Sunday, April 26, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid encouraged Barack Obama to run for president in early 2007, telling the then-freshman senator if wanted the White House, he could win it, according to an epilogue to Reid’s autobiography to be released next month.
Reid’s advice came unsolicited, the majority leader told the Las Vegas Sun in an interview.
Reid said he invited Obama to his office off the Senate floor ostensibly to discuss other matters. But actually the majority leader brought the young senator in to tell him, as Reid writes in the book, “If you want to be president, you can be president now.”
Reid recalled Obama as uncertain, even doubtful of his presidential prospects, according to the epilogue in “The Good Fight: Hard Lessons from Searchlight to Washington.”
“I think he was kind of surprised by the conversation,” Reid told the Sun last week. Reid could not recall the exact date of their talk. Obama filed papers to run in mid-January 2007, with a public plan to announce his formal candidacy almost a month later.
This new, final chapter is a game-changer in the Reid-Obama relationship and reveals a deeper and potentially more intimate bond between the two men than Washington may have realized.
The disclosure also forces a reassessment of Reid’s steadfast neutrality during the prolonged Democratic presidential nomination of 2008.
Reid remained publicly neutral throughout a race that drew a wide pool of Democratic contenders, including several senators and longtime colleagues. Many political observers quietly speculated that Reid secretly supported Hillary Rodham Clinton, the New York senator.
Reid has a long relationship with Clinton and her husband, the former president. Reid’s eldest son, Rory Reid, the Clark County Commission chairman in Las Vegas, was chairman of Sen. Clinton’s Nevada campaign.
“Everybody thought I was, but I wasn’t” supporting Clinton over other candidates, Reid told the Sun. Maintaining that neutrality was difficult, Reid said, “because I so badly wanted somebody to win.”
The question now arises: Was Reid neutral in his heart?
“I was as neutral in my head and my heart as I could be,” he said.
Obama narrowly lost the Nevada caucus to Clinton in January 2008, but after winning the nomination, won the swing state by double-digit margins in November.
The epilogue to the paperback edition of “The Good Fight,” like the autobiography itself, is a reminder that although the majority leader has come a long way from his hardscrabble hometown of Searchlight, the tough times of his youth are never far from the him.
When asked last week why he encouraged Obama early in the presidential contest, Reid returned to his past.
“There’s no concise way to say it other than this: He and I were born and raised in just different parts of the world, but our backgrounds are similar, in that he had a few obstacles in his way as he grew up,” Reid said.
“So that made me be able to identify with him, I think, a lot more than some others.”
Reid said he and Obama never again discussed the Illinois senator’s presidential prospects. Reid never shared the private conversation with any other Democratic presidential contender, including Clinton.
The majority leader dismisses the influence he may have had on the future president or how his surprising revelation may strike the other presidential candidates. “That I thought that Obama would be somebody who could get elected? That shouldn’t surprise anybody,” he said.
Critics may see his revelation as politically expedient, a convenient memory to secure one’s place on the winning team and the right side of history after Obama’s historic election.
Reid surely must have similarly encouraged others to run, as well, didn’t he?
Yet the epilogue reveals that after most of an adult lifetime in politics, Reid, who turns 70 this year, was genuinely moved by Obama’s potential. The forthcoming text reveals an early encounter between the two in 2005, after the then-new senator delivered his first Senate floor speech, which concerned the Bush administration’s war policy.
Reid and Obama spoke afterward by the young senator’s desk in the chamber. Reid writes that he told Obama the speech was phenomenal and the future president responded in a quiet voice full of humility: “I have a gift, Harry.”
Reid said in the interview that he crafted that scene in the epilogue carefully. He did not want to give the impression that Obama was bragging when in fact, his demeanor was quite the opposite.
“It didn’t take me back at all,” Reid said. “It was just very appropriate.”
The slim, 15-page epilogue is titled “The Obama Era,” but it also provides insight into Reid’s intentions as he leads the party in the Senate. They are not likely to please the political left in his party.
Reid delivers a scathing rebuke of ideological zealotry and offers an impassioned defense of pragmatism.
“If the last few years have shown anything, it is that ideologically extreme views do not lend themselves to good governance,” Reid writes.
“We cannot and must not govern in a way that merely demonstrates to the world that we can behave just as arrogantly as the Republicans did when they held the majority in Congress.”
The words do more than explain Reid. They attempt to put the majority leader and the president on the same page, literally, as they advance the Democratic agenda.
Reid writes: “This is the meaning of Barack Obama’s message, and the promise of his presidency.”
For Reid, zealotry no longer holds interest as a means to an end. “I want people to look back at me as someone who was able to get things done,” Reid told the Sun.
“I think I am an expert on getting things passed,” he said. “And before anyone gets too high and mighty about principles, they should understand that principles are in the eye of the beholder.”
And then the senator of Mormon faith said: “This isn’t like saying Mass.” There are no prescribed rituals. Every step requires compromise.
“I’m not going to do things I don’t believe in,” he said. “I’m going to do what I think is right, within the framework of how I believe a legislator must act.”
The epilogue makes other news that promises to be of interest to students of Washington politics.
Reid discloses that he never intended to exile Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Independent Democrat from Connecticut, for his support of Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona — and he told Obama as much in Nevada several days before the election.
“This decision had not so much to do with forgiveness as it did with simple math,” Reid writes. Even with an enhanced majority, he would need Lieberman’s votes to approach the 60 necessary to assure advancement of many Democratic initiatives.
Reid notes that neither he, nor Obama, much enjoys chatting on the phone. Reid is famous for ending telephone conversations without a goodbye.
One wonders: Do the majority leader and the president hang up on each other?
In another passage, Reid tallies his new majority after last fall’s election as 59 Democratic senators — jumping the gun a bit on the still contested Minnesota race.
Perhaps the most chilling side of the epilogue is Reid’s recounting of the economic crisis unfolding last fall. Congressional leaders convened an emergency meeting one Thursday evening before the Wall Street bailout vote. They were given a stark warning by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve.
The contents of that meeting have rarely been shared publicly. Those attending would say only that they were told the economic situation facing the financial markets was dire.
Reid writes they were told there would be no economy on Monday.
“The Good Fight” did not rise to the national best-seller list on initial release last year. It is, however, more popular on Amazon.com than Reid’s earlier book, a dryly written history of his hometown.
All royalties from “The Good Fight,” $110,000 so far, go to charities, mainly in Nevada, according to the senator’s office.
Reid, who wrote the book with Mark Warren, said in the interview that he is glad the work is done. He thought his story of Obama “was a little interesting tidbit to put in there.”
Then Reid mused about his next project. “What I think I should do is write an epilogue to my history book, ‘Searchlight.’ ”