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Hard times for Harry

Reid’s co-writer unloads

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Photo: Evan Vucci/AP
Mark Warren

Dear Scott: First, a disclaimer: I speak for no one other than myself here. I couldn't pretend to speak for Harry Reid if I wanted to, and feel a little presumptuous telling you about your senator in the first place, and so to be clear, my intemperance is my own. Harry Reid most certainly did not approve this message.

Okay, so a couple of weeks ago, you asked me what I thought of the "Harry Reid situation" — his low poll numbers, the quote ascribed to him about Barack Obama's lack of a Negro dialect, etc. And in the time since — during which the world has ground on and reality has once again imposed its will with a terrible natural catastrophe in the Caribbean and a little political event in Massachusetts — I've thought about your question a lot. About the perception and the reality of someone like Harry Reid, and about how those two things can be very different, and why that is.

What do I think of Sen. Reid's situation? Well, it's the same as it ever was, Scott. They don't call him Landslide Harry for nothing. It's pretty simple, actually. Graced with the retail political skills of your average monk, Harry Reid has always had to work twice as hard for everything he's ever achieved. Ever. You don't climb out of a hole in the ground in Searchlight, Nevada, to become one of the most powerful men in the world by being outworked. And he's put that extraordinary drive to work for your state and for the country, and he's presumed to do some very hard things, and doing very hard things can make you pretty unpopular. That, in a nutshell, is the Harry Reid situation. Any politician can avoid this problem by aiming low, aspiring little, and risking nothing. Our nation's capital is full of those types, by the way. They seldom accomplish much, are of no consequence, and are quickly forgotten. Your Harry Reid is not one of those politicians.

He is an enigma, I will grant you that.

In most ways, he is the least likely politician I've ever met. He is not gregarious. Small talk doesn't come easy for him. He'd rather be alone than in groups. And unlike most figures operating at his level, he has not pimped out his life story, and by that I mean that his story is not a well-worn performance piece that he trots out like a cheap lounge act the way most people do in Washington. His biography is one of the greatest stories of perseverance, hard work, success and true American values of anyone currently holding office in the United States — an exceedingly rare story — and yet he doesn't talk about himself easily, and has a strong sense of what is private and what ought to stay that way.

He and the camera maintain an uneasy relationship. Sometimes in pictures, he looks pissed off, or like he's focused on some distant landscape of the mind. He is impervious to drama, not given to acting out or gaudy shows of emotion. Or, you know, any emotion. As the dimensions of the financial crisis were becoming clear in mid-September 2008, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson called Reid to warn him privately of what Fed chairman Ben Bernanke would soon echo: If we don't act now senator, immediately, we won't have an economy on Monday.

"Well, come on down," Reid said simply.

Typically, language fails when seeking to plumb the depths of Reid's low-keyness. How many ways to say taciturn? How many words for colorless?

So let's stipulate that Harry Reid is often not the best teller of his own story. Talking about himself is something that he finds unseemly. And so other people get to paint him with their own brush.

While he is an enigma, even in Washington, it is (among others) Harry Reid the Republicans are talking about when they spit out the word elite. Who are these people and why do they know so few words? Because, to believe what they say about the senator is to believe that at some indistinct point between descending into the hard-rock mines of Searchlight, Nevada, at age 11 to join the desperate search for gold with his binge-drinking father and working full-time as a Capitol Hill cop while going to George Washington law school full-time and raising a young family full-time, Harry Reid became an elitist. I guess all that easy living can make you a real snob, Scott.

Well, the truth is that his hard upbringing drove him inward as a child and he has by and large remained there ever since. He has a deep sense of right and wrong that he learned in that hard town, and a mania for fairness that comes from knowing well what life is like at the very bottom. He embraced a deep and robust faith as a bulwark against his father's despair, and he fought against that despair and the despair he saw all around him, and he climbed out of Searchlight and he kept on climbing. He started to build, and he kept on building. He solved the problems of his own life, and he's been fighting like hell to do that for other people ever since.

Before I elaborate further on why all this makes Harry Reid a great senator for Nevada, let me dispense with the second part of the question, involving that book Game Change, which was published, unbelievably, just three weeks ago. It seems like years have passed since that thing sizzled off the presses and we all thought that it mattered. As ever in life, the grave has come along and obliterated the trivial. But Sen. Reid said what he said, and you asked me what I thought.

Well, here's what I think: Harry Reid is not a phony, and when you're not a phony, you occasionally say things that come out a little rough. When we were working on The Good Fight, he told me: "I speak bluntly. Sometimes I can be impulsive. I believe something to be right and I do it. And then I don't worry about it. This has not always necessarily served me well, but it is who I am. I can be no one else."

In this instance, the senator was describing why it was that Barack Obama was going to win the presidency, an outcome he ardently supported. In so doing, perhaps he was infelicitous, or maybe not. Honestly, I'll leave that to the people who talk on the teevee to decide, because they do that so very well. But as we all know, the right wing whipped itself into a froth over the quote, and Liz Cheney called Harry Reid a racist, and Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele called on Reid to resign his leadership position, bleating that what Reid said was equivalent to when Trent Lott of Mississippi rhapsodized back in the early days of this century about how if only we had elected Strom Thurmond president in 1948, maybe all that horrible civil rights stuff never would have happened. Let me get this straight: Steele would have us believe that discussing what is politically possible vis-à-vis race in America = pining for the good old days of American white supremacy. Well, sure it does, but only if you're a complete idiot.

And as for Liz Cheney, well, how rich to be called a racist by someone whose ideological forebears opposed the entire progressive 20th century, and I mean all of it. Not just federal civil rights legislation but, you know, women's suffrage and the end of child labor, too. Not to mention the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, worker safety, fair housing, federal aid to education, public education generally, health insurance for indigent children, the Voting Rights Act, and the minimum wage. For the past century they have fought tooth and nail these things that have helped make America great. The list of what they would not have done goes on and on. I heard that Liz Cheney just came out against the fire department, too, as breeding socialism. Start putting out people's fires, Scott, and the next thing you know you're confiscating all their guns and killing their old people.

But again, how rich to be called a racist by such a person. Not to belabor the point too much more, Scott, but my family is from the deep South, mostly Louisiana and Mississippi. And so when Sen. Lott sang the hosannas of old bigot Strom on the old man's 100th birthday, and got himself in trouble for it, I thought, Okay, great, once and for all we can have an adult conversation in this country on the racial legacy of the Dixiecrats (so-called because they were Southern Democrats from the Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forevah! school who began splintering from the Democratic party in 1948 over Truman's civil rights plank in the party platform) who, following Thurmond's lead, simply dove into the Republican party and carried on without missing a beat, or apologizing when it became society's consensus that institutionalized racism was morally wrong. They were too busy driving the Democrats out of the South forever to apologize. And so when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and turned to his press secretary Bill Moyers and said, "I've just delivered the South to the Republicans for a generation," he was off by several orders of magnitude.

But then Lott said what he said, and I thought, Finally, we can talk about this. But I was wrong, as ever. The Bush White House moved deftly to contain the damage and prevent any such conversation from ever happening, as any exploration of that history would be ugly and might've reflected badly on those then running the country. So, in an unprecedented interference with the Senate's business, the White House simply had Lott removed and installed Bill Frist of Tennessee as majority leader, because he presumably had no fond memories of Strom Thurmond about which to reminisce stupidly.

So believe me, Scott, those who would sit in judgment of Sen. Reid for what he said in that book are the last people in America who want to provoke a meaningful conversation about race.

They're just playing games with us, with y'all in Nevada, too, because that's what they think this is: a game. If you don't really know what government is for, or don't care about how complex systems work, or are somehow dogmatically opposed to government reflexively, you might view it all as a big game. A high-stakes, zero-sum game that has nothing to do with serving the people and everything to do with winning elections. You might just start screaming No! at everything. You might start passing off grotesque caricatures of your opponent's policies (Socialists! Death panels! Socialist death panels!). And just for fun, you might even start comparing your political opponents to the worst beasts the human race has ever produced — Hitler and Stalin, maybe — in ways that disgrace both you and the memory of the victims of Hitler and Stalin. Yes, we all remember that it was their determination to extend health insurance to uninsured people that made Hitler and Stalin the greatest monsters of the 20th century. Hey, who cares if it makes no sense, or if it's despicable, it's a game!

And you're telling me it's Harry Reid who's in trouble? Really? You've got the governing philosophy of a once-great Republican party dominated for the moment by reflexive opposition and crackpots with conspiracy theories, when the country's got real problems it needs solved — now — and it's Harry Reid who's in trouble? Seriously?

Listen, being angry at the state of things is absolutely reasonable. (And being angry with the Democrats is reasonable, too. I spend half my life angry with those guys.) But it's what you do with that anger that matters. And far be it from me to presume to tell anyone how to vote, but this is not a game. Governing, I mean. And just saying no and offering no solutions of your own and refusing to govern is a form of nihilism, and nihilism sure ain't what built this country. And then pretending that your opposition is principled when in fact you're just trying to cripple a president and win an election is rank dishonesty. They're doing this all on your time, by the way. They think y'all are stupid, Scott, and it stinks if you ask me.

Look, I'm not naïve about politics, especially at this level, and Harry Reid's a big boy, but it should be remembered that the crowd that looks to benefit from the growing discontent with the senator and his party spends so much time degrading our government — and often does such a miserable job of actually governing when they do find themselves in charge — that they were fired unceremoniously just over a year ago for gross negligence and incompetence and being phony guardians of the public purse, tough-talking their mumbo jumbo about the evils of "big government" while spending like drunks in a whorehouse (see, Dick "Deficits Don't Matter" Cheney). And when they skulked out of Washington, they left the country in a terrible mess from which we will be recovering for some time to come.

To finally answer your question about what I think of his low poll numbers, Scott, I've got to tell you my impression of how well Harry Reid does his job. It will come as no shock to you to know that I don't think that his low numbers in Nevada are merited. In terms of governing, my impression of Harry Reid is that he is at the same time a realist of the realpolitik school and an idealist who idealizes the American government as the greatest force for good in the history of the world. As are a lot of people in this country, he is both liberal and conservative. And it's that combination that makes him a great dealmaker and a natural legislator. I have been around politicians for a long time, and I can tell you that he is the most accomplished and studied legislator I have ever been near. And legislating is all about balancing interests, dividing the pie. Ideally, nobody gets everything he wants, but everybody gets some. In fact, I think that could be Sen. Reid's motto: Nobody gets everything he wants, but everybody gets some.

Good public policy — actually governing — absolutely requires that kind of compromise, every day, especially in a country as complex and diverse as the United States. And that's the kind of governance that Harry Reid is very, very good at. For instance, if George W. Bush had dealt with Sen. Reid in good faith, Reid would have been a very valuable ally and good friend for Bush on Capitol Hill. (Instead, Bush lied to Reid about important things, repeatedly, and Reid responded by calling Bush a word reserved for those who don't tell the truth. See section on blunt-speaking above.) And it is his willingness to make deals amid his own ideologically variegated mess of a party as well as across party lines that drives the left wing of the Democratic party into paroxysms of gibbering rage over Harry Reid. I think the crazy left hates him almost as much as the crazy right wing does, which ought to tell you something about ideologues, who see themselves as pure. Ideologues have the luxury of purity because they don't actually ever have to get anything done. Well, ideologues on both sides love to hate Harry Reid, it seems. It's fashionable this season, really, in every true sense of that word. Which means, of course, that, just as in fashion, a lot of people go along with it without really knowing why, or without thinking very much about it.

My real sense, though, is that Harry Reid doesn't pay it much mind — that he's too busy trying to govern the country during an extremely perilous time to adequately defend himself and make time for the yahoos with their games. And it may cost him his seat in the United States Senate. Which kind of floors me, to be honest, as I think that now is the time when America needs serious, sober dealmakers like Harry Reid most of all. In any case, I feel privileged to have spent some time with him and watch him work on behalf of Nevada, and I'll be interested to see whether your state gets a clear picture of him — whether you're able to square the perception of him with a good dose of reality — before November. Or not.

In any case, I will never forget some of the things that formed my opinion of him. I have seen Harry Reid work through the night for your state. I have seen the esteem in which he is held by everyone at the U.S. Capitol, where straight-shooters are as rare as the dodo bird. I have seen him when no one was looking, stop and show interest in the lives of the young people working at the Capitol, just the same way that he remembers a couple of congressman noticing he was alive when he was working all those years ago as a Capitol Hill cop.

I have heard Steve Wynn tell me of the knife's edge that Las Vegas was on when Harry Reid became head of the gaming commission and went up against Lefty Rosenthal ("a moron with a head like a pigeon") and fought the battle of Las Vegas — would Vegas become a great modern city, or would it backslide to the bad old days of the mob economy? "And then Harry Reid came in — that was Mike O'Callaghan's boy — and he turned everything around," Wynn told me. Reid faced down the mob and put up with the death threats and the bombs planted in his car, and he won. "I've never met someone who's such a straight arrow," Wynn says. "That family is as straight as a laser beam, my God. That's not an inside opinion, either. Nobody would ever, ever, ever question Harry's integrity. Anybody in Nevada could have told you, you go near Harry Reid with an indecent proposal, you're going to prison."

And I have seen Searchlight and the holes in the ground where he went to work when he was just a kid. I have seen the foundation of the shack where he grew up. I have seen the 50-mile stretch of road he hitchhiked to be able to go to high school in Henderson. I have seen his tight band of high school friends, the most loyal bunch of guys I've ever met, and to this day the most important people in Harry Reid's life, outside of family. I have seen his continuing amazement that he was ever able to land a girl like Landra Gould. And I have seen the pure joy that his family brings him.

I have seen his eyes glisten with tears when he told me the story of his father's suicide, the ragged call from his mother — I'm on my way, mother — and the drive to Searchlight to discover his father lying there still.

And I have seen his eyes glisten with tears once more, on the evening of November 4, 2008, the instant after the networks called the election for Barack Obama. Later that night, he sat for a moment, lost in thought, and to no one in particular said out loud "President Barack Obama," just trying out the words, and smiling.

"Did you ever think you'd see this day?" I asked him.

"No, no, nooooo. No." he answered. "But it's sure here isn't it?"

Mark Warren is the executive editor of Esquire and co-author of Harry Reid’s 2008 book The Good Fight.
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