To understand Harry Reid — his soft spoken nature mixed with a brusque demeanor, his early conservative views combined with his modern status as liberal icon — one has to understand Searchlight, Nev.
One has to understand how much the retiring Senate minority leader hated his hometown, a boom-or-bust place that was all bust in his childhood, how much he ran away from that wretched town when he started to make it in Las Vegas as a politically connected lawyer, how ashamed he was of a place that drove his father to kill himself.
But one has to also understand how, once he embraced his roots, literally after hearing a speech from the author of “Roots,” Alex Haley, Reid set himself on a path to become a historical figure with a long legislative legacy — as he also became one of the most polarizing figures the Senate has ever known.
“He said be proud of who you are. You can’t escape who you are,” Reid recalled Thursday of Haley’s talk. “And I walked out of that event that night a different person, a new man. From that day forward, I was from Searchlight. … I became Harry Reid, the guy from Searchlight.”
Usually a man of few words, Reid went on for nearly 80 minutes Thursday in his farewell address to the Senate, trying to explain the origins of that irascible style that defined his 30 years in the Senate.
It comes from a childhood that reads like a Steinbeck-era novel of despair.
The Searchlight of Reid’s childhood was a town of 250 that had no churches, no indoor plumbing, 13 brothels, almost no active mines, and one teacher in the town’s only school, an elementary one, so he hitchhiked 40 miles each way to high school in Henderson. His father, a miner, hardly got paid and his mother helped the family survive by washing bedding and clothes from the local brothels.
The future Senate leader’s proudest moment of his teenage years was saving up $250 from his gas station job to buy his mother a new set of teeth.
While his portrait was unveiled, Reid was celebrated late Thursday by Hillary Clinton and Vice President Biden who led a cascade of speeches in his honor.
Clinton began her remarks joking about her campaign loss, saying her speech Thursday was “not exactly the speech in the Capitol” she had hoped to give. She noted that she, Biden and Reid were all leaving electoral politics at the same time and it was up to those still there to defend Reid’s accomplishments. “We’re all counting on you,” she said.
Earlier in the day, after three decades in the Senate, four years in the House and almost 50 years of political combat in Nevada, the guy from Searchlight basked in the national political glow of a consequential career now passed. His longtime rival, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), praised Reid’s tenacity.
“If there’s one thing we know about Harry, he doesn’t give up easily,” McConnell said, explaining Reid’s tough-minded style in the Senate and also his pursuit of his high school sweetheart, Landra Reid, whom he married at 19.
Reid explained the personal side of why he used such an iron fist to win approval of the Affordable Care Act, infuriating Republicans as the party-line vote reshaped the health industry: His father, long battling depression without ever getting professional help, killed himself in 1972.
“My Dad never had a chance. He was depressed always. He was reclusive,” he said, explaining that his father skipped many childhood events. “I think everyone can understand a little bit of why I have been such an avid supporter of Obamacare.”
Reid’s final speech had its share of partisan flare. Fewer than ten Republicans attended the morning address, and Reid did not mince words when he condemned Republicans for what he considered the “abuse of the filibuster” during his eight years as majority leader.
His 2013 move to end filibusters on most presidential appointments still prompts anger among Republicans. Most Republicans complained that the Senate ground to a halt in his later years as majority leader as so many decisions were made inside Reid’s leadership suite on the second floor of the Capitol.
While he set aside Thursday his many feuds with Reid, McConnell’s mantra upon becoming majority leader two years ago was an attempt to repudiate his Democratic counterpart by putting the Senate “back in business” by allowing more votes and amendments from junior senators.
Yet that portrait of Reid neglects the other side of the man who was, when he wanted to be, one of the best bipartisan deal-makers of his generation. On Thursday he recounted two early pieces of legislation that might drive today’s liberals crazy: a “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” that struck at the IRS’s power, and the Congressional Review Act, which Republicans have recently been using to attack Obama administration regulations.
“It was great when we had Republican presidents, not so great when we had Democratic presidents. But it was fair,” Reid said, drawing laughter from his standard dry-wit humor.
Reid served as one of the driving figures, along with McConnell, in securing the $700 billion bailout of big banks during the Wall Street implosion of 2008. And, before he became his party’s floor leader in 2005, Reid served on the Appropriations Committee with such Republican legends as Ted Stevens (Alaska), carving up the federal budget to deliver billions of dollars in federal spending to their respective states.
This was the Las Vegas Harry Reid, the backroom negotiator who figured out everyone’s self interest and got the best deal for his state.
Yet it was the Searchlight Harry Reid that turned him into the brawling figure who would go on to become the third longest serving majority leader in Senate history. It’s that spirit he channeled in becoming the intemperate figure who wouldn’t hesitate in calling then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan “a hack” and then-President George W. Bush a “liar”, who used Senate floor speeches to excoriate President-elect Donald Trump as a “racist” and a “con man”.
“I was ashamed, embarrassed about Searchlight,” Reid said. “When I went to college, was in high school, law school, I just didn’t want to talk about Searchlight. It was kind of embarrassed about it. It was kind of a crummy place.”
Once he embraced that side of his life, however, Reid found the passion that turned him into the figure — both revered and jeered at the same time — who he now is.
He’s often asked how he got from Searchlight to the Senate.
“And I tell them the same thing about working hard,” he said. “Of course that’s important. Of course it’s important — but also, stay true to who you are, your roots.”