The five best bits from Jon Ralston’s profile of Harry Reid

December 16, 2013

There is really no politician quite like Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).


(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Crafty, calculating and often unfiltered in his public remarks, Reid is the ultimate political survivor who has come back again and again to defy those who wrote him off.

Jon Ralston, the preeminent political reporter in Nevada, captures all of this in a fascinating new read in Politico magazine.

We urge you to read all of "Machiavelli With Malaprops" for some great insight into the most powerful man in the Senate —  and how he got there. But we know you're busy. So below, we give you the five best nuggets from Ralston's piece.

1. A behind-the-scenes puppetmaster since way back. Only a fraction of the strategic moves politicians and their advisers make are plain for all the public to see as they happen. It's the quiet but lethal stuff that has been Reid's calling card. To wit: His first Senate campaign back in 1986, when he defeated Republican Jim Santini thanks to some deft opposition research and placement. Ralston writes of that race:

A reporter had somehow gotten access to documents from an old, unresolved Federal Election Commission case and peppered the former congressman with questions about it. Santini, known to perspire, began sweating profusely.

That was the image Harry Reid, then an ambitious two-term congressman, and his campaign team were looking for — and they would go on to use the video from that press conference over and over during the campaign in a series of ads about the Democrat-turned-Republican with the tagline: “Which Jim Santini do you believe?”

The reporter who asked the questions had been fed the information by a former colleague who left journalism to work for Reid’s campaign. It was brutal and effective; it was consummate Harry Reid.

2. A tense relationship with the media. Ralston recalled a time he wrote a piece about Reid accepting speaking fees with which that the senator took issue. After threatening to freeze him out if he wrote the piece, Ralston writes, Reid followed through on the threat — for about two years. And Reid's conversation with Ralston after the fact spoke volumes about the way the Democratic leader approaches the media:

I still recall the day the freeze-out ended. His longtime assistant, Marge Van Hoove, who died earlier this year, called to tell me the senator wanted to see me in his Las Vegas office. When I sat down in front of him, Reid told me, “I’ve decided to speak to you again.”

“Senator,” I replied, “you might have noticed that I continued to write about you all of this time. Who do you think lost in this proposition?”

As if he hadn’t heard me, Reid pivoted and began talking about some policy issue. I remember thinking: He just doesn’t care.

3. But not all media ... Reid owed much of his early success wining over enough rural voters to Mike O’Callaghan, the popular former governor who helped introduce the Democrat in the 1986 campaign. O'Callaghan also happened to have an influential role at a leading newspaper at the time,writes Ralston:

O’Callaghan was still beloved across Nevada and also had a new role: executive editor of the Las Vegas Sun, where he looked out for Reid and, along with Brian Greenspun, the editor, made sure his coverage was not just good but often laudatory, even fawning. So far as Reid was concerned, he didn’t have to worry too much about media relations at the rival Las Vegas Review-Journal, where I worked, because he could count on the Sun to counter anything the more conservative daily put out there.

4. Winning his own race by winning the other ones. A large part of Reid's recipe for success has been putting the right pieces on the board in races other than his own. His campaign elevated Sharron Angle in the 2010 GOP primary, giving him a weak general election opponent. Before that, it was helping to move Nevada up the calender in the presidential nominating process that was a the thinking-one-step-ahead move of the moment that allowed Democrats to build infrastructure that would help Reid's campaign. And his latest effort? Fielding a strong candidate for the lieutenant governor's race to prevent formidable Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval from challenging him in 2016. Oh, and perhaps meddling in the GOP primary once again, Ralston writes:

And Reid continues to move the pieces on the Nevada board, preparing to block the governor from running against him by going all in with Lucy Flores — the “demographically perfect” assemblywoman — in the lieutenant governor’s race. He cares because if the second in command is a Democrat, then Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval must stay — and will be blocked from challenging Reid in 2016. He is also, once again, meddling in a Republican primary. Reid does not want Sandoval’s anointed choice, a peripatetic, energized state senator named Mark Hutchison, to win the GOP nomination.

5. Blowing up at Byrd. Then-Minority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) lobbied Reid to support him in a leadership campaign during Reid's 1986 campaign. Something Byrd said to Reid in a phone conversation one day really, really ticked him off. What it was that triggered the rare moment of emotion remains a mystery, writes Ralston:

But what I recall most about that trip was Reid on the bus, hanging up from a call with Minority Leader Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) — who was lobbying Reid to support him in the Senate Democrats’ internal leadership contest even before Reid was elected to the Senate — and being so angry that he declared he just might vote for Sen. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) instead. Reid, who later in his career would talk as though he idolized Byrd, wouldn't say what the slight was. But he was incensed. And that was the last time I saw him show any emotion at all, except during his eulogy at O’Callaghan’s funeral in 2004.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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