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Former Sen. Harry Reid during an interview during the National Clean Energy Summit at the Bellagio on Friday, Oct. 13, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Harry Reid was just a scrawny kid from Searchlight in the spring of 1955 when he boarded his first airplane at McCarran Field.

A sophomore at Basic High, he was a backup catcher on the Henderson school’s baseball team, one of the most talented in Nevada history. The flight from Las Vegas to San Luis Obispo was uneventful, and a few days later the Wolves returned with the championship of the California Interscholastic Association’s Tri-State League. In late May, the team brought Nevada’s first state baseball title home to Henderson from Fallon. Basic repeated the feat the following year against Reno High.

Reid went out of his way to remind me that he figured in none of the action, and was lucky to have made the talented team. His lifelong friends Reynaldo Martinez and Don Wilson were two of several stars. Why, Reid didn’t even get as many hits as a young Frank Fahrenkopf, who played for the Reno team in 1956.

“I caught batting practice, but when they passed out jackets after we won the championship, I got the same jacket,” Reid said.

He didn’t learn to hit a curveball (not many do), but he did learn the value of teamwork. Martinez would one day serve as Reid’s chief of staff in the Senate. Wilson would represent Reid as a regional manager.

I start this column about the renaming of McCarran International Airport for Reid with a nostalgic lens in part to try to keep it in perspective. Reid’s accomplishments are prolific, and it’s a great honor. The outpouring of support from Democrats and Republicans alike has been an overwhelming ovation. But in the end, it’s also just one more letterman’s jacket in a long and amazing American life spent on the field of politics and public affairs, where the curve balls are even harder to master.

When Reid boarded the airplane that day in 1955, McCarran had been dead about a year after suffering a stroke in Hawthorne following one of his trademark anti-everything speeches. When it came to stoking ignorance-based fears, xenophobia, nativist hatred, anti-Semitism, and good old hot air, he had few peers. He also was a deft pork barrel politician who kept federal projects flowing to the state and played a big role in laying the foundation of the airport that bears his name.

County officials have had many opportunities to change it over the years and never got it done. It was a neglect of duty made politically possible only because the passage of time appeared to have softened McCarran’s rhetoric. Some were content to write off his racism and anti-Semitism as coming from a man of that generation.

Forgotten or forgiven were McCarran’s corrupt connections to the gambling mob that relied on him to protect them in Washington. McCarran had vilified and attempted to block the Kefauver Committee’s organized crime and rackets probe. He used his power with the state’s casino men to attempt to run his constant critic, Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun, out of business. 

While on the Senate Judiciary Committee, McCarran supported Sen. Joseph McCarthy and created and led the Internal Security Committee, which fomented anti-Semitic and anti-immigration hysteria under the guise of chasing Communists. In letters to his wife, McCarran wrote about the “Jews and Commies” who were, he said, misleading some of his fellow senators and influencing his political rivals.

As powerful as he was, McCarran devolved from a friend of the working class into a paranoid and bitterly conservative caricature who hated much about his own party and clung to his power and the political machine he created at the expense of everything else. As historian Jerome E. Edwards observed in his study of McCarran, “He was a giant of a man, but something went wrong as he grew older.”

Reid, conversely, evolved over time. The man who once sponsored an anti-immigration bill and was anti-abortion, changed in substantive ways. When Reid created a new Democratic Party machine, it reflected the state’s ethnic diversity and showed respect for women. After announcing his retirement in late 2016, Reid was described by The New York Times as having “entered the Senate an anti-abortion, anti-immigration centrist. He leaves a leading progressive voice.”

Removing McCarran’s name would have been unthinkable 40 years ago because he was still considered the titan of Nevada politics in the US Senate despite his racism and anti-Semitism. When it came to clout in the cloakroom, McCarran was the state’s biggest player. Michael Ybarra’s grand 2004  Washington Gone Crazy: Senator Pat McCarran and the Great American Communist Hunt helped take some of the wind out of the gasbag of the Great Basin.

Such a change in Reid’s honor would have been untenable even a decade ago because as Senate Majority Leader he was politically polarizing and had emerged as a fearless defender of Obama administration policies, most notably the Affordable Care Act. In those days, Reid had almost as many enemies as allies. He was the man the Republicans loved to hate.

Much of that heat has subsided with the passage of time and as the scope of Reid’s undeniable contributions to the state are better appreciated. Retired since 2017, he still manages to fire off editorial broadsides and offer biting perspectives on Washington politics, but it’s different now.

No matter how you feel about Reid, there’s no question that it was long past time for McCarran’s name to be removed from the gateway through which millions of tourists from around the world pass each year to reach Las Vegas. It’s not a close call. Honoring a bigot is not only wrong, but it’s really dumb marketing.

This past week, the Clark County Commission voted unanimously to direct staff to submit a request to the Federal Aviation Administration to change McCarran to Harry Reid International Airport. With the Democrats in the majority in Washington the paperwork, which according to aviation websites usually takes six months or more to process, is likely to move quickly. Physically changing the name of the airport will take a few months and will be paid for by private donations.

Although the renaming, ramrodded by Commissioner Tick Segerblom, was not in doubt, a torrent of adulation poured in. It’s worth noting that Rep. Dina Titus also suggested removing the statue of McCarran from an honored place in the U.S. Capitol. In response to the commission vote, Reid replied simply, “It is with humility that I express my appreciation for the recognition today.”

Unless you’re a diehard member of rural Nevada’s Harry Haters Club and plan to protest this decision by going Greyhound on your next vacation, I suspect this name change won’t sting much.

It’s one more improbable moment in Harry Reid’s remarkable life.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal— “Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

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