Harry Reid didn’t care what you think of him
But no one will ever have the conjunctions that Harry Reid puts together: a poor boy from nowhere, USA, who escaped his troubled beginnings to become the state’s youngest lieutenant governor and then lost both a race in the US Senate (with 600 votes) and lost Mayor races (in a landslide) and was then resuscitated by his mentor (Gov. Mike O’Callaghan) to serve as the state’s top casino regulator, where he stood up to the mob and both helped and was investigated by the FBI, and the took up a new congressional seat to return to elected politics, and which then won the same Senate seat it had lost 12 years earlier, and which rose to heights no Nevadan had seen before and which set the agenda for the first term of a president rescued and became Nevada’s polling gatekeeper, and the crushing of candidacies, and who made a tiny state a major national force and who arguably d he most important public figure in Nevada’s history is.
Harry Mason Reid, who died Tuesday at the age of 82, has never stopped moving forward, always looking for the light, closing the deals, flattering those with his strategic brilliance that he skim over without grace or remorse without looking back.
He simply had neither the time nor the temperament for social niceties or the self-editing of most politicians. But the cartoon of Harry Reid – the former boxer who wasn’t afraid of a low blow, the ruthless tactician who would do anything to win, the charismatically challenged curmudgeon – is so one-dimensional.
All people are complex, but some are more complex than others. Reid was just as friendly to people in private, important and not, as he was dismissive, even angry with enemies in public. He generated – and still does in death – a deeper loyalty of his co-workers and others than any other pole I have met, even as he rose to be the most powerful man in Nevada’s politics. And his love affair with his wife Landra, which lasted more than six decades, is one for the ages.
It may be hard for some to believe that Reid, the man who called George W. Bush a “loser”, made unfounded claims that Mitt Romney paid no taxes, and who even once pointed out that Barack Obama was “not a Negro dialect.” unless he wanted one, ”could be so kind and caring. There are many, many stories like this about Reid’s private acts of kindness and compassion.
This will do little to appease his legion of critics, many of whom took to social media to spread unspeakably cruel feelings after the news of his death – who takes the time to “take good care” after someone dies to explain? I’m pretty sure Reid wouldn’t care about any of this, aside from the impact it has on his family.
As much as he didn’t care what people wrote about him, Reid did not condone criticism of his family. I know. I know because the man I mentored for 35 years interrupted me for years after writing critical columns about his children.
“It was never about what you wrote about me,” Reid told me when he called me to his office in the Bellagio on the Las Vegas Strip and agreed to work on a book I am writing about him. “It was always about my family.”
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t come to praise Reid, but I also don’t want the good he did to be buried with his bones. Trust me – he wouldn’t want this to be a love letter just like he told me he knew the book wasn’t going to be all cute and light.
He just wanted the real story of Harry Reid to be told.
For all the bad some will remember – his role in polarizing Washington, DC, his waving around the nuclear option, his mouth-watering approach to politics – Reid did what few did: he changed history. Multiple times.
He helped persuade Obama to run for president. He got Obama’s agenda passed for the first year – perhaps to stave off depression, deliver health care to millions of people, health care he never had as a child. When Hillary Clinton got into trouble during the 2016 primaries, he quietly made sure that Bernie Sanders’ momentum was halted. He saved the Las Vegas Strip during the Great Recession and went so far as to threaten the bankers MGM Resorts needed to survive. He was forward thinking about renewable energy, Nevada Hispanic voting, and public land.
He was a man of contradictions who, depending on your point of view, either developed further in his views or changed for political reasons.
Who else could be adored by environmentalists and still be familiar with the mining industry? Who could have given a nativist speech in the Senate and later ensured that the DREAM Act was passed? Who else could have been a devout Mormon who eventually pushes for gay marriage, even speaking at a gay co-worker’s wedding?
Remorse? He had very few. In fact, he only told me one thing: to vote for the Iraq war.
Reid didn’t have time for such feelings. That would mean looking back, which he seldom did. He was too busy, had no time for introspection, or even to say goodbye on the phone.
Reid relies on a pile of campaign finance reform documents during a press conference on Capitol Hill in 1996. | Dennis Cook / AP Photo
He knew he could polarize and be offensive, but he also knew that his incomparable staff would save him when it was time for re-election. And they saved him by 400 votes in 1998 and in 2010 when no one thought he would survive. It’s almost as if he decided he couldn’t be anyone else who he was, and he planned to make up for this through countless personal connections with strangers and by hiring the best agents available.
Reid’s place in the national firmament will forever be debated – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Most notably, his use of the nuclear option will be awarded as a straight line to Judges Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. And his style is cited as part of the slow deterioration in national political discourse.
But his influence on the state he loved cannot be questioned. All roads through Nevada, figuratively and literally, went through Harry Reid.
He hated the word “pork” – he viewed them all as essential projects – and he brought hundreds of millions of dollars to Nevada, including rural counties, which rewarded him by hanging him in an effigy and voting against him through landslides. But it was the road that wasn’t built, the road that could have resulted in trucks carrying nuclear waste rolling across the state to Yucca Mountain that was possibly his greatest feat in Nevada.
If Reid hadn’t risen to the post of majority leader, the state would have been devastated. Harry Reid stopped Yucca Mountain. Period. Period.
Reid also built many intangible structures, including the state’s enduring democratic political machine named after him and too many careers to mention, including that of the two current Senators Catherine Cortez Masto, whom he named as his successor in 2016 , and Jacky Rosen. which he pulled out of oblivion in 2016 to run for Congress and then four years ago against Dean Heller.
This was a year marked by celebrity deaths in Nevada – Sheldon Adelson, a game changer and the Republican Party, at the beginning, and Reid, a pre-eminently political influence, at the end. In fact, Reid and Adelson weren’t that dissimilar – blunt, polarizing, and extremely influential and accomplished. They actually liked each other and had a fascinating private relationship.
Perhaps the difference is that Adelson had several colleagues in his sphere – at least Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian. But Harry Reid, Lord of the Senate and King of Nevada, stands alone.
I knew a lot about Reid beforehand, but even I didn’t know how deep and wide he was, what he had done for Nevada, or what his opinion was of other senators until I started researching the book. I interviewed him for hours, saw his laconic style and lesser-known ironic humor, heard stories about other elected officials, campaigns and beatings with the mob.
He was a fighter through and through. In fact, Reid’s last weeks of life were marked by a refusal to give in – he texted me just two weeks ago to thank me for my hard work on the book. Until finally, unimaginably, he could no longer fight the good fight.
(A version of this story was published by the Nevada Independent.)