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Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. Mark Twain

That quote came to mind immediately – and often – yesterday.  I kept getting tweets and messages coming across my phone wailing about the death of the public option – but I was in the company of Senators Tom Harkin and Al Franken – both members of the Health, Education, Labor and Welfare Committee in the Senate – and the pugnacious Harkin is now the chairman, stepping into the large void left by the death of Senator Kennedy.

Personally, after yesterday, I can’t think of a better man for the job.

If the public option is on it’s deathbed, no one told him, that’s for sure.  Here he is in pretty much his own words, after taking the podium to thunderous cheers and applause…

The first thing he did was thank his beloved wife of 41 years – and the first Harkin ever elected to public office – for her introduction.  “Thank you very much.  Ruth, thank you so much for those very kind words, and thank you for 41 years of love and encouragement.  Thank you,” he said as he took the podium.  The audience again clapped for Ruth, a member of the state Board of Regents (Iowa has great schools and colleges).  Iowa Democrats love Ruth as much as Tom does.  

He then thanked the volunteers and told the assembled crowd that this wonderful yearly event only happens because of them. “We couldn’t do this without the volunteers. Thank you all. You’ve just done a great job, all of you. ”   He then thanked a long list of accomplished Iowa Democrats, both elected and behind the scenes – from the state Governor and Attorney General, right down to the County Chair and the sign language interpreter who has been with them for the entire 32 years the Steak Fry has been THE event for Iowa Democrats.  

He then singled out Governor Culver  and thanked him for a long list of accomplishments and examples of solid, competent leadership., especially his leadership during the flood disasters of last year.  He also thanked him for his leadership in education, renewable energy, and thanked him for the jobs that have been created across the state in wind energy and biofuels.  “Governor, you have been there for us, you have been there for  Iowa, and next year we’re going to be there for you, Iowa will be there for you, and there will be another four years of the Culver-Judge team leading the state of Iowa!”    He went on to proclaim that Iowa Democrats would increase their margins in both chambers of the General Assembly, because “the Iowa Democratic Party is strong, and progressive, and fortunate to count a good number of bright, committed young men and women to provide the future leadership to make Iowa the best it can be,” and he beamed as he said he couldn’t be more proud of them.  Then he launched into his speech.  

“So let me just start by saying, this is my kind of town hall meeting!   Don’t have any of those republicans standing up and yelling ‘Keep your government hands off my Medicare!'”   The crowd responded to this with loud laughter and applause.   “Or shoutin’ about those “Death Panels” , how we want to pull the plug on Grandma!  I said ‘Nonsense! I’m married to a Grandma, and a pretty darn nice one, too!’  and the crowd responded with even more raucous laughter.  

Then he adopted a serious tone.  “Well, of course, not all of the nuttiness has been funny.  It was Sarah Palin who came up with that shameful nonsense about “Death Panels” and shame on anyone who repeats it, anywhere in this country,” and he paused when a several members of the audience repeated  “Grass-ley! Grass-ley!”  in a sing-song voice.  Going on, he said that “The time for the shouting and the demagoging is over.  Now it’s time for the truth, and for action, and fighting back, and it started Wednesday night when  President Obama addressed the Congress,”  and he paused for the crowd to applaud and cheer.  “That was a great speech, wasn’t it?”  and the crowd cheered some more.  

Resuming the serious tone, he remembered Ted Kennedy and how he was privileged to speak with him in June, and how even as sick as he was, Senator Kennedy was up to speed on where we stood in the fight to reform healthcare in this county.   “We lost a great friend.  We lost a great progressive.  We lost a great leader on so many issues that go to the heart of what kind of nation we are.  What kind of people we are.  How we extend a helping hand to those in the shadows of life.  Well, as has been said…” and he was interrupted by a jet overhead that was approaching the airport at Des Moines, about 20 miles away.  While he waited for the noise to abate he made an on-the-spot joke to Al Franken about a flyover by the Minnesota National Guard, and the crowd reacted like there were two professional comedians on the stage.  When the noise from the crowd (the jet was long gone) subsided, he resumed his speech.  “Well, as you have heard, as has been said, after 22 years on this committee, and working very closely with our leader, Senator Kennedy, it now falls to me to pick up the torch and Chair the Kennedy Committee.”  He then added that Senator Franken  will also have a seat on the HELP committee, and the crowd greeted this information, that the Chairman would have at least one true progressive ally who will fight for the public option, with robust enthusiasm.  

He went on “No one – No one – can take Ted Kennedy’s place, but I will tell you this – I’m ready for this fight, I’m ready to lead this committee, I’m ready to take charge of it, I’m ready to carry on his work, and I’m ready to get a health reform bill passed and to President Obama before Christmas time!”  The crowd came to its feet, and stayed there and got louder when he thundered “And you might as well stay standing because that strong health reform bill – mark my word, I’m the chairman, it’s gonna have a STRONG PUBLIC OPTION!

“Well, as we saw at the town halls, there are people out there who oppose any health reform.  Now some of these folks simply want to bring down Barack Obama.”  At this, the crowd said “Grassley” as if the name itself were bitter to the tongue, but Senator Harkin had Jim DeMint in his sights.  “And some folks simply hate what we stand for as progressives.  So friends, we have got to have the courage of our convictions.  We’ve got a tough battle ahead of us, but we have to stand strong.  We’ve gotta stand united.”  

He praised the president for taking the lead, addressing congress and going out into the country to address the debate head on and present the case to America, like he did in Minneapolis on Saturday, then he reiterated his intent to see a strong public option as part of the final bill, and thanked Senator Franken for his help in the fight ahead.  

“We have got to have the courage of Franklin Roosevelt when he was running for reelection in 1936.  In a speech in Madison Square Garden, he talked about those who were attacking him for passing Social Security, he said, and I quote, “We had to struggle with all the old enemies. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against a President as they stand today.  They are unanimous in their hate for me. And I welcome their hatred.”  He went on to recap seventy years of republican opposition to every single program and law that has made people’s lives better, from Social Security to overtime pay to the ADA – which is Harkin’s law – and every other piece of progressive legislation in between.  All those things have come to pass because progressive Democrats have fought tooth and nail for them and never stopped fighting until the American people – all of them, not just Democrats –  won – and never had it been

He finished the serious part of his speech, before introdu
cing the guest of honor, Senator Franken,  by imploring the activists in attendance to get to work because the time was now to “fight the lies and distortions.”    Talk to your friends and neighbors and coworkers who buy into the nonsense and know the facts and set the record straight…because we need a health system in this country that works “not just for the healthy and the wealthy, but for all Americans.”  

Now, I was there.  And I heard him.  I talked to him in the press gaggle before the speech and I listened to him as he answered every single question. I have been around the political block a time or two.  I can usually tell when I am being led down the garden path – support for Mark Funkhouser, my personal Bay of Pigs, notwithstanding – here’s my take:  When Tom Harkin tells the party faithful in his home town that he is going to deliver a strong public option, and the people who know him best and who bust their asses every election to get him and other Democrats elected in Iowa, and they believe him with enthusiasm, well, let’s just put it this way…I slept real fucking good last night.