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Harry Reid unplugged — Part II

Jon Ralston
Jon Ralston

This is the second installment of a two-part write-up on an interview last week with former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid. Questions I asked are in italics.

Harry Reid is not known for being voluble.

His laconic style – from his blunt ripostes that can be searing to his hanging up the phone without saying goodbye (even to presidents!) – the former Nevada senator does not often engage in lengthy disquisitions. But as he enters his 80th year, almost physically immobile but pretty mentally agile, Reid spent nearly an hour and a half with me last week, telling old stories, opining on current events and offering pithy observations.

As I reported Sunday, Reid seems comfortable in his dotage despite having been afflicted by pancreatic cancer, holding even less back through his thin self-editing filter than he ever did when he was in DC. He is part honey badger, part eminence grise, not quite ready to fade into the sunset, whether he has six months or six years or more.

Below is more of what he told me, including the time he tried to quit as the state’s top gaming regulator because of the mob, what his toughest race was, how the man who corralled early-state status for Nevada didn’t really want to do it and whether he has any regrets about his actions.

He only went off the record a handful of times during the interview, including when I asked him about his protégé Ruben Kihuen, the disgraced congressman, and whether he has talked to him about his City Council race (all I can say is: He has).

How he almost quit the Gaming Commission

In 1978, mobster Joe Agosto was caught on an FBI tape saying, “I got a Cleanface in my pocket,” later identified as a reference to Reid, who was then head of the state Gaming Commission. Reid was investigated and cleared by the Gaming Control Board, but some never forgot the taint.

This, despite Reid’s reputation for taking on mobsters and their associates, including a famous public run-in with Lefty Rosenthal (Robert DeNiro played him in “Casino”) — and Reid once had a bomb planted in his car.

When we chatted last week, I heard from Reid for the first time that he offered his resignation to his mentor, Gov. Mike O’Callaghan.

“That was hard. That was the hardest thing I did in my life. It was so difficult. I went to O’Callaghan and I said, ‘Mike, I can’t take this. This is too hard on my family…’ He said, ‘If you decide to drop this, it’ll be the biggest mistake you ever made in your life. You’ll regret it for the rest of your life.’ So I hung in there….So that was really, really hard because I had two Texas rangers….went over everything that I had…I had to prove that I paid for my furniture. Any client I got more than $250 for, I had to prove what I did for them.  That was a tough deal.”

Reid later used the perch as a springboard to run for Congress, and the rest, as they say, is history.

On not being governor and going to D.C.

I always wondered why Reid, the youngest lieutenant governor in state annals, never ran for the top spot, especially because O’Callaghan was his mentor. Instead, he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1974 and lost to Paul Laxalt. During our conversation, he told me a story I had never heard before:

“Originally, I was running for governor. O’Callaghan changed his mind and ran for re-election, so I got burned a little bit on that, but after I was situated in my legislative duties, I knew before I went back there that seniority was the name of the game. [Former Rep.] Cliff Young taught me, when I went back there, he said, ‘Harry,’ — he’d been in the House and I was going to the House, but it applies to the Senate, also — he said, ‘I’m going to tell you something, two things: Use the gym. Be healthy. Number two, don’t change the seniority system. The seniority system gives that body stability.’ And he was right. The Republicans have fiddled and farted around with seniority and they have damaged the stability of their body. We’ve never done that in the Senate. Term limits, I opposed term limits early on. It’s now back. They’re talking about it again. It’s foolishness.”

His toughest race

Reid defeated then Rep. John Ensign by 428 votes in 1998, won by 4 percentage points despite President Reagan and Paul Laxalt going all out to beat him in 1986, and had that memorable contest against the irrepressible Sharron Angle in 2010. How does he remember them?

“The Santini race wasn’t very hard, frankly, because he was so stupid…..I had a notebook. I knew more about Jim Santini than he knew about himself. So that race was not very hard to be honest with you. There were a couple of things. He sweated. He couldn’t stop himself, and I am just the opposite, and so we always fought and he would wind up sweating.  Remember we had that ad?”

Santini was a former Democratic congressman whom Laxalt had persuaded to switch parties. Reid’s campaign team knew he would always sweat profusely under pressure so they gave a reporter documents related to a campaign financing controversy just before Santini’s campaign announcement. The reporter asked his questions; the former congressman began to perspire. And perspire. The shot, which Reid’s cameras were there to film, formed the basis of his ad campaign: “Which Jim Santini do you believe?”

“He would sweat so hard.”

On Ensign: “The Ensign campaign was hard because I underestimated him. He was a super nice guy, very handsome man, and just a nice, nice guy, and I tried to make fun of him, he wasn’t a liar and all that. I damn near got beat and I had a bad campaign too….While he had moved into the modern generation, he would do his TV spots and they would be sent by electronic device to TV stations.  We were still carrying them by hand.”

On being Senate leader

Reid circled back several times during the interview to recount stories from his time as leader. I found it telling that he referred to Minority Leader Chuck Schumer without an adjective but it was “my pal [Whip Dick] Durbin.”

“I wasn’t the leader of the Senate because I was tall, dark, and handsome, as I told you, articulate and all that stuff. People trusted me, and I was never a press hog. On Sunday shows, I did a few of them only when I had to. I would give them to other people, which they were so happy.”

And: “We had a lot of stuff we did that was hard, and one reason I was successful, I think, I was with [ex-Majority Leader Tom] Daschle. I was his assistant leader. I knew Tom quite well. But everything that he did was driven by staff. With me, I had Schumer, Durbin and Murray. I sometimes had them come to my office four or five times a day. I would not do anything unless I ran it past them. That way I knew when I had my leadership meeting and my caucus, everything was under control. I never had a problem because I included them. That was the way it was when you were staff driven. I was not staff-driven.”

Indeed, Reid’s admittedly impulsive behavior whether behind the scenes or in front of a camera, often caught his staff by surprise. I once said the toughest job in the world was being Reid’s press secretary.

The art of Reid’s deals

The ex-senator went into detail about how he changed the balance of power in the Senate in 2001 by getting Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords to switch parties — and why he gave up a seat on appropriations after Ben Nelson was elected from Nebraska at the same time.

“Never went to (Jeffords’) office. He never came to my office, always on the Senate floor in plain sight of everybody. So, one evening, I went to Daschle, and I said, Daschle, I said, ‘I am going to get Jeffords to switch parties.’ He said, ‘I don’t have time.’ I said, ‘You better make time for this, my man.’ So, here’s the deal I made for him. I didn’t tell Daschle what the deal was. I’m Chairman of the Environment Publics Committee. That’s a pretty big deal. I had a huge staff. And Jim was really heavy into the environment. I said Jim, ‘I’m going to make you a deal. I’m going to give you my chairmanship. My caucus will support me in making you the chair. And I’ll give you all my staff. I get nothing. I just give it to you.’ I mean, I did that.

No one would give up a chairmanship is what you’re saying.

“And 15 staff members.”

Why did you do it, then?

“Because I wanted to take care of the Republicans. And no one would do it. I would do it.”

That is: Reid was willing to give up so much in order to wrest power from the Republicans, a Machiavellian deal that cost him very little and made history — it was the first time a switch had changed party control.

What Reid did with Nelson wasn’t quite as dramatic, but fit the same pattern:

“I had Ben Nelson from Nebraska got elected, and he was hard. He was from a conservative state. And my staff came to me, and said, ‘Ben’s upset.’ I said, ‘About what?’ He thought you would put him on appropriations. I said, ‘I never told him I would put him on appropriations.’ So I called Ben, and I said, ‘Ben, did I ever tell you I was going to put you on appropriations.’ He said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘But it sure would be good for me.’ So, I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’m on appropriations. I’ll give you my spot on appropriations.’ And I did that."

Just to get a chit with him for later on, or is there another reason you did it?

“Well, to be honest with you, I felt with my position running the Senate that I could get what I wanted anyways, so…”

You didn’t need it.

“No, but I’m telling you, Jon, no one else would have done that.”

On Speaker Nancy Pelosi

“I was the Leader, she was the Speaker. She was the best. I don’t mean to be boastful, but she and I killed privatization of Social Security. I think the world of her. I admire her for so many different reasons. As pretty as she is, she has a husband that’s just as pretty as she is. He’s a big, tall, handsome, rich man and he was so good to land her. He was a spouse and they would do like First Lady’s luncheon and they would have to have a fashion show and he was just like one of the ladies. So she’s just a stunningly pretty woman, stunningly brilliant, and unafraid. That’s what I like about her, unafraid.”

On regrets

Reid named the Iraq War but couldn’t think of – or wouldn’t mention – anything else.

“That was a horrible mistake I made.  I changed it fairly quickly but just having done it tainted me. It tainted my heart. It was the wrong thing to do. But I was sucked in by General [Colin] Powell and others and I believed them. So I regret that, yes, I do. There are other things that I can think of that have caused me a little bit of concern, but as I said when we started this conversation, you know, I recognized [I would] make mistakes and people [would] criticize me.  And I went into more stuff knowing full well that the chances of winning were certainly not over 50 percent.”

On being a pro-life Mormon in the Democratic Party

“I had such tremendous support from Planned Parenthood. They took such good care of me.  Remember I went back there as a right to lifer. And my senators were so good to me. Barbara Mikulski, I was a brand new senator, as was she. We were two new senators who came over (from the House).  And there was an abortion issue that came up. I don’t remember what it was, but we were down at the well and people were saying, ‘Hey this is a big issue for us, we Democrats.' And she, Mikulski walked in, 4 feet, 10 inches, and in effect, shoved everybody out of the way, said, ‘Leave him alone. It’s a matter of character.’”

On his wealth

Reid is a multimillionaire and during the years, some, especially his most vociferous critics, have wondered how he got rich. Unprompted, he raised the issue:

“I lost that Senate race and basically, Landra’s [his wife’s] inheritance, I had to pay off campaign debts with it. But during that period of time, between losing and then running for the House, I was able to work here. Land was such a great deal here in Southern Nevada, and I invested in land. Went back to the days of [attorney] Louie Wiener when I was a brand-new buyer. He told me, he said, ‘Young man, I’m going to give you a little lesson real quick.’ He said, ‘I’ve invested in everything, hotels, motels, cafes. I’ve lost money in virtually everything. Here’s what I want you to do. Invest in undeveloped real estate.’….And that’s what we did. So by the time I went to Washington, I had that land. We didn’t have to worry about how I was going to pay for kids going to school and all that. I had money that I could take care of that. I didn’t have to do all that kind of stuff that some of my friends did. So that was the one asset that I had.”

On getting Nevada early-state positioning in 2007

What prompted you to do that?

“It was Rebecca [Lambe, his top political operative in Nevada]. She said, ‘I want you to go to Atlanta [for a DNC meeting] and give this big speech about the early caucus.’ I don’t like to do stuff like that. We did this — beautiful, I don’t know who prepared it, but it was beautiful — a brochure on why it would be great for Nevada. We distributed that. I gave a little talk… But I was against it to begin with.”

Against it because you just didn’t feel like doing it?  You didn’t see the benefit?

“I didn’t want to do it. I was busy. I didn’t want to do something else.”

Do you think we hold onto it?

“Yeah, we’ll hang onto it.  The only thing that’s hurting us a little bit is moving California [towards the front of the nominating process]. That’s going to weaken us a little bit.”

On Rep. Dina Titus

Titus and Reid have had a prickly history. She wanted to run for Clark County Commission and blamed Reid for getting his son, Rory, into that race. She also never forgave Reid for getting Kihuen into the congressional primary in 2012 — she forced him out and won the race.

“She’s fine. She’s getting a lot of seniority back there and she has no illusions of grandeur. She’s just going to be a good House member.”

No seasons greetings

It generally didn’t bother you when people wrote stuff about you?

“Rarely would I call anybody and bitch about it, call over a story. I didn’t do that. They wrote something nice about me, I didn’t call them about that either. As you know, I didn’t take a lot of people to lunch in the press because that just wasn’t my style. For example, somebody came this morning and said, ‘Did you get my Christmas card?’ I said, ‘I bet you didn’t get mine.’ I’ve never sent a Christmas card in my whole life."

Why not?

“Waste of time.  Nobody cares about them.”

Who are the Nevada rising stars?

So when you look at the state now, who are the stars of the future for the party?

“We have such a wide field to pick from.  Rather than tell you who I think are the rated one, two, three, four, and five, I would recommend to all of them they follow the advice of [former Sen. Richard] Bryan and Reid, the Gold Dust Twins. We never went and asked anybody if we could run. We never went and asked anybody, ‘If I run, will you help me get some money?’ We just did it, and things fell into place. There’s too little of that now. People are so programmed that they’re afraid to do something unless they know they’re going to win, and Richard and I, we still talk about that. We still send messages back and forth to each other, and I’ll sign The Twin, and he’ll sign The Senior Twin, because we were known as the Gold Dust Twins [when they were in the Legislature together in the 1970s].”

I remember.

“Yep, and so that’s what would be my recommendation to all those wannabes out there that want to do something: just do it. Don’t be afraid. I repeat what I said earlier today. Don’t be afraid you’re going to fail. I failed quite a few times, you know. They buried me lots of times."

But shouldn’t they come and kiss Harry Reid’s ring before they decide to run? You sure that’s not still a good idea?

“If that makes them feel better, have them come by.”

Go here to read the first installment of the two-part write-up on the conversation with Reid.

Jon Ralston is the editor of The Nevada Independent. He has been covering Nevada politics for more than 30 years. Contact him at [email protected]. On Twitter: @ralstonreports


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