Opinion: The moment Harry Reid went against the establishment

“I just had the strangest conversation with Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer,” he told me, fresh from a meeting with the US Senate Democratic leaders. “I didn’t know why they were calling me over there. Turns out they wanted to tell me I should run for president.”

Reid, then Senate minority leader, argued that, unlike the presumptive frontrunner — Hillary Clinton — Obama was untainted by a vote for the unpopular war in Iraq, an albatross the leader feared would sink her and take some of his party’s Senate candidates down in the undertow. Far from viewing Obama’s newness to Washington, DC, as an impediment, Reid, who had served there for over 20 years, argued that the young senator’s freshness would be an asset to a country hungry for change.

“They pushed me pretty hard to think about it,” Obama told me, still absorbing the full meaning of what had just transpired. “I still think it’s pretty far-fetched, but it’s interesting that they felt as strongly as they do.”

I can’t say that Obama would never have come around to the idea of running for president without the quiet encouragement of Reid that spring. But I can say for sure that their conversation made a deep impression on the young senator, who knew that Reid hadn’t fought his way up through the rough-and-tumble of Nevada politics and the ranks of the US Senate by making careless bets.

The fact that the leader would buck the party establishment, of which he was part, by planting the seeds of an insurgency was an unexpected turn that begged serious consideration.

As different as they seemed, a tremendous bond grew between the understated Reid — who died Tuesday at 82 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer — and the charismatic young president he helped propel forward. Reid’s improbable rise from hardscrabble beginnings in the tiny brothel town of Searchlight, Nevada, was the stuff of legends, and he saw in Obama someone who had overcome his own hardships — along with withering racial barriers — to achieve unimaginable heights.
After the election of 2008, Reid, by then Senate majority leader, sat down with President-elect Obama. A prizefighter in his youth, Reid made a point by recalling his days in the ring. “I wasn’t the fastest guy. I wasn’t the strongest. But I sure could take a punch!”
And he would take, and throw, many punches for Obama’s agenda. Along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Reid’s persistence helped deliver the Affordable Care Act after an epic battle, an achievement which he said had particular meaning to him because of the privations he had seen uninsured family members and neighbors suffer in his life.
“I felt a tremendous pressure to get it done. And having been raised the way that I was with no health care, my mother had no teeth, we didn’t go to doctors… it was one of the landmark pieces of legislation in the history of this country,” he told me in 2019.

But if Reid, who served as the Democratic leader for 12 years, was a point man for his president, he also was a hard-nosed realist when it came to protecting the members of his caucus from unnecessarily risky votes.

He called me in the early summer of 2009 and wanted to talk about a cap-and-trade bill we had passed through the US House of Representatives to reduce the carbon emissions that were accelerating climate change. The bill was controversial in energy-producing states, and the House vote had been a heavy lift. Now we were hoping for a vote in the Senate, which we knew would be even more challenging.

“You know we have a lot going on up here this summer, what with the health care bill and a lot of other things we absolutely have to get done,” Reid said. “So we’re not going to get to the climate bill.” He paused. “Would you tell the President?” At that moment, the line went dead, which is how every telephone conversation with the leader ended.

“I’m not much for small talk. The conversation was over; we’d done our business. There’s no need to talk anymore,” he explained to me in 2019 when I asked him about this and his legendary habit of ending calls without saying goodbye.

Throughout those years, Reid tangled regularly with Mitch McConnell, who as the Senate Republican leader, led an implacable opposition to Obama, including the brazen decision to block the Senate for the better part of the President’s final year from taking up the nomination of Merrick Garland to the US Supreme Court.

When I last sat down with Reid for “The Axe Files,” Reid had plenty to say about that blockade, yet he refrained from making it personal. A proud and pugnacious partisan, he also was a man of the institution. At the end of his life, he was not going to impugn his longtime adversary.

“I know Mitch McConnell very well, and I’m not going to disparage him here today,” he said. “But I have been somewhat disappointed. I think what he did with the Supreme Court is something that will go down in history as a very dark time in the history of this country.”

Reid was a rare person in today’s politics. A plainspoken man, allergic to flowery rhetoric and performative politics; relentless — even ruthless — in pursuit of legislative and electoral victories but animated by time-honored verities and ideals to which he held fast until the end.

And he was palpably proud of his partnership with the 44th president.

On the last lap of Obama’s final campaign in 2012, we made a stop for a rally in Las Vegas. Reid had requested a minute with Obama to ask him to cut an ad for Mazie Hirono, the Democratic Senate candidate in Hawaii. But after he made the ask, the leader suddenly reached out and hugged the President, a physical display of fellowship and affection that surprised us. Then he turned abruptly and, like a Reid phone call, he was gone without another word.

In 2019, I asked him about that moment and his relationship with the President for whom he had made such a difference.

“Well, I don’t hesitate to say on this show, I don’t care who’s listening and this is something I don’t throw around very often, but I love Barack Obama, I really do,” he told me. “No one else could do what he did.”

Right back at you, Sen. Reid. May you rest in peace. And may your remarkable memory always be a blessing.

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