Ballot Box

Harry Reid Is Not Boring

Has Scorsese fictionalized your U.S. senator?

Like flies to wanton boys are politicians to the press. We kill them for our sport. But rarely has a public figure been subject to a campaign of character assassination as unfair as the one that’s targeted Harry Reid since the Nevada senator was chosen to replace Tom Daschle as Senate minority leader. A vast conspiracy has lacerated Reid as “plain,” or worse, boring. “As dry as the martinis he never drinks,” Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist Steve Sebelius told Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard, though Continetti devised an even better insult for the Democratic leader’s “soporific public persona”: Reid “might be taken for the man in the gray flannel suit’s shorter, quieter second cousin,” he wrote. The attacks on Reid’s charm deficit aren’t new—Congressional Quarterly noted 10 years ago, “Even Reid’s supporters call him ‘colorless’”—but Charles Babington of the Washington Post took the rhetoric to a new low last month when he declared that Reid “lacks Daschle’s flair.”

There was a time when a remark like that—akin to saying that someone lacks Emmanuel Lewis’s height—was considered out of the bounds of respectable Washington discourse. Granted, Reid compares poorly to say, Mary Lou Retton when it comes to charisma. But what congressional leader doesn’t? The Republican leadership, after all, includes Bill Frist and Mitch McConnell.

Reid may not be the most colorful figure in Washington, but his career is far more interesting than that of the average senator. In politics, Nevada is the next best thing to Louisiana. To take just one example, is there another U.S. senator who has been part of the inspiration for a character in a Martin Scorsese film? (A character played by Dick Smothers, no less.) In Casino, Robert DeNiro’s character melts down in front of the Nevada Gaming Commission after the commission denies him a license to operate a casino. The scene is loosely based on a December 1978 hearing when Reid was the commission’s chairman, and some of the dialogue spoken by Smothers is taken directly from Reid’s words during the hearing. (The rest of the scenes involving Smothers, who plays a composite politician known only as “Senator,” have nothing to do with Reid.) OK, it’s lackluster Scorsese, but at least it’s not Gangs of New York. And there are other Reid echoes in Casino: Joe Pesci’s character refers to a “Mr. Cleanface,” which gangster Joe Agosto said was his nickname for an in-his-pocket Reid, but a five-month investigation of Agosto’s claims cleared Reid of wrongdoing.

Sure, Reid can sap these stories of some of some of their innate interest. “Well, it’s true that when I served with the Gaming Commission that I had a number of threats on my life,” he told me during a brief interview earlier this week. When talking about taping the windows in his house to protect his family from the threat of shattered glass, he used the same tone that he used to discuss the importance of Senate procedure. But no matter what tone you use to discuss the fact that your wife once discovered a bomb wired to one of the family cars, it’s not boring.

Besides, on other occasions, Reid can, despite his reputation, give good quote. He has called the move to put a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain the “Screw Nevada Law.” On meeting his wife, he once told the Las Vegas Review Journal, “The first time I saw her, she was washing her parents’ car. She was wearing short shorts.” He’s a reliable defender of pork who once said, “I resent and object to people who refer to this as being ‘pork’ in the negative sense. Would they rather that money go to New Orleans?” He skipped the 1992 Democratic convention to stay home and campaign for re-election to the Senate, noting dryly that “it’s a foregone conclusion who is going to win” the nomination.

And here’s another story from Reid’s tenure as chairman of the gaming commission: A man named Jack Gordon, who later married LaToya Jackson, tried to give Reid a $12,000 bribe. Reid let the FBI videotape Gordon offering him the bribe, and then, according to a Las Vegas Review-Journal account, he “put his hands around Gordon’s neck and said, ‘You son of a bitch, you tried to bribe me.’” That’s right, Senate Democrats are being led by a man who once tried to strangle LaToya Jackson’s future husband-manager. You call that boring?

Even if he had never served on the gaming commission, Reid’s biography would still be a better read than the average senator’s. He is the son of an alcoholic gold miner who killed himself. His mother did laundry for, in Reid’s words, “houses of ill repute.” He once disguised himself as a homeless man and spent the night at a mission in Las Vegas. Quirkily, he never says good-bye, even to his children, when he hangs up the phone. He once filibustered the Republicans for nine hours, by himself, by reading from the history book he wrote about his hometown of Searchlight, Nev. (Even better, the reason for the filibuster was to prevent the GOP from protesting the delaying tactics being used by Democrats.) And just this past week in Time, Reid told Joe Klein that he got into a fistfight with his future father-in-law before he eloped with his wife.

I’ll concede. Harry Reid is no Tom Daschle. Whether that will be good for the Democrats remains to be seen. But it won’t be boring.