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Land of Hard Knocks
Long After It Gave Him Something to Escape, the Busted Boom Town of Searchlight Still Speaks To Harry Reid's Heart

By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 17, 2005

SEARCHLIGHT, Nev.

Sen. Harry Reid is trying to become more polished. Here, he is demonstrating his ability to be a gracious host, welcoming a reporter into his kitchen.

"Hey, you want a drink or something? Water?"

No thanks.

"They said I'm supposed to offer you a drink, so that's what I'm doing. If anyone asks, just tell them I offered you a drink."

It's not clear who "they" are. Maybe Reid's wife, Landra, who is in the next room, or the press secretary standing to the side, or any number of people who are trying to keep a senator prone to inelegance on his best behavior these days.

"You want some food or something?" asks Reid, opening his refrigerator. "I have some fruit here." He removes a bowl of blueberries and strawberries. "If anyone asks, I offered you food." He chuckles, mocking the idea of Harry Reid following scripted niceties.

This is a calm summer day for Reid, who is spending the July Fourth weekend in his home town of Searchlight, a drive-through slab of desert between Las Vegas and Needles, Calif. The town of 600 has two casinos, a Bubbles & Bleach laundromat, a McDonald's, a small grocery store that sells "Where the Hell Is Searchlight?" T-shirts and a favorite son who is the top elected Democrat in Washington.

Reid, a bookish-looking Mormon, finds himself on the cusp of a familiar situation: a fight. In this case, over a successor to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Reid has endured many fights over 65 years -- both political and in the boxing ring during a brief career as an amateur middleweight. But the ones he most delights in are the raw, dirt-streaked battles of his youth.

Once, in high school, Reid and a friend were brawling with a group of airmen who'd come to Searchlight to partake of the town's whorehouses. One man hit Reid so hard it felt like he couldn't breathe. Broke a few ribs. Reid lived with the injury, which is how these stories usually go.

"See that knuckle?" Reid says, indicating a flattened area on the back of his right hand. That was from eighth grade, Searchlight Elementary. The teacher's son was in the class, and Reid couldn't stand him. "So once during class I just beat the crap out of him, right in the classroom."

Was the kid hurt?

"Hell, yes, he was hurt," Reid says.

Reid was sent home. His mother, Inez, thought he had broken his hand, but it went untreated -- the closest hospital was 40 miles away, and the Reids couldn't afford doctors anyway. Reid's father, Harry Sr., told the future senator to keep his fist clenched the next time.

The Direct Approach

Reid is prepping strenuously for his speeches and interviews, the show-horse chores that go with being the Democratic leader of the Senate. He is working closely with media consultant Jim Margolis. He even submitted to a speech-coaching session at his staff's urging. But it didn't go well -- all that nonsense about hand motions, projection points, "staying in the box." "Not for me," Reid says. Nor does he have a stomach for "all that goofy psychobabble" that certain consultants are peddling. "Something about the Democrats having to be a strong father instead of a weak father or whatever the hell that is," Reid says. "As soon as I hear that stuff come out of someone's mouth, that's the end of it for me."

Reid is not as bombastic as his words might convey. He makes an unlikely pugilist: Slender and soft-spoken, he could be your high school social studies teacher. He has a wry sense of humor that ranges from corny to biting. "So is this the sleazeball you told me about?" he asks his communications director upon meeting a reporter for the first time.

Reid is also prone to that treacherous political affliction, bluntness. Puttering around his Senate office last month, Reid turns on C-SPAN to find Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) delivering a speech on the floor about the energy bill. "Oh, shut up, Lamar," Reid says, snapping off the set.

He has notably called President Bush a "loser" and a "liar," Alan Greenspan "a political hack" and Clarence Thomas "an embarrassment."

"Rookie mistakes," says Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), speaking of Reid's "loser" and "liar" quips.

Yes on "loser," no on "liar," Reid says.

"Look, the president lied to me, twice," he says, referring to a conversation they had four years ago about a proposed nuclear waste site in Nevada and another, more recently, over judicial nominees. "So he lied to me. What else am I supposed to call him?"

And, by the way: "I'm glad I called Greenspan a political hack," Reid says. "Because that's what he is."

Reid called Bush "Mr. President" when they met at the White House on Tuesday to begin the "consultation process" over the Supreme Court vacancy. Bush had called Reid in Searchlight to tell him of O'Connor's decision to retire. He left Reid a voice mail, "a nice, gracious message," Reid says.

Reid's red-roofed home in Searchlight features picture windows looking onto small mountains and big sky. There is a mezuza, a Jewish ceremonial object, on the front entrance in deference to Landra's Jewish heritage. (She became a Mormon after she married Reid. Reid became a Mormon in college after being raised without a religion: There were no churches in Searchlight.) A large painting of Martin Luther King Jr. hangs in the front entrance. Above a toilet looms an autographed Grateful Dead poster, a gift from the band's drummer Mickey Hart. Reid also keeps a vintage Captain Fantastic pinball machine in a spare room. It's a rare and controversial edition, Reid says, and there have been suggestions of Nazi imagery incorporated into the design. Reid points out a small cartoon rendering of Hitler peeking out from the scoreboard.

If Reid is worried about the possibility of Armageddon over the Supreme Court vacancy, it doesn't show. "I really believe the president is gonna try to get somebody who is not a lot of trouble," Reid says. "He's got enough going on."

Reid told White House officials that they should deal directly with Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee -- and a senator whose estimation in the eyes of the Bush administration was distilled last year when Vice President Cheney urged him to perform an impossible act on himself.

"He's stuck with Leahy, you see," Reid says, speaking of Bush. "Leahy is a pleasant man. I think it will work out fine." He smiles, reciting his lines.

Caught Up in Searchlight

Reid talks a lot about his home town, even for a member of Congress. Washington pols love talking about their home towns, especially if they provide a tableau of personal adversity to overcome. Searchlight is especially rich in this regard. Gold was discovered here in 1897, and there have been few highlights since. "The boom peaked in 1907 and quickly faded along with the town," it says on a plaque in front of the Harry Reid Elementary School. The name of the town is derived, most likely, from an old local miners' lament: "If there is in fact gold in these mines, we'd need a searchlight to find it."

Reid waxes exhaustively on Searchlight -- in speeches, floor debates, even in a 233-page book he wrote in 1998 about the town's history. He romanticizes the coyotes and jack rabbits, bugs smashing against windows and the bright dust of stars at night.

He also invokes the town to explain his unfiltered style. The Searchlight of Reid's youth was an anything-goes outpost, even for Nevada, and it tended to be indifferent to contemporary sensitivities. Pete Domitrovich, who had a big nose, was called "Big Nose Pete." There was a handicapped man everyone called "Cripple Jack." Reid had a bright pink complexion and was known as "Pinky."

"Look, I don't want to be a name-caller," Reid says. "But it's kind of hard for me to get away from my past."

John Ensign, Nevada's Republican senator, who lost a tight race against Reid in 1998, says he suspected Reid's "whole Searchlight thing" was exaggerated, if not phony. He was later convinced otherwise. Either way, Searchlight is a political boon for Reid, a testament to his pluck, and he has deployed its narrative more and more as he has become better known.

"It's a smart thing for him to emphasize," says historian Michael Green, a columnist for Nevada's Washington Watch, a monthly newsletter. "One thing that Reid and Bush have in common is that they are easy to misunderestimate . And, to a degree, they both reinforce that, and thrive on it."

Reid is a master of "that practiced, pale-faced-bumpkin-from-Searchlight act," says Las Vegas political analyst Jon Ralston. This masks a savvy, rough-hewn politician that Ralston describes as "ruthless" and "Machiavellian."

Still, Reid clearly loves Searchlight, and his hard-bitten story is legitimate. The third of four brothers, Pinky Reid grew up in a wooden shack with no hot water or indoor toilet. Harry Sr. was a hard-rock miner who suffered chronic pain from on-the-job injuries. He battled alcoholism and depression, and spent time in jail. He killed himself in 1972, at 58.

The senator reflects on his childhood with an air of detachment, as if describing events from a novel. He cheerfully recalls his father pulling out his own teeth with pliers. Or the time his brother Dale had his ear sheared off by a windblown piece of tin. Or when another brother, Larry, broke his leg, which also went untreated. Reid vividly recalls the sound of Larry crying out in pain from his parents' bedroom.

Inez Reid was a redhead with few and eventually no teeth. As a teenager, Harry Reid took a job at a gas station and bought her a false set. "It changed her," Reid says of his mother's new teeth. "I mean, you can imagine how good she felt with teeth after all those years?"

Asked if it's ever painful to recall his youth, Reid shrugs. "The only thing I don't like is to watch movies about suicide and stuff like that," Reid says, as close as he comes to publicly contemplating his inner life. "I just don't think about it that much. The stuff you don't like, you just" -- he waves his hand across his face.

Reid hitchhiked 40 miles to attend Basic High School in Henderson. There, he met his future wife, Landra Gould, the daughter of a chiropractor who disapproved of Reid instantly. (Reid and his future father-in-law fought bitterly, including once with their fists.) Reid also met a history teacher, Mike O'Callaghan, who would go on to become the governor of Nevada. O'Callaghan coached Reid in boxing at the Henderson Boys' Club and arranged for local businessmen to pay for Reid to attend college at Southern Utah State. Reid boxed in exhibition bouts as an amateur middleweight during college, occasionally sparring with professionals. "You could knock him down but he didn't stay down," O'Callaghan said in a 2001 interview with Salon.com (he died last year). Reid boasts that he never got his nose bloodied.

Reid gave up boxing when he began law school at George Washington University, working nights as a Capitol Police officer. He returned home and was elected to the Nevada Assembly at 28. Two years later, in 1970, he became the state's youngest lieutenant governor. In 1977, O'Callaghan appointed Reid chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, a job that pitted him frequently against the mob.

Reid vowed that he would "not play games with undesirables," shutting out reputed gangsters and closing casinos. A security guard moved into the Reid home after several telephoned death threats. The Reids covered their windows with sheets. Landra once discovered a bomb under the hood of their car, which was filled with their kids at the time. Reid then took to starting his car with a remote control device. This all has a way of putting the rough-and-tumble of a confirmation fight in perspective, Reid says.

Rising to the Top

One of Reid's favorite themes is how utterly amazed he is to find himself in the Senate, let alone the ranking Democrat.

"I just never planned this," Reid says, a lot. He would have you believe that he didn't think about running to be Democratic leader until last November, on election night. His friend, then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle, was in a close race for reelection in South Dakota. Reid believed Daschle would pull through, until Daschle called him at 1 a.m. Las Vegas time to tell him otherwise.

"Well, I guess we're it," Reid said in his suite at the Rio hotel, belting forth a dark laugh. He ordered a fruit plate from room service.

Reid, who was then the Democratic whip, had long been adept at the hand-holding and favor-brokering that lubricate so much Senate business. Some senators are known for their constituency work, some for their campaign skills, some for their media savvy. Reid, who was first elected to the Senate in 1986, is a floor-and-cloakroom guy.

"The floor is Harry's turf," Daschle says. "His confidence level is as high as anything he does in life on that floor."

As whip, Reid spent hours on leadership scut work -- deciding on orders of amendments, keeping things on schedule, making sure senators got their two minutes of speaking time. "Almost daily, someone would come in to make a case to him about why we had to make a vote or what we had to accommodate somebody for this and that reason," Daschle says. "And rarely did he ever say no."

But Reid is also capable of holding grudges. Michael Green tells an old political joke dating to the tenure of Nevada's exuberant former Sen. Richard Bryan: "Bryan wakes up in the morning wondering how many hands he can shake that day," Green says. "Reid wakes up wondering what enemies he needs to screw today."

Reid remembers struggling as a young father during his law school days. He couldn't pay his bills despite working six days a week. Desperate, he sought advice from a GWU dean, who looked Reid in the eye and said, "Why don't you just drop out of law school?"

"I decided that I would wash my hands of that school right then," Reid says. He harbored this ill will for more than 40 years. (He eventually reconciled with the school and spoke at the law school's graduation in May.)

"Harry never forgets," Daschle says when asked what it's like to cross Reid. "He forgives over time, but he never forgets."

Reid's strength is the transactional aspect of politics. He is expert at securing commitments, amassing chits, closing gaps. "There are some brilliant people in the Senate who would score 220 on an IQ test but couldn't get two people with the same philosophy to agree on anything," says Bryan.

Reid was a frequent emissary between senators who weren't on speaking terms, such as perennially feuding New Jersey Democrats Robert Torricelli and Frank Lautenberg. Reid is a fervid partisan, but still relatively popular among Republican senators.

Reid was instrumental in convincing then-Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords to leave the GOP, temporarily putting the Democrats in the majority in 2001. Reid even relinquished a claim on the chairmanship of the Senate Public Works Committee to Jeffords. "A lot of Democrats got chairmanships because Reid gave up his own," political analyst Ralston says.

All of this proved useful on election night 2004. When it was clear Daschle would lose, Reid considered running to succeed him. He slept on it for three hours, woke and decided to run. Still in his hotel slippers, Reid called down his caucus list. By 11 a.m., Reid says, he had secured the support of every member he talked to, except for two.

Despite his repeated claim that he "never planned on" running for leader before election night, Reid had his eye on becoming leader for many years. When Daschle was thinking about a 2004 presidential campaign, Reid campaigned to be his successor. "He made quite a point of talking to people then, locking up votes," Daschle says, which Reid confirms. Bryan recalls that Reid supported Daschle's campaign to become leader in 1994 with an eye to moving up the leadership ranks.

But the "never planned this" conceit comports much better with the "aw-shucks Harry" persona, and Reid has thus fostered an image of a kind of accidental leader who wandered up his career path rather than mapping it out. Another aspect of this is that Reid plays up the thanklessness of his job. Reid quotes a line from former Democratic leader George Mitchell. "This is the best job in the world," Reid says. "When we're out of session."

Reid, in fact, loves his job, the power it grants, the accouterments -- the big office, the security detail, the access, the White House meetings.

"Someone once told me that you can get anyone to return your calls when you're a senator," Reid says. "And it's true. It's amazing." During one interview in his office, Reid takes a call from actor Tony Curtis, who will be hosting a group of Reid's top donors at his home in Las Vegas. Upon hanging up, Reid marvels at how nice a man Curtis is.

"It's amazing that I get to do this stuff," he says.

In a Small Town

Reid says he often wonders why he keeps going back to Searchlight.

"Why would anyone want to be in Searchlight?" he asks, referring to the days of his boyhood. "There was nothing there. There were no jobs, nothing." When he was writing his book on the town, Reid says he struggled with how to conclude it. "I came to the realization that when I grew up in Searchlight, it was really a town of people who really weren't very successful," Reid says.

He wanted to be more optimistic in the book. He didn't want to offend anyone. So he buffed up the ending, made the book a triumph of civic endurance rather than despair.

As he says this, Reid is walking into the Searchlight Nugget casino for lunch. He sits down, orders vegetable beef soup and complains about the cigarette smoke. He holds court, greets people, gives you the lowdown on everyone.

"This guy got shot in the ass in World War II," Reid says, motioning to an old local character, Junior Cree, who is limping over to the senator's table.

"So," Junior says, squinting down at Pinky Reid, "I hear you're a pretty big deal back there in Washington."

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