Harkin Scandal

December 26th, 2012

Tom Harkin: serial fabulist?

When a politician fibs about little things, Iowans start to wonder if he lies about matters of great significance. After all, Hawkeye State voters have finely tuned b.s. detectors honed by decades of participation in the First in the Nation Iowa caucuses.

Case in point: Sen. Tom Harkin’s longstanding problem with telling the truth on matters as trivial as his wife’s status as the first female county attorney in Iowa (note: this factoid is according to Harkin’s recollection; according to reality, Ruth missed that distinction by about four decades).

Harkin often lauds his wife Ruth, a lobbyist for oil giant ConocoPhillips and member of the state Board of Regents, as the “only woman county attorney in Iowa” or something similar. As Harkin has faced growing criticism for the developing scandal involving his wife’s fundraising for his namesake institute, he has doubled down on his phony plaudits in his typical nonsensical turn of the phrase.

“In 44 years of marriage, and I’m very proud Ruth has been county attorney, the only woman county attorney in Iowa,” Harkin told a Des Moines Register reporter Dec. 6 in response to ethical questions raised about Ruth’s fundraising from lobbyists, foreign corporations and other donors. “A lot of work here in the federal government. She was quite successful in the private sector. And for all those years not one person, not one person, has ever accused my wife of being unethical. I can say this unequivocally she has never has been and is not to this day doing anything unethical.”

TheIowaRepublican.com has found more than one person willing to question Ruth’s integrity on matters small and large. But the Register let Harkin’s statement stand unchallenged. That riled Republican Jack H. Bedell of Spirit Lake, who wrote a letter to the Register Dec. 18 correcting the record.

In your Dec. 7 [print] edition, you quote Sen. Tom Harkin as saying that he is proud of his wife Ruth, whom he says was the first woman elected as a county attorney in Iowa.

He has been told many times by many people that this is not true. I myself have told him at least twice that my mother, Virginia Bedell, was elected Dickinson County attorney in 1936 and 1938. She was then appointed to the Iowa Parole Board and served on that board for 18 years.

He just doesn’t have any regard for the truth. It is too bad we Iowans have to be represented by someone who just can’t deal with the truth.

Virginia Bedell from the 1941-1942 Iowa Official Register.

It’s virtually undisputed that Virginia P. Bedell, a proud Republican, was the first female elected county attorney in Iowa. She was a genuine hero and inspiration to all citizens. As the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women noted in 2007:

Virginia P. Bedell was the first woman county attorney in the state of Iowa, having studied for the bar not in law school but with a practicing attorney in Spirit Lake, Iowa. In 1940, with her appointment to the Iowa Board of Parole, she became the first woman in the United States to serve on a regularly appointed Parole Board. During her 19 years of continuous service there, Bedell was elected president of the Central States Corrections Association and was active in other state and national corrections organizations. As a member of the American Legion Auxiliary, Bedell initiated a program known as “Assigned Children,” which has helped thousands of needy children of veterans. Bedell was appointed to the first Governor’s Commission on Alcoholism and was a leader in her church and in the Republican Party. Born to pioneer parents in 1895, she died in 1975. Bedell was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1983.

Bedell was the mother of former Rep. Berkley Bedell, a populist Democrat from Iowa’s sixth congressional district (before rounds of redistricting shrunk the number of districts). Berkley Bedell remains close to Sen. Harkin, which seems all the more puzzling considering that Harkin continues to spin tales that disrespect the trailblazing legacy of Bedell’s mother.

Harkin has clung to his fantasy about his wife since at least 1992, when he launched an ill-fated run for the presidency. The Knight-Ridder news service published a puff piece about Ruth Harkin in Jan. 1992 [behind a paywall] that seems apt considering the current controversy over the Harkins’ involvement in the Harkin Institute of Public Policy at ISU.

“She was the first woman in Iowa to be elected a county prosecutor,” reporter Ellen Creager wrote, repeating the white lie one of the Harkins probably told her. “That was back in 1972.”

Ruth Harkin’s official regent photo.

Then the now-defunct news service dropped a brilliant, ironic gem of a quote from Ruth:

“One friend told me, ‘Whatever you do, Ruth, don’t be yourself,’” Ruth said. “You know, I don’t have time to fabricate anything because I am doing all these other things.”

Ruth may not have much time to tell tall tales about her background, but her husband has apparently had little better to do over the last two decades.

In 1995, Sen. Harkin honored his wife by purchasing a brick in Carrie Chapman Catt Hall at ISU honoring Ruth in the “Plaza of Heroines.” Republican Virginia Bedell is also honored by the plaza, run by ISU’s Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, but her bio is blank.

“Ruth Harkin was the first woman to be elected county prosecutor in the State of Iowa,” according to the ISU bio of Ruth. Harkin’s fairy tale is still published on an ISU website.

Harkin continued to spin tales about his wife during the 2008 presidential campaign.

“When Ruth was elected to the position of Story County Attorney in 1972, she was honored to be the first woman to hold the position of county attorney in our state’s history,” Harkin said in a statement after Ruth endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in 2007.

Last year, Harkin used his annual March column on women’s issues to praise his wife’s fake accomplishment yet again.

“She paved the way so that my wife Ruth could be elected as the first female County Attorney in Story County in 1972,” Harkin wrote in a column published last year. A charitable reader might assume Harkin meant Ruth was the first elected female county attorney in Story County, which is true, but this seems to be the only instance that Harkin includes a county-specific qualifier.

If Sen. Harkin can’t tell the truth about a matter as mundane as his wife’s supposed “first female” achievement in politics, what else is he fibbing about?

About the Author

Jeff Patch
Jeff Patch is a correspondent for TheIowaRepublican.com. He's a communications, research and political consultant for Iowa candidates, causes and companies. E-mail questions, comments, insults or story ideas to jeff [at] theiowarepublican.com.

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