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Patt Morrison Asks

Jane Harman: Out of the fray

The 'best Republican in the Democratic Party' talks about rumors of Capitol Hill catfights and her new address on Pennsylvania Avenue.

April 09, 2011|Patt Morrison

Jane Harman has a new address -- on Pennsylvania Avenue. No, not that address. She's the new honcho at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Starting in 1992, she won nine elections in Southern California's coastal 36th Congressional District -- some of them squeakers, the last one a blowout -- before she quit. In those years, the moderate Democrat carved her way through the clashing waves of the political surf: pro-choice, pro-gun restrictions for her Venice constituents, pro "smart" defense programs and a flag-burning ban for more conservative voters in towns like Torrance. She's been quoted as saying she was the best Republican in the Democratic Party. Harman has left a pretty safe Democratic district for the candidates running in the May 17 primary to replace her. In spite of that D.C. office, she'll be voting in the 36th -- but she won't say for whom.

You accepted the job at the Wilson Center just after you won reelection by 25 percentage points. You've acknowledged the timing "wasn't great.'' How do you explain your decision to your constituents?

I didn't choose the timing. They approached me in late December. It was a hard decision. I have great affection for my constituents; I call them the smartest constituents on Earth, and I'm remaining a resident of the district. I consider myself a Californian. We have enormous California ties. We [she and her industrialist husband Sidney Harman] own a wonderful beach house in Venice. I'm still a volunteer in my former district. And I'm not giving up Vinnie's yoga class [in Venice] either, [although] I'm suffering painful withdrawals!

What is the job about?

It's like an intellectual candy store and has absolutely bipartisan credentials. It's like running a university, plus having a fabulous policy platform to debate the great issues of the day. Why I think the board hired me is to focus on a set of issues that cannot be addressed in depth in this town. Congress is polarized, the White House is enormously involved [with] exploding crises around the world, and there needs to be what Lindsey Graham [Republican senator from South Carolina] has called a safe political space in Washington where policymakers can debate and try to resolve some of the big issues.

How has Congress changed since you first got there?

I worked in Congress in the '70s for John Tunney [Democratic senator from California] [and] during the Nixon impeachment. Congress functioned. The impeachment was bipartisan; the vote was bipartisan. People came to Congress to legislate. The change started in the late '80s, and there's enough blame to go around.

If you want to pick two instances [of] what I think is a downward spiral to toxicity, the biggest drivers were, on the Republican side, [campaign consultant] Lee Atwater, who invented negative ads. And on the Democratic side, the confirmation hearings for [Reagan Supreme Court nominee] Robert Bork were shrilly partisan. I don't agree with his philosophy, but it was hard to argue that Bork wasn't qualified. That took the gloves off on both sides.

We have moved increasingly to a pretty awful place. I will miss many of my colleagues; what I will not miss is this toxic process. There's a huge irony. At the local level [Republicans and Democrats] all worked together and solved problems. [We] saved the Los Angeles Air Force Base; we fought against an offshore liquefied natural gas platform. Then I would arrive in Washington and hit the wall. Even approving the minutes of the prior day was a partisan act. That's a metaphor for how it works.

You were noted for your work on intelligence matters on Capitol Hill and were privy to many classified briefings. When you leave Congress, do they flash your memory clean, as in "Men in Black''?

I was very careful to put [classified information] in different boxes of my brain! I still have enormously strong ties to the intelligence community.

You were the ranking member on the Intelligence Committee for years.

That was the pivotal time post-9/11 when Congress learned a lot, including how flawed intelligence was on Iraq. I believed the intelligence, which is why I supported the authorization to use force in Iraq. I have said since, the intelligence was wrong and I was wrong.

You were criticized about enhanced interrogation techniques.

The general counsel of the CIA briefed me on the fact that there were [interrogation] videotapes -- I had believed there were just a couple. Turned out there were 90 of them. I wrote and said, "Do not destroy these videotapes." I also wrote a letter [saying] I want your assurance that the policy has been reviewed by the White House. In other words, I was asking for proof that this was what they had briefed me on. This was very early after 9/11 when there was enormous fear we would be attacked. I never got an answer, and they went ahead and destroyed the videotapes.

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