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Hartke’s heart was in right place

Former U.S. Sen. Vance Hartke’s death last week from heart failure at age 84 was surprising because he appeared amazingly healthy and lively at this time last year at the annual Indiana Democratic Editorial Association convention in French Lick.
He hadn’t attended for years, so his appearance, in support of his nephew’s congressional campaign, was also a bit of a surprise. When Hartke was a three-term Democrat Senator from Indiana, his presence at the IDEA was automatic. He and Martha, his wife of 60 years, used to personally greet hundreds of people from around the state before the big Saturday night black-tie banquet. Each woman would get an orchid, and everyone got a Polaroid picture taken with the Hartkes. Vance greeted almost everyone by name.
On the last weekend of August at French Lick, the past presidents of the IDEA have a casual cocktail hour on the veranda before the annual Friday night barbecue dinner. Last year Hartke was a special guest; he looked hale and hearty. He was wearing his trademark gold-trim glasses and was well-dressed, as always. He talked expertly, without notes, for about half an hour about the origin of landmark legislation that he had helped create in 1965: It was called Medicare.
The former ‘boy mayor’ of Evansville served three straight terms in the U.S. Senate ‘ the first Democrat to accomplish that ‘ and served alongside another noteworthy Democrat, Birch Bayh, which was pretty remarkable considering that both politicians came from a conservative Republican state.
Hartke was always courtly and friendly if a bit flamboyant and controversial. A veteran of World War II, he briefly ran for president in 1972, campaigning early and bravely against the war in Vietnam, which put him in direct opposition to President Lyndon Johnson, also a Democrat. Hartke dropped out of that race after a miserable showing in the New Hampshire primary, even though he had advocated jobs for all and a 20 percent increase in Social Security benefits. He was an advocate for the student loan programs, veterans benefits, Amtrak and Conrail. He fought for safer cars and tire safety.
Former 17-term Congressman Lee Hamilton, who knew Hartke well, said he was a tireless campaigner, a populist, a brave civil libertarian and problem solver who was always looking for ways to ‘improve the lives of ordinary Americans.’ When was the last time you heard that about a politician of national stature?
Gov. Frank O’Bannon also knew Hartke well. He said last week: ‘Hartke spent most of his adult life serving people ‘ as a sailor in World War II, as a deputy prosecutor, as Evansville mayor, and a three-term U.S. Senator. Today, we remember and honor his willingness to be a voice for the common person.’
In 1976, Hartke was defeated by Republican Richard Lugar of Indianapolis, who has compiled an impressive record of his own since then. After leaving office, Hartke took advantage of his many connections by opening a law practice and public relations firm in Washington, D.C. He had clients from all over the world on issues connected to trade development and international relations, and he remained a colorful figure in the nation’s capital.
Although his heart was always in the right place, he still had a knack for making embarassing news: his law firm was charged with covering up legal fees from a Rushville bank, and he got two suspended sentences for misdemeanor electioneering excesses in Dearborn County (which included bringing lunch to election workers) when he was a riverboat casino consultant.
One of Hartke’s friends was Richard Lugar, who saw him just recently in the Senate Dining Room. Lugar said, ‘He was vigorous, enthusiastic and optimistic as always.’
We probably won’t see another committed public servant/old-school politician with a real love for people like Vance Hartke for a long time.