Harry Reid, Understated Political Strategist Who Mastered the Inside Game, Dies at 82
Harry Mason Reid was born on 1939 in Searchlight (Nevada), a ghost town in gold rush times separated from Las Vegas 50 miles away by empty desert. The family lived in a shack made of stuccoed-in railroad ties with no running water; Reid learned to swim at one of the brothels that were the town’s main amenity. The father of Reid, a miner and a silent, brooding drunk, would eventually end his life by shooting a gun to the head. Reid, nicknamed “Pinky,” hitchhiked 45 miles each way to the nearest high school, in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson.
Reid passed away Tuesday, February 22, at age 82 in Las Vegas. There was no immediate cause of death. The cause was not immediately disclosed. He previously had pancreatic cancer and said that it is now in remission.
The fight at Reid was what gave him a break from his difficult circumstances. In high school, he met the man who would become his mentor, Mike O’Callaghan, a one-legged Korean War veteran who taught Reid to box and would go on to serve two terms as governor. Reid was in high school when he met Landra Gould. She was a Jewish girl who Reid wooed. His parents had suspicions about Reid’s motives, and Reid even punched her father once to get her out on a date. The couple eloped to Utah, where Reid had, with O’Callaghan’s help, gotten a scholarship to a junior college.
There had been no religion in Reid’s upbringing — the closest thing to faith, he wrote in his 2008 memoir, was an F.D.R. quotation pinned to the wall: “We can. We will. We must.” But in Utah, impressed by the generosity of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Harry and Landra Reid converted to Mormonism together. Reid moved from Utah to study law at George Washington University. Reid worked night shifts as a Capitol Police officer, to help pay the bills.
As a young lawyer in Las Vegas, Reid prided himself on taking the cases of society’s underdogs, such as prostitutes and cocktail waitresses. He served on the state’s gaming commission during Las Vegas’ early days as a mecca for gambling (and organized crime.) At one point, Reid wore a wire for an FBI sting of a would-be casino operator; after the agents burst into the room, Reid put the man in a chokehold and hollered, “You son of a bitch, you tried to bribe me!” On other FBI wiretaps, a mobster boasted that he had “Cleanface”—Reid—in his pocket. Reid was never charged with mob activity, although he was subject to investigation. Landra discovered the bomb that was wired to his station wagon engine near the end.
Reid, a politician was uninspiring. Following his time in the state legislature, as lieutenant governor and then winning the Senate race against all odds, Reid was again successful for the House of Representatives. He was known for his quiet, high-pitched voice and tendency to make malapropisms. He wasn’t much for glad-handing and kissing babies. It took intense focus to get from Searchlight to the Senate, and perhaps for that reason, he disdained what he viewed as time-wasting niceties—from Christmas cards to state dinners. Typical phone calls would begin without small talk and end as soon as he believed the conversation was finished—he even hung up on President Barack Obama. Reid’s staff was close-knit and fiercely loyal, but he prided himself on not being managed by them. Reid’s press secretary lived in constant anxiety waiting for his next unscripted mishap.
Reid was a conservative Democrat who started his career from a mostly rural and rugged state. His views were anti-abortion. Pro-gun. And hawkish about legal and illegal migration. Under President George H.W., Reid was the first Democrat who voted in support of the first Gulf War. Bush and voted to end the war in Iraq in 2003. His politics developed alongside the state he was born. In the 1990s, Nevada experienced vertiginous expansion. Tourism and gambling fueled the growth of a diverse population as well as a boom in housing. Reid became an environmentalist at the end of Reid’s career. A close friend of Planned Parenthood, Reid also supported gay marriage and advocated for gun safety reform. Reid considered the Iraq War his worst regret.
Reid was self-aware and knew that his greatest strengths were not in soaring rhetoric, but inside the game. Reid had an extraordinary talent for favor-trading and a photographic memory. These traits served him well as he rose in Democratic Senate leadership to become the party’s whip, or vote-counter: He kept a handwritten list in his jacket pocket listing each Democratic senator and what they wanted. He knew what was at stake, even though he lived on the other end of the aisle. Jeffords, Vermont’s then-Republican senator, convinced him to join Democrats and switch parties. Jeffords accepted the position of chairman of the environment committee, which Reid had previously held. Jeffords’ switch swung the Senate to the Democrats, the only time in history that a party switch shifted control of the chamber.
Reid’s ascent to majority leader was somewhat accidental. His rise to majority leader was somewhat accidental. He took the position of minority leader when South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle was defeated unexpectedly in 2004’s election. As the election results began to roll in, Reid became so excited that he even kissed his television. Reid, then a junior colleague at the time, saw promise in Obama and encouraged him to run as president in 2008. Reid managed the Senate’s most important legislative successes, such as the Dodd-Frank reforms in banking and the Affordable Health Care Act, after Obama was elected.
Reid’s state was perhaps the hardest hit in the nation by the 2008 crash. The boom turned into a bust in a matter of hours. Las Vegas was reduced to a mass of unfinished housing projects and half-built casinos as a result of the abrupt evaporation in its housing market. Reid threatened and harassed the creditors of MGM casino, which was at risk of going bankrupt, and eventually got them to back down, as he later acknowledged. For his 2010 reelection campaign, he built a formidable political machine to defeat the Tea Party darling Sharron Angle—despite his personal unpopularity and a national GOP wave. Reid played hardball, freezing out his own son when he ran for governor against his father’s wishes; he locked up the state’s donor establishment and powerful labor organizations and devoted unprecedented attention to mobilizing the growing Hispanic community. Silver State is still a GOP bastion, where Reid’s machine can be found. In 2018, Democrats won every state office in Silver State and an overwhelming majority of legislative seats. The state voted in President Joe Biden 50.1% to 47.7% in 2020.
Reid’s tenure wasn’t a necessarily a happy time in the U.S. Senate. He had a toxic relationship with Mitch McConnell his Republican counterpart. McConnell would later only trade with Biden as the vice president. Reid blamed McConnell for abusing procedure to relentlessly block Obama’s appointments and agenda. (McConnell’s allies said it was Reid who started the spiral of obstruction in the George W. Bush years). In November 2013, Reid deployed the so-called “nuclear option,” changing Senate rules to eliminate the 60-vote threshold for most nominations. Some observers say that change paved the way for McConnell, in 2017, to go further and get rid of the threshold for the Supreme Court, allowing President Donald Trump’s three nominees to be seated by narrow margins. Reid’s domineering style and the gridlock he presided over exasperated many fellow Democrats.
Reid’s health began to decline in 2015, when an accident involving an exercise band left him blind in one eye. Reid announced his retirement, and anointed another successor. Buoyed by the Reid machine, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto would become the only swing-state Democrat to win in 2016 and the nation’s first Latina senator. The New York Times reported that he watched politics over the next years with both detachment, and disgust. Times that he found President Donald Trump “amoral” and considered him the worst president ever. He was told in May 2018 that he had pancreatic cancer, one of the most deadly forms. This diagnosis was not something he took seriously, but it did confirm his long-held belief in fatalism. He described his legacy in later interviews as doing what was necessary, regardless of the price.
“I wasn’t the leader of the Senate because I was tall, dark, and handsome, [or] articulate,” he told the Nevada journalist Jon Ralston in January 2018. “I did things no one else would do.”