For Ex-Senator Fred Harris, the Big Enchilada Is No Longer the White House but An Adobe 'Finca'
I’ll never go back to politics. I enjoyed it. I learned a lot. I hope I was of some service. Now I haven’t the slightest interest in running.”
That is an astonishing statement from Fred Harris, who only three years ago was running for President. In his Washington heyday the influential ex-senator from Oklahoma was described as the only man who could command breakfast with Hubert Humphrey, followed by lunch with Lyndon Johnson and dinner with Bobby Kennedy—all in the same day. Yet in the more than two years since he turned his back on the Capitol, the once fiery populist has grown fat and contented with ranch life in Corrales, N.M., near Albuquerque.
Not that Harris, 48, finds time hanging heavy on his hands. He is chasing three careers, none of them his original one (law), and all of them successfully. On his five-acre finca on the banks of the Rio Grande, he has become a vegetable gardener and has taken over the family cooking as well—his taco sauce recently won third place at the state fair. Three days a week he is a popular professor of political science at the U of New Mexico, where he was recently recommended for full tenure after only two years on the staff (“Yeah, it was a unanimous vote by the department. It makes you feel good”). In addition, he devotes 20 hours a week to writing and is on his third book since leaving public life, America’s Democracy, a text on government.
Harris returned to private life in 1976, after a political upstart named Jimmy Carter buried his presidential candidacy in the Democratic primaries. He and his handsome half-Indian wife, LaDonna, headed West, choosing New Mexico, where they had vacationed for years, over their native Oklahoma, which Harris represented in the Senate for eight years. They settled easily into a rambling, three-bedroom adobe house, shaded by a grove of cotton-woods, with a big swimming pool, a spacious cocktail terrace and three rentable guest houses, which, Harris points out, “help pay the mortgage.” His prowess as a chef has had its effect on the family waistlines: Fred gained 25 pounds and LaDonna, 48, and daughter Laura, 17, both fattened up too. The three Harrises are now dieting and inching back to normal. Two older children have left home: Kathryn, 29, is a government attorney in Washington, and Byron, 21, a TV production aide in L.A.
When a vacancy at UNM’s political science department opened up, the former senator moved in promptly. He now teaches five courses a year, and all of them are filled to capacity before registration closes. “I really love teaching,” he says. “It gives me a chance to show how things work and how students can be a part of it.” Publishing is less congenial. “It’s a hard, lonely discipline,” he winces. “You just sit and write—and rewrite.”
Interestingly, their new life has reversed the roles of the Harrises. In Fred’s early years in politics, LaDonna was a shy, backstage wife. “I cried a lot,” she recalls, “and it was painful for me to express myself.” But since 1970, as the daughter of an Irishman and a Comanche, she has headed Americans for Indian Opportunity, a rights-fighting agency partly funded by the government. When she left Washington AIO refused to accept her resignation and simply shifted its headquarters to Albuquerque. So now it is LaDonna who goes off to the office every day, or jets to D.C. on business trips, and Fred who does the household chores that she never particularly liked.
“He likes to fix breakfast and bring it to the bedroom,” says LaDonna. “Our move hasn’t changed our relationship, but balances it.” And lest anyone think Fred Harris has banked his political fires forever, he is still capable of scorching comment on the current Washington scene. “I am displeased with Carter’s economic policies because he leans toward big banking and business,” he says. “Overall, I think he’s in trouble—Carter doesn’t have a vision of what the country could be.”