LOS ANGELES — Hill Harper knows why the Iowa caucuses are so important. “The Midwest represents what’s best about this country,” he says.
“It’s not about, ‘I need to be the top and take everything,’ Midwesterners want to make better lives for themselves, their communities and their families.”
Harper’s views were reinforced when he campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008.
“Iowa is what made him president,” he says. “He was so far behind, in terms of the polling, but then Iowa catapulted him and that momentum carried him through. In the New Hampshire primary, (Hillary Clinton) won by a landslide. If he had lost Iowa and then lost New Hampshire, it would have been over. Iowa put him on the map.” (Clinton had 39 percent of the vote; Obama had 36 percent.)
Iowa also gave Harper — one of the stars of the CBS drama “Limitless” — a good background. Born in Iowa City, he spent summers on his grandfather’s 80-acre farm outside of Fort Madison.
His grandfather was a physician in Fort Madison “during a time of deep segregation. Although there weren’t official Jim Crow laws in the state, the bank wouldn’t let him open an account in the early ‘30s. He literally had to keep his money under his mattress. The crash happened and he took that cash and bought a city block and created Harper Hospital and Harper apartments. There’s a real empowerment story there.”
Because black physicians were scarce in the Midwest, “black women from four states would come to see him.”
Harper’s grandfather also opened his doors to those who most needed help. When Hill was campaigning for Obama, a 90-year-old man approached him and said, “You don’t remember me but I sat next to you when you were a little boy at your grandmother’s dining room table. I got out of the Fort Madison prison and your grandfather let me stay at your farm and gave me work until I could get back on my feet. I owe your family a debt of gratitude.”
“It brought tears to my eyes,” Harper says. “It shows how we’re all connected. Iowa represents that deep connection.”
Although his parents were also physicians, the 49-year-old decided to go in another direction. Interested in law, he went to Harvard Law School, got a law degree and also got his master’s degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government. There, he first met Obama.
Acting? That just sort of slipped in.
“I loved acting and I wanted to follow my heart,” he says. Relatives, of course, talked about the “fall-back plan,” just in case acting didn’t work out. Luckily, Harper started getting work in the early 1990s and hasn’t looked back since.
Thanks to his interest in politics, he has also been able to take advantage of his education, writing several inspirational books and helping Obama’s campaign efforts.
During the 2008 campaign, Harper crossed Iowa, looking for votes. He landed in Dubuque on caucus night and “had a good feeling” about its outcome. “We quickly raced down to where he was speaking and you could just tell, ‘This is pretty awesome.’ I gave him a big hug, said congratulations and realized it was just the beginning.”
Now, as Obama’s term nears its end, Harper says the president is only getting started. “In many ways, he’s going to be one of the most effective ex-presidents there ever was. He’s young, he’s dynamic and there’s more amazing work to do on the other side.”
In Harper’s view, one of the first challenges is campaign finance reform. “There’s no reason two families should be president over a 30-year period, except for a blip. We have to ask ourselves why money is so deeply embedded in politics. We have to get that out.”
Cast in “Limitless” as a special agent tracking a brain-boosting pill and its effects, Harper gets to tweak viewers’ interest in what actually could be going on in government.
The idea of a pill that would multiply the brain’s ability intrigues him, particularly since “you could do so much good in the world.”
Without it, though, the actor is still pretty driven.
Credit Iowa, he says. “It did so much for me and my family. I feel a very close connection and try to get back as often as possible.”