Obama, not Bono, “rock star” of Harkin steak fry

Senator Tom Harkin’s annual fall fundraiser — the steak fry — was held this afternoon. (Radio Iowa story)  One party insider told me the steak he had tasted a bit like a grilled leather wallet, while another gentleman drinking a beer said his had been too rare.  The weather, however, was just right.  No rain, no mud.   

Illinois Senator Barak Obama was the keynote speaker (more on his speech below the jump), following in the footsteps of John Edwards (last year’s speaker) and Bill Clinton (the 2004 draw).  There have been 29 of these things, including today’s.  In 1991, Harkin used the event to launch his (brief) presidential campaign.  The thing I remember most from that day is the howl that went up from the photographers/camera operators when Harkin uttered his sound bite of the day — soemthing like "I’m Tom Harkin and I’m running for president" – and all the Harkin folks sitting on haybales (and we wonder why the east coast folk call us hayseeds) jumped to their feet and waved their "Harkin for President!" campaign signs, totally obliterating Harkin from the vantage point of all those cameras.

Today’s event featured chairs for the crowd, but not nearly enough, arranged in front of a stage that had a red barn on the Warren County Fairgrounds as a backdrop.  An American flag — similar in size to those flown at Perkin’s restaurants — was draped on the barn. 

There was a "pre-program" during which fourth district congressional candidate Seldon Spencer proved to be the biggest applause getter for his diatribe against Bush (see story).   Patty Judge, the party’s Lieutenant Governor nominee, was spoke during this part of the program and said much of what you’ve heard before if you’ve been tuned in to that race.  Former Virginia Governor Mark Warner was the final speaker on the "pre-program" and he was given two minutes to speak.  He spoke for EXACTLY two minutes and three seconds according to my digital recorder.  (Vilsack, by comparison, was allotted five minutes and spoke for over 12.)

Warner began with this:  "It is great to be here, back in Iowa, although I’ve got to acknowledge that I still need a little bit more time to introduce myself.  I was coming in…and I introduced myself and they said "Warner.  Politician from Virginia.  Are you the guy that married Elizabeth Taylor?"  This drew laughter from the crowd.  "No, but I’ve got to tell you that other John Warner’s actually doing the right thing, standing up against our president right now."  The crowd applauded loudly.

And the biggest ovation during Barak Obama’s speech came when he talked about the Geneva Convention debate in Washington.  Obama noted that "Colin Powell and John Warner have to stand up and say enough."  It was at that point the crowd stood.

Chet Culver, the Democratic candidate for governor, got some time behind the microphone and got his loudest laughter when he told the crowd his young children — ages four and five — "can’t figure out why daddy’s got to win twice" to become governor.  At the end of his speech — after declaring that sleep is vastly overrated and only makes you groggy — Culver cast himself as the "coach" of the Democratic "Dream Team" on the stage (the men were all waring the same uniform, of course — light blue shirts and kahkis). "I guess I’ll play center because I’m the tallest plus you get the ball a lot you know and I have been part of a championship basketball team and at power forward we’ve got Leonard Boswell and on the off-forward position we’ve got Governor Vilsack and this was a tough decision for me but since it is the Harkin Steak Fry he’s running point and Obama’s the off-guard.  The Dream Team is going to win this thing. And because it’s the Harkin Steak Fry he’s going to be the captain, too." 

There was a huge gaggle of Chicago-area reporters in Indianola to cover Obama.  Most of the Iowa reporters on the scene noted that Vilsack sat through most of Obama’s speech with his arms crossed, rarely applauding.  And Vilsack began his own remarks behind the microphone — he did get to be part of the MAIN program — by giving a verbal backhand to Obama.  Vilsack declared that Harkin was the finest member of the US Senate — and turned to the junior senator from Illinois and said "with all due respect Senator Obama, it is the Harkin steak fry."   This was about two minutes into Vilsack’s time behind the mic, and Harkin got out of his chair, said "Let’s do this" and grasped Vilsack’s left hand so the two of them raised their joined hands in the air to strike the victory pose for the crowd.  "I should quit while I’m ahead," Vilsack told Harkin as Harkin went to sit down for the remainder of Vilsack’s remarks.  When Vilsack passed off his place behind the microphone to Culver, he said "You’re up buddy.  You gotta go get ’em."

Obama, for his part, praised Harkin as well as Vilsack and his wife opening the first part of his speech, saying the Vilsacks had "created the framework for Democrats to be successful" in Iowa.  As Obama made his way through the crowd of 3000 earlier in the day, he was continually swamped by autograph-seekers and those who wanted a picture with the senator, or just a handshake.  Presumably these are Iowa Democrats who’ve already obtained those things from Vilsack, because he was not similarly engulfed by the crowd.   

Obama, once he got behind the microphone, spent some time on his personal biography, explaining that his father was from Kenya and his mother from Kansas "which is where I got this accent." Obama said that if the country doesn’t change course, the next generation of Americans will find things "a little bit meaner and a little bit poorer than the one we inherited from our parents."  But on three other occasions Obama told the crowd that the challenges we face today are not as stiff as what previous generations of Americans had faced, things like the Great Depression, the two world wars of the last century or "the shadow of slavery — at a time when lychings of black folks was at least as common as voting." 

He invoked the names of former presidents Abraham Lincoln, FDR, JFK.  He also talked about GWB, our current president:  "I don’t think that George Bush is a bad man.  I don’t.  I think George Bush wants to do right by America.  I think he’s a patriotic person and I don’t think that the people who work for him are stupid people.  I think that a lot of them are smart in their own way.  I think that the problem is that they’ve got a different idea of America than the idea we’ve got.  They believe in different things.  They have a sense that in fact government is the problem not the solution and that if we just dismantle government, piece by piece, if we break it up in tax cuts to the wealthy and if we just make sure that we privatize Social Security and we get rid of public schools and we make sure that we don’t have police on the streets, we hire private security guards and we don’t have public parks, we’ve got private parks and if we just break everything up, then in fact everybody’s going to be better off that in fact we don’t have obligations to each other, that we’re not in it together but instead you’re on your own.  That’s the basic concept behind the ownership society.  That’s what George Bush and this Republican cognress have been arguing for for the last six years.  And it’s a tempting idea because it doesn’t require anything from each of us.  It’s very easy for us to say that I’m going to think selfhishly about myself, that I don’t have to worry that 46 million people don’t have health insurance and I don’t have to make any effort to deal with the fact that our children don’t have any opportunities to go to college because student loans have been cut and I don’t have to worry about the guy who just lost his job after working 30 years at a plant because his plant’s moved down to Mexico or out to China, despite the fact that he has been producing profits on behalf of that company this whole time and that he’s lost his health care and he’s lost his pension as a consequence.  I don’t have to worry about those things.  But here’s the problem.  The problem is is that idea won’t work because despite the much-vaunted individual initiative and self-reliance that has been the essence of the American dream, the fact of the matter is that there has always been this other idea of America, this idea that says we have a stake in each other, that I am my brother’s keep, that I am my sister’s keeper, that I’ve got obligations not just for myself, not just for my family but also for you, that every child is my child, that every senior citizen deserves protection.  That simple notion is one that we understand in our churches and our synagogues and our mosques and we understand in our own families, in our blocks, in our own workplaces, but it also has to reflect itself in our government.  You know, nobody here expects government to solve all our problems for us.  We don’t want government to solve our problems but what we do expect is that government can help.  That government can make a difference in all of our lives and that is essentially the battle that we are going to be fighting in this election…a battle about what America is going to be." 


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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.


  1. Stella Pelham says

    I saw the CSpan coverage of this event. B. Obama did, indeed, grab me with his discription, his version, of our Nation’s “state of affairs”. I sincerely hope he has a shot at the Dem nomination for Pres. in ’08. He has the gift of easily communicating and more importantly, connecting with people. He has an understated appeal, much like JFK. There’s no denying his charisma. For me, he seems to have the heart and soul of a public servant and might be willing to take the heat. At this point, he’s got my vote!!!!!!
    How could I get a DVD copy of B. Obama’s speech (cspan) at the Tom Harkin Steak Fry?

  2. Ellsworth D. Ware, III says

    I saw the C-Span coverage too, particularly when Senator Obama stepped down from the stage to meet and greet attendees waiting behind the rope. The C-Span camera took in his signing autographs, posing for cel-phone pictures, and talking w/ people while steadily moving up the line. The camera finally moved away and upwards from this to show that the line of people waiting for him extended beyond the its visual range.
    If he didn’t think that he had a shot at the nomination, Hilary Clinton notwithstanding, from accepting all that kind of attention, he certainly learned otherwise that day.