The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Harry Reid remembered by friends and foes for reshaping Senate, Supreme Court and Obama presidency

The late Harry M. Reid was remembered as a fierce advocate for his home state of Nevada. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
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Harry M. Reid, who died Tuesday at age 82, was one of the longest-serving Senate majority leaders in the history of the United States. He was remembered by Republican opponents and his fellow Democrats as one of the nation’s most consequential lawmakers during two presidencies, for his support for young leaders and for a sometimes hidden personal warmth.

Reid, who represented Nevada in the Senate for 30 years, played a key role in the rescue of the American economy during the housing market crisis of the late 2000s and was instrumental in the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Flags at the Capitol will be lowered to half-staff in his honor, and Las Vegas’s international airport was recently renamed after him.

Here is how Reid was remembered in the hours following his death.

Support for young Democrats

Former president Barack Obama recalled Reid pushing him to run for the White House even as a first-term junior U.S. senator from Illinois.

“I wouldn’t have been president had it not been for your encouragement and support, and I wouldn’t have got most of what I got done without your skill and determination,” Obama wrote in a letter to Reid, which was released to the public after the former majority leader’s death.

“If you want to be president, you can be president now,” Reid recalled telling Obama in his 2009 biography.

The Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, is a centerpiece of Obama’s political legacy and was passed while Reid was the top Senate Democrat.

Another protege was Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who was a little-known Harvard law professor in 2008 when Reid asked her to serve on a panel overseeing a bailout of financial institutions threatened by the subprime mortgage crisis. That appointment elevated her national profile and propelled her to the Senate and a bid for the presidency.

“I will never forget the night in 2008 when he first asked me to come to Washington. … I figured out that when Harry calls, say yes,” Warren said in a statement. “He gave me a chance to serve, and he supported me every step of the way.”

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Humble Origins

While he was known as the consummate inside player in the nation’s capital, Reid was also remembered for how his beginnings in the mining town of Searchlight, Nev., grounded his political career.

President Biden, whose successful 2020 election campaign played up his own hardscrabble roots in Scranton, Pa., said the two men came from places where values like “loyalty,” “faith,” “resolve” and “service” run deep.

“If Harry said he would do something, he did it. If he gave you his word, you could bank on it,” Biden said in a statement. “That’s how he got things done for the good of the country for decades.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a longtime political foe of Reid, called his opponent’s rise a “quintessentially American story” that bore the marks of his “legendary toughness, bluntness, and tenacity.”

A onetime amateur boxer, Reid’s instinct to “fight for those hurting the poor and the middle class” guided his way, said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), who was Reid’s successor as the Democratic leader in the Senate.

He “was tough-as-nails strong, but caring and compassionate, and always went out of his way quietly to help people who needed help,” Schumer said in a statement.

In a statement, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) recounted a friendship with Reid that dated to their days in the Young Democrats organization.

“Born in Searchlight, he grew up to become a beacon of hope and an example for so many who, like him, came from difficult circumstances but never stopped striving for the American Dream,” Hoyer said.

Changing the nation’s political landscape

Reid’s most controversial — and arguably most consequential — move came in 2013, after Republicans filibustered a series of Obama nominees. Under his leadership, Democrats pushed through a rules change lowering the threshold for confirmation (except for Supreme Court nominees) from 60 votes to a simple majority.

The GOP blasted the changes at the time, but after regaining control of the Senate chamber, they loosened the “nuclear option” further to confirm Neil M. Gorsuch, an appointee of President Donald Trump, to the Supreme Court. Gorsuch was subsequently followed by Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, giving the nation’s top court a clear conservative majority for the first time in decades.

“Reid will be most remembered in his Senate career for three things,” wrote the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a Nevada newspaper that has often clashed with Reid, naming the exercise of “the ‘nuclear option’ of modifying the Senate’s infamous filibuster rule” among them.

In a statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that Reid would be remembered “as one of the most impactful Leaders of the Senate in history, helping to steer this institution with reverence, principle and command.”

“In the Congress, his strategic mind was legendary and unsurpassed — and he was a master of the legislative process during his service in both the House and the Senate,” Pelosi said.

Hidden warmth beneath a combative surface

Reid carried himself with a combativeness that once led columnist Molly Ivins to call him “charismatically challenged.”

Among the anecdotes of the man that circulated on social media late Tuesday was one dating back to 1978, when Reid chaired the Nevada Gaming Commission. An entertainment manager tried to bribe him with $12,000 in return for approval of two casino games, only to have Reid inform the FBI. Reid also tried to choke the manager, Jack Gordon (later the husband of LaToya Jackson), before being pulled away by federal agents.

But there were also signs of significant personal warmth for people facing challenge and tragedy. Natalie Ravitz, a former chief of staff to conservative media magnate Rupert Murdoch, recalled Reid comforting her at a particularly trying time. She was working for Sen. Paul D. Wellstone in 2002, when the Minnesota Democrat died in a plane crash along with seven others, including Ravitz’s boyfriend and a fellow Wellstone staffer.

That same day, Reid invited Ravitz for a private conversation during which the two shared stories about Wellstone. “He said he knew I had lost my home and my job, but I had one with him whenever I was ready,” Ravitz wrote in a widely circulated Twitter thread. “The empathy and emotional fortitude he showed that day has stuck with me always.”

Elsewhere on social media, Republicans recalled a less charitable moment: Reid’s attack on Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) when the latter was the GOP presidential nominee in 2012. Reid had falsely accused Romney on the Senate floor of not paying taxes for years, though Romney later released proof that he had paid millions in 2010 and 2011.

When confronted by his false allegation years later, an unrepentant Reid defended his attack by saying, “Romney didn’t win, did he?

Michael H. Brown and John Wagner contributed to this report.

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