Harry M. Reid, the amateur boxer from a tiny mining town who clawed his way to the top of the national political ladder in Washington, never showed any sign of fear. But Friday, as he announced his exit plans, Reid admitted that he was “scared to death” when he finally got to the top.
After his colleagues elected him Senate minority leader in late 2004, he faced the press corps, unscripted.
“I know how to dance, I know how to fight. I’d rather dance than fight,” Reid (D-Nev.) said back then in a declaration that came to define his reign as this young century’s most influential senator.
After 28 years in the Senate, including eight as majority leader, Reid has more scars from political and legislative combat than any other serving senator. Following an accident while exercising on New Year’s Day, the Democratic leader now bears actual physical scars across his face.
Reid said that the decision to retire at the end of 2016 wasn’t about his health, even though he is still trying to fully recover sight in his right eye. He said he wasn’t worried about the tough reelection campaign he surely would have faced. Instead, Reid, 75, said he feared growing so old that his skills would begin to fade and his legacy would be tarnished.
“I want to be remembered for my first 34 years in Congress, not my last five or six,” Reid said Friday morning in an interview at his Washington home. He mentioned colleagues who stuck around too long. He said, “I’ve seen too many people who —” and stopped, resisting the impulse to publicly pass judgment on friends.
“I want to be able to be somebody that starts the game every day and can play. I don’t want to be a pinch hitter,” he said.
If Reid was going to be in the Senate, he wanted to be worthy of the fight, and the Senate over which he presided was a contentious and divided one for extended periods of time.
But his legacy will be defined just as much by his deft parliamentary maneuvers to push forward sweeping laws that might not have passed under different leadership.
In President Obama’s first month in office, Reid helped pass an $800 billion economic stimulus plan, an expansion of a children’s health program and a pay-equity law for female workers. Then, through the rest of 2009 and the first half of 2010, Reid used painstaking patience to shepherd the landmark Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank rewrite of Wall Street regulations into law.
It was an often ugly process that earned him a lot of enemies. His 12-year run as Democratic leader will be among the longest in history, and his actions have helped shape the way the Senate will function after he’s gone.
Some Republican strategists were gleeful at news of his departure — though there were those who so loathed him that they would have preferred to defeat him in 2016 rather than win the seat in a race against a non-
But his perennial adversary, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), praised Reid’s ability to make his opponents think they had him cornered, only to receive a sucker punch.
“Underestimated often, his distinctive grit and determined focus nevertheless saw him through many challenges. They continue to make him a formidable opponent today,” McConnell said in a statement.
Obama recognized the same trait when he surprised Reid by calling into a Las Vegas radio station Friday afternoon while the senator was being interviewed. “Harry is unique, and he has that curmudgeonly charm that’s hard to replace,” the president said.
Generationally and stylistically, Obama and Reid were worlds apart, but they came to rely on each other in a way that few presidents and congressional leaders have.
Reid often felt disdain for the senior White House staff’s handling of the administration and allowed his staff to publicly criticize the president and his aides.
Their successes, however, were inextricably linked. Reid helped nudge Obama into the presidential contest in 2007, and his work as majority leader provided a policy foundation from which the president won reelection in 2012.
“I’m one of the reasons that he’s president,” Reid said Friday, noting that their departures after 2016 is fitting. “He and I are gonna go out together.”
Despite a career that spanned a generation, Reid’s fight to pass what became widely known as Obamacare will be his defining moment. “He had this enormous patience,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who has been Reid’s No. 2 for a decade, said Friday. “The ACA was the most incredible political challenge.”
After the House, led by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), passed its version of the bill, Reid battled for weeks to line up all 60 Democrats to support his version.
McConnell threw up every roadblock until a Christmas Eve 2009 vote to pass the bill — only to see Democrats lose the special election four weeks later to replace the late Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Reid spent the next two months working with Pelosi to get the House to accept the Senate’s bill, because Reid no longer had the votes to overcome a GOP filibuster.
In the final days of negotiations, Reid recalled Friday, an aide broke into a leadership meeting to tell him horrifying news: His wife, Landra, and his daughter had been in a harrowing crash on Interstate 95. They survived, and when Reid won a grueling reelection campaign in November 2010, Landra was on stage with him.
Reid’s life story seems to come from a different era, before billionaires with super PACs groomed polished candidates who were coached to never make a gaffe for fear that someone might be recording that moment.
The son of a miner and a mother who washed clothes at a brothel, Reid grew up in a shack without plumbing. Local businessmen helped pay for his college tuition at Utah State University, and, after getting accepted into George Washington University Law School, he worked his way through to a law degree by serving as a Capitol Police officer.
His father killed himself in 1972.
Reid slowly climbed the ranks of local offices — including a stint as a Nevada gaming commissioner, during which he was targeted by the mafia — and in 1982 won a seat in the U.S. House. He gained his seat in the Senate in 1986 and has survived a series of close races ever since.
The consummate insider, Reid took all the tough jobs that many colleagues would not accept, earning credit and praise and rising in the ranks. When Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) lost his 2004 Senate race, Reid took the mantle as Democratic leader by acclamation.
Reid was famous for his sharp tongue. Critics called Reid’s most heated statements “gaffes,” but they missed the broader point: He meant most of his insults and often was proud of them.
He once called President George W. Bush a “liar” and later dubbed him a “loser” in front of a high school class in Las Vegas. He apologized later for calling him a loser — Bush was traveling abroad at the time — but took pride in never apologizing for the 2002 “liar” remark.
His soft-spoken utterances never matched the soaring oratory of contemporaries such as Kennedy, but his mastery of the Senate’s rules and an understanding of every senator’s personal and political needs made him a force.
Two days after the House choked on the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street in 2008, Reid and McConnell appeared late in the evening after every senator had gone home. They introduced the same legislation, but attached a massive package of popular, must-pass tax breaks that almost no one could oppose. It passed with huge bipartisan margins.
He said his one long-standing regret in life was losing his last boxing match in a split decision. “If I tried harder I could’ve won that fight. I’ve always regretted that.”
He said he is not certain what he will do next, other than battling to get Democrats back into the majority in 2017.
“We all find other fights,” Reid said.