was, as television camera crews crowded into the classroom and recorded the scene.

The students in the classroom, and those who heard Senator Harkin address an assembly earlier and then listened to him as he talked between bites of a tuna salad sandwich in the school cafeteria, seemed impressed by his liberal politics without apology. Aides said he was supposed to work in the cafeteria, but instead he merely "worked" it as a vote-seeker, asking students to canvass for him if they weren't old enough to vote.

Josh Meyers, 16, said he thought Senator Harkin "was very good," although "he was getting on Bush's case a lot more than saying what he would do." That is a criticism that also is being heard outside West High School, and Senator Harkin's television ads have been trying to address it.

His chances of doing well on Feb. 18, however, probably rest heavily on mobilizing what Senator Harkin regards as the "real Democrats" who, like him, don't shy away from the liberal label. In a multi-candidate race, Tom Harkin obviously hopes there are enough of them to keep him respectably in the race.

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