Leila Navidi / FILE PHOTO
Sunday, April 27, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
We can better understand now what kind of a man Harry Reid is — the Senate majority leader who, leaving a contentious White House meeting on the Iraq war, made no effort to politely shake hands with the president of the United States.
This is the same Harry Reid who, while courting the high school sweetheart who would become his wife, punched out his future father-in-law.
Such are the details of Reid’s life, known to his Nevada friends but enlightening to others, running throughout his autobiography, due out this week. They help us appreciate what shaped the man and, as the book takes us from Reid’s boyhood in melancholy Searchlight to the halls of Washington, they show us how he has made struggle an art form. The title seems fitting: “The Good Fight.”
Reid is engaged in what many students of American political history see as an epoch-defining battle, retaking the country in a direction away from a presidency he believes may be the worst ever. His book will surely be read for clues.
One revelation seems certain. The farther Reid moves from his dusty Searchlight, the closer it grows to his heart. This is a man who dug graves as a child and, as a young man, bought his mom a set of teeth so she wouldn’t have to gum her food.
The grooves that poverty wears in a person do not easily smooth, even for a senator now living at The Ritz-Carlton.
They grow more defined with time and will inform a future.
And they certainly framed a tense confrontation with President Bush that plays out intimately in the book:
Shortly after Reid became majority leader of the U.S. Senate in 2006, he had an audience with the president.
The two famously do not get along. Reid had called him a liar, twice, and meant it. Bush tried to smooth over their past differences.
The president was facing a new political landscape with Democrats controlling Congress for the first time in his administration. “We’re both just two dudes from the West,” Bush suggested.
Reid went silent.
“I hoped his overture was genuine this time,” Reid writes. “But I’d seen this before and was dubious that he was sincere. And in any case, our life experiences as ‘two dudes from the West’ could not have been more different... So as he and I sat there in the Oval Office, I said little in return.
“I hadn’t done as well as I had for Nevada in the House and Senate for more than two decades by being false, and I wasn’t going to start now. Even if that meant a somewhat awkward moment with the president of the United States.”
Upstaged by Pelosi
Americans don’t know much about the man who runs the U.S. Senate. When he rose to become one of the nation’s most powerful politicians, the country was more interested in the first female speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, than the small, tired-looking grandpa who often talks in a whisper. Polls show Americans are unsure whether they like or dislike Reid because they have no idea who he is.
That’s too bad.
Because love him or hate him — and Nevadans do both — Reid is a man for the history books.
The autobiography he has penned, with the thoughtful help of Esquire magazine Executive Editor Mark Warren, is Reid freed from the talking points that monopolize political discourse and leave so many of these books sounding like greatest hits from the campaign trail.
He is at his best like this, when he lets his humor and insight flow dangerously unchecked. His wit is born straight from the desert — harsh, dry, unrelenting.
Some may squirm, but heroes of the West and of American political writing, Mark Twain and Will Rogers (who both have cameos in the book), would be proud.
“The Good Fight: Hard Lessons From Searchlight to Washington” is a wholly American story. It’s about coming from a rough beginning — “Searchlight never became a ghost town, but it sure tried” — and having the artfulness to embrace that imperfect past while moving forward.
“I believe something to be right and I do it,” Reid writes in the opening chapter. “And then I don’t worry about it. This has not always necessarily served me well, but it is who I am.
“I can be no one else,” Reid continues. “Coming from where I come from, you quickly learn to accept that, and get on with it.”
At a time when Americans have grown so tired of real people acting fake that they have found great relief being entertained by fakers like Stephen Colbert pretending to be real, Reid’s book may speak a welcome language.
At the very least, it will give the majority leader’s press office a few sleepless nights.
Gets right to Bush
By Page 3 Reid has started in about his famously strained relationship with Bush. He recounts a story about Sen. Lloyd Bentsen’s briefing him, in fall 1988, on then-President-elect Bush, the senior. Bentsen was praising the elder Bush, but warned, “Watch out for his wife; she’s a bitch.”
“I have never had anything against Mrs. Bush,” Reid writes, “but guided by Bentsen’s crude advice, I’ve always said that our forty-third president is more his mother than his dad.”
It’s that kind of book. In 10 neat chapters, alternating between the old days back home to recent political battles on the Hill, is plenty of Reid lore.
(One of the book’s two dedications is to Mike O’Callaghan, Reid’s longtime friend and mentor, and a former editor of the Sun.)
Those who know the Searchlight-to-Washington narrative will recognize stories about Reid’s mom taking in the laundry from the Searchlight brothels to help make ends meet. Or Reid’s learning to swim in a hotel pool on Thursday afternoons — when the “whoremonger” shooed the women away. Reid’s wife finding a bomb under their car when he ran Nevada’s Gaming Commission. His father, an alcoholic miner, who finally got sober only to commit suicide the following year.
Meat in the messy details
While many politicians work hard to keep their personal affairs confined to a tidy narrative, Reid has learned to let his spill over with the messy details that make a life worth living.
He writes about being a boy who learned about the outside world each Christmas through the Sears catalog that later doubled as the family’s toilet paper.
He first lays eyes on his future wife, who was washing the family car in their Henderson driveway, with this thought: “Wow, that’s a pretty nice car washer.”
One morning driving to work at the Gaming Commission he almost pulled his gun because of noise in the back seat — only to discover his young pajama-clad son sneaking a ride with Dad.
He names names when he writes about Republican senators who wanted to change course in the war in Iraq last spring, but didn’t.
Bush appears throughout, adding to the volumes already written about the debated presidency.
Some readers may find such combativeness distasteful. Why discuss the pleasure of having “beat the crap” out of the annoying boy at school? And about the language — Reid quotes others using the F- word and history using the N-word. (He said last week he checked with one of the House’s leading civil rights-era lawmakers before doing that.)
But this is not gratuitous verbal violence. The cliche of Reid as an amateur boxer moves in this book from caricature to character — whether it’s as a little kid looking for a rabbit to shoot for dinner or a senator trying to stop a president from privatizing Social Security.
This is Reid’s debut on the national stage. His book is coming out at a time when the Democratic Party is desperately searching for its new leader.
Reid, who has remained steadfastly neutral in the presidential primary, drops only a couple of lines each on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, “both of whom are extraordinary.” Clinton is “as tough and smart as any senator I’ve seen.” Obama is the “dynamic young freshman senator from Illinois.”
On past leaders, he has more to say. He ranks the presidents with whom he has served. (No surprise here. The younger Bush, “King George,” is the worst.) And the House speakers — Pelosi “is the best among them.” She has her own book coming out this year.
As in all autobiographies, memory is selective. Reid devotes just a few pages to epic battles in Nevada, never mentioning the controversies over land use and water rights that continue to fuel his home-state opposition today. Nor does he mention the scuffles over his land dealings or holiday bonuses for the staff at his condo at The Ritz-Carlton in Washington that portrayed him poorly in national headlines.
Avoiding the bumps
Reid faces reelection in 2010, and better to steer around the bumps in a politically split state that has rarely let him enjoy an easy victory. His book — proceeds from which will go to charity — instead gives those on both sides of the aisle a candidate they might like — a deeply religious, gun-toting, anti-flag-burning politician who has no trouble questioning the accuracy of Iraq war Gen. David Petraeus.
Unlike classic tales of Nevada’s pioneers, Reid’s is a more modern story of the West. The lead character didn’t move to the desert to start over, but began here and moved on.
Heroes in the West tend toward the anti-hero genre. Plenty of people will never see Reid as anything but a villain. But for those who see a hero, Reid will be one made in the West.