LAS VEGAS — The SUV meandered through a quiet middle-class neighborhood until it reached Harry Reid’s former home, a pleasant one-story ranch house with a terra-cotta roof, pink flowers out front and a swimming pool in the back. The Senate minority leader remained in his seat, flipping the window up and down to take it all in.
“My wife wanted to make sure I told you: This house is crap,” he said. “When we lived there, it was really nice. You’ll see, they ruined our house.”
He’d raised his young children here, took baths in an enormous tub, installed custom-made beveled glass windows. Not bad for a kid who grew up in a desert shack made of railroad ties. But eventually the time came to move on.
“I sold it,” said Reid (D-Nev.). “I think it’s a home for old people.”
After 30 years, the most pugnacious and powerful Democrat in the Senate is calling it quits, and even a no-nonsense codger like Reid is prone to sentiment.
“He’s a little more nostalgic, but in his own quiet, terse Harry way,” says Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who will take Reid’s leadership position next year. “He won’t give a five-minute speech about how much he’s going to miss the Senate.”
Maybe not, but he will invite a reporter on a trip down memory lane, a winding path through this desert city that dead ends at a perfectly nice house that he swears was once much, much nicer.
In 1981, his wife, Landra, found a car bomb planted in the family station wagon in this very driveway. (Wired improperly, it never detonated.) This was back when Reid’s job as Las Vegas gaming commissioner pitted him against a slew of unseemly characters and earned him the nickname Mr. Cleanface among some local mobsters. Back in the good old days, when this house was still surrounded by peach and plum trees, not just palms.
“I hate palm trees,” Reid said.
The car rumbled to a stop, and Reid peered out at a cluster of well-groomed bushes that blocked part of the house from street view.
“When Landra found the bomb in our car, it was wide open,” Reid sighed. “We didn’t have any fences. . . . They moved in this crap. Oleander, I hate that stuff. We didn’t have that kind of a roof. It was much nicer.”
Reid is known as a shrewd tactician, a killer who speaks softly but carries a sharp knife. Ask him about regrets or mistakes and he will often say he doesn’t like to look back. He’s the kind of a guy who hangs up without saying goodbye, who called George W. Bush a “loser” and told him to his face that “your dog is fat.” But as he prepares to leave the Senate, with high hopes for his successors, even Reid can’t avoid displaying something resembling human emotion.
He was spotted crying backstage at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia after giving a prime-time speech. He’s been telling the old war stories more often. And for once it seems as if he might actually care, just a little bit, about what people think about him; or at least what they think about the house he once kept. As the Chevrolet Suburban pulled away from the family home, Reid couldn’t help but look back one more time.
“You see the house they ruined?” he said.
Once again, Reid finds himself wishing he didn’t have to leave.
“It’s going to be an adjustment, I wish I could stay in the Senate forever,” he said earlier that day. Reid, 76, is a remarkably unremarkable-looking man; tall but hunched, a pale face with pale eyes and hair now similarly devoid of color.
He walked to the SUV gingerly, donning sunglasses and leaning on a silver-tipped cane, his new necessities of the past several months. Early last year, the senator had been exercising in his suburban Las Vegas home when the elastic band he was using snapped in half, whacked him in the face and sent him crashing backward into a set of cabinets. He broke multiple bones in his face and remains blind in his right eye. For three months, he had to sleep sitting up in a chair.
“I was hurt, okay?” he said. “Worse than most people know.” Being laid up gave him time to think. He felt lucky to have been so physically able his whole life, and grateful that he and his wife had their health. Though the Senate was his great love, he decided he didn’t have it in him for another run.
Reid’s legacy has probably already been determined. He’ll take enormous credit, or blame, for getting the Affordable Care Act through Congress. He’ll be remembered for his life story: an up-by-his-bootstraps tale that began in Searchlight, a speck of a desert town an hour outside of Las Vegas. He boxed his way through college and worked as a Capitol Hill police officer to pay his way through law school. Born without a filter, he’ll also go down in history for audacious — sometimes dubious — broadsides against opponents (his claim that Mitt Romney “didn’t pay taxes for 10 years”), and the propensity to offend with an offhand remark (President Obama, he once declared, spoke with “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one”).
To cap his career, though, Reid wants to leave the Senate better than he found it. For him, that would mean making sure a Democrat takes over his seat, and regaining control of the chamber.
“It’s his highest priority,” says Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who serves with Reid in leadership.
On the drive through Vegas, a reminder of his final-days checklist hovered like a vision on the skyline: a giant golden tower bearing the name TRUMP.
“Donald Trump was created by Republicans in the House and Senate,” he said, driving past the Trump International Hotel. “Every crazy idea he’s come up with was originally with them.” Birtherism, climate change denialism, strict immigration policies: These, Reid noted, all had homes in the Republican Congress long before Trump came onto the scene. Reid’s plan between now and Election Day is to travel the country reminding voters of this connection as they choose their down-ballot candidates.
He said he’s less interested in attacking Trump himself: There are plenty of other people for that. And yet, driving past Trump’s hotel, a resort that does not have a casino, Reid just couldn’t help himself.
“He couldn’t get a license,” Reid said matter-of-factly. “No question about it. Not a chance. I may not be an expert on a lot of stuff, but I’m an expert on gaming licenses. You can’t have filed 14 bankruptcies, cheat people out of stuff. In gaming circles, if somebody does something bad once, you can’t get a gaming license. He’s done something bad his whole life.”
Reid is not exactly correct here. Trump earned a license in 2004, but he hasn’t acted on it. Reid claimed that he has talked to the commissioner, and that if Trump were to try to build one now, he wouldn’t be able to. Not that he’s the type to let the facts get in the way of a good attack anyway: Despite getting pilloried from all sides for claiming without evidence that Romney got away without paying taxes, Reid has no regrets.
“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done,” he said.
Is there a line he wouldn’t cross when it comes to political warfare?
“I don’t know what that line would be,” he said.
Reid has seen the darker side of life. In Searchlight he learned to swim as a boy at the local brothel’s pool. He took over as gambling commissioner in Las Vegas while the mob was running the place. Reid believes that one of these two-bit crooks, a man named Jack Gordon, was the one who tried to bomb his family. Years earlier, Gordon had tried to bribe Reid to help get permission to install a new kind of gaming device for casino use. Reid alerted the feds, and when they arrested Gordon during a sting in Reid’s office, Reid put him in a chokehold, shouting, “You son of a bitch, you tried to bribe me.”
These are fond memories for Reid now, stories he was happy to tell as he drove past the El Cortez casino, where he used to collect his campaign cash (“the old rules were, you know, there were no rules”), past the Review-Journal newspaper (“my enemy for many years”) that was recently purchased by GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson (“he and I have a relationship: I don’t denigrate him and he doesn’t denigrate me”), and past the new Mob Museum, which he helped create with federal funds.
“He’s been remarkable for our state,” said Sig Rogich, a prominent Las Vegas Republican who worked for President George H.W. Bush. “I don’t like to lose Harry Reid for any reason.”
Reid loves Nevada, and Nevada loves him. He’s responsible for millions of dollars of federal funds and for keeping a nuclear waste dump out of Yucca Mountain. Back when he was able, he used to walk alone into the desert, just for the sounds, the smells and the loneliness.
Reid told the driver to head out of town, toward Henderson, where a young Reid used to hitchhike to high school from Searchlight. Here, just before the desert hits the city, Reid pointed to a line of factories and plants along the side of the highway.
His father, he said, used to work in many of these plants, but never for long. It wasn’t that the wages weren’t good (it was the best money his father ever made) or that he couldn’t do the job. But he was always drawn back to the one thing he ever truly loved: mining.
“He would always leave to go back to that crappy place,” Reid said. “As a miner he was big-time stuff. No one could muck more, drill more quickly than my dad.” It didn’t matter if it meant moving back to a house without a toilet, it didn’t matter if the hours were bad and the pay was worse. Harry Reid Sr. seemed to be happy only working underground.
“Kind of like me,” Reid said, comparing his dad’s affection for the mines with his own for the Senate. “This is just something I wanted to do, something I felt comfortable with.”
Which raises the question of what happens next. For the elder Harry Reid, life after work was no life at all. When old age and a weak body kept him from work, Reid’s father took his own life with a shotgun. He had left his mark, literally: The old miner had the habit of etching his initials into anything he could find: the wall of a mine, the trunk of a tree, or the side of a rock while on a cigarette break from his side job digging graves. When his family brought his body to the Searchlight cemetery in 1972, they found one of these rocks, tagged with an H and an R. They made it his gravestone. It’s still there today.
In his biography, the senator described it as a mark “as permanent . . . as a man can make for himself on this earth. It won’t be washed off by the rain. It won’t be faded by the sun. It won’t be diminished by time. It says: I was here.”
And what makes a man want to leave such a permanent mark? Pressed further, Sen. Reid made it clear he was done with metaphors. “He was probably bored,” he said, waving off any deeper significance. “What else was he going to do?”
Harry Reid may be feeling pretty sentimental these days. But he’s still Harry Reid.