There will never be another like him.
Not a chance.
Oh sure, there will be leaders who grew up in unimaginable poverty. Or those who are more workhorse than showhorse. Or who dominate their state’s political apparatus.
But no one will ever have the conjunctions Harry Reid put together: a poor kid from Nowhere, USA, who escaped from his hardscrabble beginnings and became the state’s youngest-ever lieutenant governor and then lost both a U.S. Senate race (by 600 votes) and mayor’s race (in a landslide) and then was resurrected by his mentor (Gov. Mike O’Callaghan) to serve as the state’s top casino regulator, where he confronted the mob and both helped and was investigated by the FBI, and who seized on a new congressional seat to return to elected politics and who then won the same Senate seat he lost 12 years earlier and who ascended to heights where no Nevadan had gone before and who saved a president’s first-term agenda and who became Nevada’s electoral gatekeeper, creating and destroying candidacies, and who made a tiny state a national force that mattered and who is, barely arguably, the most important public figure in Nevada history.
Harry Mason Reid, who died Tuesday at 82, never stopped moving forward, always searching for the light, making the deals, cajoling those he could with his strategic brilliance, running over those he couldn’t without grace or remorse, never looking back.
He just didn’t have time or the temperament for social niceties or for the self-editing mechanism most politicians have. But the caricature of Harry Reid — the former boxer who was not afraid to land a low blow, the ruthless tactician who would do anything to win, the charismatically challenged curmudgeon — is so one-dimensional.
All humans are complex, but some are more complex than others. Reid was as kind in private to people, important and not, as he was dismissive, even nasty to foes in public. He engendered — and still does even in death — deeper loyalty from his staffers and others than any pol I have encountered, even as he rose to become the most powerful man in Nevada politics. And his six-decade-plus love affair with his wife, Landra, is one for the ages.
It may be hard for some to believe that Reid, the man who called George W. Bush a “loser,” who made unsupported allegations about Mitt Romney not paying taxes and who even once referred to Barack Obama as having “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” could be so kind, so caring in private. There are many, many stories like this one, of Reid’s private acts of kindness and compassion.
This will do little to mollify his legion of critics, many of whom took to social media upon news of his death to put out unspeakably cruel sentiments — who takes the time to declare “good riddance” after someone dies? I am fairly certain Reid would not care about any of that, except for the effect it has on his family.
As much as he cared naught for what people wrote about him, Reid brooked no criticism of his family. I know. I know because the man I covered for 35 years cut me off for years after I wrote critical columns about his children.
“It was never about what you wrote about me,” Reid told me when he summoned me to his office at the Bellagio on the Las Vegas Strip and agreed to cooperate for a book I am writing about him. “It was always about my family.”
Don’t misunderstand: I come not to praise Reid, but I also do not want the good he did to be interred with his bones. Trust me — he would not want this to be a love letter, just as he told me he knew the book would not be all sweetness and light.
He just wanted the real story of Harry Reid told.
For all the bad he will be remembered for by some — his role in polarizing Washington, D.C., his brandishing of the nuclear option, his smash-mouth approach to politics — Reid did what few have done: He changed history. Several times.
He helped talk Obama into running for president. He made sure Obama’s first-year agenda passed — perhaps averting a depression, ensuring millions had health care, health care he never had as a child. When Hillary Clinton was in trouble in 2016 during the primaries, he quietly ensured Bernie Sanders’ momentum was stopped. He saved the Las Vegas Strip during the Great Recession, going so far as to threaten bankers MGM Resorts needed to survive. He was prescient on renewable energy, the Hispanic vote in Nevada and public lands.
He was a man of contradictions who either evolved in his views or changed them for political reasons, depending on your point of view.
Who else could be revered by environmentalists and yet be cozy with the mining industry? Who could have given a nativist speech on the Senate floor and later ensured the DREAM Act passed? Who else could have been a devout Mormon, yet eventually press for gay marriage, even speaking at a gay staffer’s wedding?
Regrets? He had very few. Only one, in fact, he told me: voting for the Iraq War.
Reid had no time for such feelings. That would mean looking back, which he rarely did. He was too busy, with no time for introspection or even for saying “goodbye” on the phone.
He knew he could be polarizing and offensive, but he also knew that when it came time to run for re-election, his incomparable staff would save him. And save him they did, in 1998, by 400 votes, and in 2010, when no one thought he would survive. It’s almost as if he decided he could not be anyone but who he was, and he planned to offset that with countless personal connections to strangers and by hiring the best available operatives.
Reid’s place in the national firmament will be forever debated — the good, the bad and the ugly. His use of the nuclear option, especially, will be seen as a throughline to Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. And his style will be cited as part of the slow degradation of the national political discourse.
But his impact on the state he loved cannot be questioned. All roads through Nevada, figuratively and literally, ran through Harry Reid.
He hated the word “pork” — he saw them all as essential projects — and he brought hundreds of millions of dollars to Nevada, including to rural counties that rewarded him by hanging him in effigy and voting against him by landslides. But it was the road not built, the road that could have led to trucks of nuclear waste rolling through the state to Yucca Mountain, that may have been his greatest Nevada accomplishment.
If Reid had not ascended to the majority leader’s spot, waste would have descended on the state. Harry Reid stopped Yucca Mountain. Period. Full stop.
Reid also built many intangible structures, too, including the state’s enduring Democratic political machine named for him and too many careers to mention, including those of both current senators, Catherine Cortez Masto, whom he anointed as his successor in 2016, and Jacky Rosen, whom he plucked from obscurity to run for Congress in 2016 and then against Dean Heller four years ago.
This has been a year bookended by prominent deaths in Nevada — Sheldon Adelson, a seminal figure in gaming and in the Republican Party, at the beginning, and Reid, a towering influence in politics, at the end. Indeed, Reid and Adelson were not all that dissimilar — blunt, polarizing and supremely influential and accomplished. They liked each other, actually, and had a fascinating private relationship.
The difference, perhaps, is that Adelson had several peers in his sphere — Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, at least. But Harry Reid, the master of the Senate and the king of Nevada, stands alone.
I knew a lot about Reid before, but even I did not know the depth and breadth of what he had done for Nevada or what his opinions were of other senators until I started researching the book. I interviewed him for hours, experiencing all of his laconic style and his lesser-known wry humor, hearing tales of other elected officials, campaign travails and brushes with the mob.
He was a fighter through and through. Indeed, Reid’s last couple of weeks of life were characterized by his refusing to succumb — he texted me as recently as two weeks ago to thank me for my diligence on the book. Until he finally, unimaginably, could fight the good fight no more.
(A version of this story has been published by the Nevada Independent.)
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