The Rise of Harry Reid
On November 2 of 2010, Harry Reid was smiling on a night in which Democrats had precious little to celebrate. The Senate Majority Leader had just pulled off a Houdini miracle in politics, bucking a national red tide to prevail in what should have been an unwinnable contest. Pundits were aghast. Conservative activists, certain that the midterms would bring down President Obama’s right hand man in the Senate, felt cheated and bewildered. The only person who didn’t seem surprised was Harry Reid himself. He had been predicting victory for the entire campaign, dismissing the polling that gave his opponent Sharron Angle a small but consistent lead within the margin of error. To many observers, his confidence seemed misplaced when they were being polite, risible when they were being honest. But Reid’s faith in his own star makes more sense in the context of his life. It was natural for a candidate to smile in the face of the odds when the man in question had begun his life battling more adversity than Job.
Harry Reid was born in Searchlight, Nevada, the third of four children. His mother was a laundress and his father was a coal miner. By the time he was eleven, the young Harry was helping his father in the gold rush, scraping and digging long after the last golden speck had been found in the mines. For Harry Reid Jr. the time spent with his father in the mines, lonely and unrewarding as it was, must have been a relief compared to the alternative of witnessing his father drunkenly beat his mother at night. The frail little boy could only watch helplessly, until around the age of fourteen when he was big enough to do something about his mother’s plight, with a little help from his brothers. Harry Reid loved and respected his father, but never parsed words about him. “He was a drunk,” he says simply. When he was 32, he received a frantic call from his mother and rushed home to bury his father, who had shot himself. He took it upon himself to both console his weeping mom and clean up the mess left from his father’s suicide. A quiet burial that day marked the end of Harry Reid senior, with the Reid brothers digging the grave together.
The brothers were there for their mother and each other in the face of the tragedy. Their childhood had ingrained them with the value of caring for one another, perhaps because they had grown up too poor for anyone to care much about them. The house they grew up in had no running water, and because Searchlight had no high school, Harry had to hitchhike tens of miles each day for the chance of an education. Imagine that—a young boy, often hungry and sleep deprived from his night job, waking up early to make the trek to high school at no one’s behest but his own. There must have been people who wondered why he did it, but the education would prove to be more valuable than Harry could have ever guessed. Not because of algebra, history or any conventional subject, but because of his boxing team where he met Coach O’Callaghan.
Coach O’Callaghan was a one-legged veteran from the Korean War who taught at Basic High. The old war hero would exhort Harry to push himself in boxing, taking matches out of his comfort zone with heavier opponents. Harry once complained of a drubbing that left his forehead sore for a week, but Coach O’Callaghan knew that his student could take it. In fact, O’Callaghan was sure that boxing matches were just a few of the contests in his life that Harry would fight and win as the underdog. The coach apparently saw something in his student, at first glance scrawny and unremarkable, to merit such faith. Whatever it was, he was so sure about it that the veteran coach invited Harry to run on the statewide ticket with him as lieutenant governor, in his successful bid to be governor of Nevada. Lieutenant Governor Reid was only thirty.
O’Callaghan was able to be a fatherly mentor in Harry’s life partly because few others seemed to be on his side at that time of his life. Graduating from Basic High, he went on to George Washington law school, working a series of odd jobs to support himself. After years of struggling, Harry swallowed his pride and visited the dean, pleading for financial assistance. He got no sympathy in the meeting, with the dean coolly replying that he should consider leaving, saying merely “Maybe law school isn’t for you.” But in the face of rejection and a perceived dead end, Harry reacted with the stubbornness that has come to characterize his legislative career. The young student simply took on more night hours at the diner he worked at, while doubling his course load. It was a terrible and taxing time for Harry—he was so perpetually exhausted he trained himself to fall asleep while standing at work—but the defiance paid off. He graduated from George Washington Law a year early.
With his ascent in politics, he suddenly had more friends—and there were some who were interested in having a friend in high places. When Reid served as Chairman of the Las Vegas Gaming Commission, he was approached by Jack Gordon, a man who offered him $12,000 dollars to approve new games for his casinos. Pretending to consider, Reid invited him to his home to discuss the offer further, then tipped off FBI agents to record the conversation. As Gordon was being arrested, Reid reportedly lost his temper, grabbing the man by the collar and yelling “You son of a bitch, you tried to bribe me!” When a bomb was later found in his wife’s car, one of Harry’s friends offered to kill Gordon in retaliation. Harry told him no thanks.
Yes, Harry’s friends had his back—and he had theirs. As Reid’s star rose and he won the trust and respect of his colleagues in the Senate, or at least the Democratic ones, one guy in particular wanted to express his appreciation for the work Harry had done on his behalf. A guy called Obama. Campaigning for him in Nevada for his Senate reelection, the President extolled Reid as a champion, saying “I want Harry Reid by my side in Washington.” The crowd erupted; they had come to see Obama and not the frail, slight man beside him, after all, and as usual the great orator didn’t disappoint.
But the contrast is one reason why Harry Reid is something of a mystery. The Senate Majority Leader is a rarity among politicians. He isn’t social or extraverted. When you’re talking to him, you sometimes get the impression he would rather be sitting alone. His voice, one of the most important tools of anyone in politics, is high and raspy. And yet, this is the man who rose to the top leadership position in the world’s most exclusive club for politicians.
Part of the reason for his success can be found in his ruthlessness. Harry Reid is a wily survivor, and even his friends will agree he is no stranger to manipulation. As far back as 2007, Harry Reid and his advisors were busy laying the groundwork for what would clearly be a tough reelection; part of their plan was to manipulate the Republican primary by dissuading popular Republicans from running. In 2008, Reid mobilized the Nevada Democratic Party machine to defeat a Republican congressman who had his eye on Reid’s seat. He also made a prediction that year that astonished his friends and advisors. “Sharon Angle needs to be my Republican opponent in 2010,” he told them calmly over breakfast one day. “We need to ensure she’s the one.”
It wasn’t hard to see why Reid was itching to face Angle in November. State Senator Angle was controversial to say the least, and her history of stances in the legislature that were perceived as extreme, combined with her tendency to put her foot in her mouth, made her an appealing target. For example, Angle didn’t do herself any favors with the crucial Hispanic voting block when she visited a largely Hispanic high school and questioned the race of the students, saying “Some of you look a little more Asian to me.”
Whatever her flaws, it looked like they weren’t going to be enough. The fundamentals of the race—high unemployment, a mobilized Republican electorate, dismal rating among voters—were so bad that some people were waiting for Reid to just accept his fate as a sacrificial lamb to the rising red tide. Not Harry. No one had ever survived and come out stronger from a place like Searchlight, Nevada by quitting. “I’m not done fighting yet,” he sputtered at a campaign event that had only been packed because Michelle Obama was there, going off script and repeating. The big banks, the big interests, the oil companies that took advantage of people. “I’m not done fighting for you.” The crowd burst into applause; it was a standing ovation. Harry smiled in surprised but pleasant confusion. Had he just warmed up a crowd for the first time in his career?
Harry spent election day making calls, thanking supporters and field organizers personally. After he had spoken to the last field volunteer, he didn’t have to wait much longer for the results. The national carnage was undeniable, and the Majority Leader could only watch as Republicans swept to power in the House of Representatives and two of his Democratic friends were toppled in the Senate. But the results were trickling in, and his numbers were holding up. He got a call from Vice President Biden, and then Barack Obama. “Looks like you’ll be with me in the fights to come. Congratulations, Harry!” Obama had reason to be joyful. In an election that showed six Democratic friends and allies the door, his party was still keeping the majority—and Harry Reid would still be there for him in the Senate.
Yes, Harry had done it. Correction: they had done it. His team, the voters, the people who had believed he still could pull one more come-from-behind win despite the odds had stood by him and won. Who would have thought it possible—and could such a feat be possible anywhere outside our democracy? Could it be that I’m letting my own opinions romanticize his life? Maybe. Any reader should know by now that I do like Harry Reid, and feel inspired by his story. But the rise of Reid is nothing short of remarkable to me. Who among his critics can claim to have started out with so little, and come so far?
After facing 25 million dollars’ worth of attack ads, a weary electorate and national head winds, the boy from Searchlight, now the master of the US Senate, was returning to Washington. Of course there are some who wish he hadn’t. Of course this national figure is controversial. But I can’t help but feel that something is right in a country where a destitute but determined boy can realistically dream of making it to the Senate leadership through hard work and ambition. It’s not just his own story. It’s the American Dream, something millions live for every day, and a story both liberals and conservatives can believe in.