Marie Harf was scheduled to be in Bloomington this week for an IU College of Arts and Sciences Luminaries panel discussion. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. When you’re deputy spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, things tend to come up – like traveling to Oman to handle communications while Secretary of State John Kerry takes part in nuclear talks with Iranian officials.
Harf studied political science at IU Bloomington, following in the footsteps of her father, Jim Harf, who went on to a long career as a political scientist at Ohio State and other universities. Here is a story about the father and daughter that appeared in the fall 2012 issue in the Everything IU newsletter.
Marie Harf traces the trajectory of her career to travels at an early age with her father: tagging along on trips to the capitals of Europe and visiting Egypt at the time of the first U.S.-Iraq war and Berlin soon after the Wall came down.
But another important influence, she said, is the fact that she followed in her father’s footsteps by studying political science at Indiana University Bloomington.
“I wanted to study political science, and I knew IU had an incredibly strong political science department,” she said. “And Bloomington is such a magical place. I love the combination of a big school with lots of opportunities in a small town that feels like a community.”
Jim Harf, her father, was at IU from 1965 to 1969, earning a Ph.D. in political science and pursuing Russian studies. He went on to a long career as a political scientist at The Ohio State University, the University of Tampa and Maryville University.
Marie, after graduate school, worked as an analyst and then a media spokeswoman for the CIA. Since December 2011, she has been national security and foreign affairs advisor for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.
Her mother, Jane Harf, also earned an undergraduate degree in political science from IU. She is director of the University Clean Energy Alliance of Ohio.
Jim Harf recalled that his years at IU were an era of change in political science. His faculty mentor was Dina Zinnes, part of a new generation of scholars who were reshaping the discipline by conducting complex analyses of large bodies of data. Elinor Ostrom, who in 2009 became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences and who died this summer, was director of graduate studies for the Political Science Department.
“She was incredibly helpful,” Jim Harf said. “She took her role as head of graduate studies seriously and spent an enormous amount of time trying to get people jobs.”
From 1969 to 2001, Harf was at Ohio State, where he was a professor of political science and senior researcher at OSU’s Mershon Center, a research institute that brought together military experts and peace scholars to examine questions related to international security.
“I arrived at the height of the Cold War, and when I left, the Cold War was over and there was a whole new world order,” he said. “In terms of political science, it gave us lots of opportunities.”
He spent 15 years as executive director of the Consortium for International Studies Education, worked in Ohio education politics and served on a suburban Columbus school board. He left OSU in 2001 but “flunked retirement” and took a job supervising international programs at Tampa. In 2008 he joined Maryville in St. Louis, where he is associate vice president and director of the Center for Global Education.
His work at Ohio State included international travel, and when Marie was a child, “everywhere I went I dragged her along,” he said. Two trips were especially significant: one to Cairo when she was 9 and another to Berlin when she was 10. The fall of the Berlin Wall marked a high point of Jim Harf’s career as a Soviet Union scholar, while the 1990 conflict between the U.S. and Iraq foreshadowed Marie’s future work in national security and international relations.
“Just as I became interested in the major trouble spot of my day, which was the Soviet Union, she developed an interest in the major trouble spot of her day, the Middle East,” he said.
While Jim Harf was at IU for the sometimes rowdy Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s, Marie experienced civil unrest of a different kind. She wrote for the IDS about the student uprising that erupted when IU President Myles Brand fired men’s basketball coach Bob Knight.
Also at the IDS, she wrote about the history of protest at IU. In researching the article, she found a 1967 photo from a rally involving supporters and opponents of Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who was lecturing on campus — her father, wearing a coat and tie, was in the front row.
She credits her IU professors — and especially her undergraduate honors advisors, political science professors Mike McGinnis and Marjorie Hershey, and English and Jewish studies professor Alvin Rosenfeld — for much of her career achievement.
“Those people, when I was 19 or 20, took an interest in me and encouraged me,” she said. “They really pushed me and made me think I could do big things.”
McGinnis had been a student of her father’s at Ohio State.
“You know you have been teaching a long time when a student introduces herself as the daughter of the professor who taught the first course you took in your chosen field,” he said.
McGinnis said he still remembers a paper he wrote for Jim Harf, an analysis of the neutron bomb then under consideration by the Carter administration, and the honors thesis Marie later wrote at IU on how conservative evangelical support for Israel complicates U.S. foreign policy.
“I always had a soft spot for Jim, since he first helped me realize I might be good at this line of work, and for Marie, who initially had no intention of following in her father’s footsteps but who turned out to pretty good at political analysis herself,” he said. “I was pleased to see that Jim kept busy long after he officially retired, and I find it reassuring to know that the Harf family tradition of outstanding contributions to the American political scene will continue long beyond my own impeding retirement.”
A year after the Knight firing came the event that crystallized Marie Harf’s career plans: The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“After 9/11 I knew I wanted to work for the government and help fight my generation’s war, the war against al-Qaida,” she said. “And my journalism training at IU, particularly working for the IDS, has helped me in my job at the CIA and today as I deal with the press.”
She earned a master’s degree in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia and then worked for the CIA as an analyst on Middle East leadership issues. The nonpartisan Center for a New American Security selected her in 2010 as one of 16 “Next Generation National Security Leaders.” She was a CIA media spokeswoman from 2008 to 2011, responding to questions about high-profile intelligence missions, including the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Now, working in Chicago with the Obama campaign, her focus is on making the case for the president’s record on national security.
“His stance is tough but responsible, and it looks ahead to the kind of world we want to live in,” she said. “He recognizes there are real threats and doesn’t hesitate to go after them, but he also has the goal of making the world more peaceful and safer and more just.”
The job involves intensive, nonstop work until Nov. 6 — and then it ends. Marie said she doesn’t know what will come next, but she expects to return to Washington, D.C., and continue working in the national security field.
“I can draw a straight line,” she said, “between my dad taking me to Cairo when I was a child and studying political science and the Middle East in college and what I’m doing today. I’m pretty lucky.”