Farewell Harry Reid, the Least Fashionable Man in Politics

It’s what made him great.

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid flanked by Senator Chuck Schumer delivers remarks to reporters after his final weekly Democratic caucus policy luncheon prior to his retirement, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. December 6, 2016.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, flanked by Sen. Chuck Schumer, delivers remarks after his final weekly Democratic caucus policy luncheon at the Capitol on Tuesday.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Whatever filter Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid ever had was fully removed the moment last year he decided not to run for re-election. He has been pure, uncut Harry Reid ever since, and I doubt he will remain quiet in his retirement. On Thursday morning, he delivered an hour-plus farewell speech from the floor of the Senate. It was equal parts recollection, digression, inadvertent humor, egotism, and poignancy. It was real, and it was a pleasure to watch.

Reid’s difficult childhood in Searchlight, Nevada, has been well-covered over the years. He doesn’t speak about it, or anything, really, in a well-prepared way. His voice is a plain vernacular with doses of humor and pettiness that he doesn’t inflect, or even recognize as such. He tells whatever stories pop into his head until someone cuts him off, and no one ever cuts him off:

But as I look back, it wasn’t that good, I guess. We had no inside toilet. We had a toilet outside. You had to walk about 50 yards to that, my dad didn’t want it close to the house. And we had a good time even with that. My poor mother, wonderful woman she was. My younger brother and I, sometimes just to be funny—she would go to the toilet, which had tin walls, tin, it was made out of tin, and we would throw rocks at that. “Let me out,” she would say. That doesn’t sound like much fun, but it was fun at the time.

He was ashamed and embarrassed about Searchlight. “When I went to college, was in high school, law school, I just didn’t want to talk about Searchlight. I was kind of embarrassed about it. It was kind of a crummy place. I didn’t show people pictures of my home.” Years later, Roots author Alex Haley was giving a speech in Reno. “He said be proud of who you are, you can’t escape who you are,” Reid remembered. “And I walked out of that event that night a different person. A new man. From that day forward, I was from Searchlight.”

He spoke at length about his legislative accomplishments. His accomplishments. He is not someone who will downplay or express some modesty over his ability to bring home money for his constituents, and he has no shame over what he was unable to achieve, either. Here is one example: He was speaking about what he had procured for Nevada transportation projects. Not one for artful segues, Reid began speaking about Nevada transportation by saying the words Nevada transportation:

Nevada transportation. McCarran airport field. I’ve tried for years to get the name taken off, a Democratic senator from Nevada who was an awful man. I tried to get his name off that, didn’t work. I tried to get J. Edgar Hoover’s name off the FBI building, that didn’t work. We had a vote here. I can still remember how mad Orrin Hatch was when I did that. But anyway, everybody had to vote on it. I think I made a mistake, I tried to name it after Bobby Kennedy. That was the mistake I made, I think. Anyway, McCarran airport. It’s, I think, the fifth-busiest airport in America now. We’ve gotten money for a new air traffic control center. It’s one of the largest structures in the Western United States. We’ve done a good job taking care of McCarran. All kinds of construction funding for runways, rehabilitation of the runways. In the stimulus bill, one of the last things we put in that was bonding capacity that allowed McCarran field to build a big new terminal. More than a billion dollars we got in that legislation. And it was really important during the recession, to have all those workers there, thousands and thousands, to work on that new terminal.

“OK, judiciary,” he said, beginning his segment on the judiciary. “I hear senators talk all the time about these judicial selection committees they have, to pick who they’re going to have on the federal bench. And I’m glad they do that, because I also have a judicial selection committee. And you know who’s on that committee? Me. No one else is on it. I select all my judges. I’m the committee. And I’m very happy with what I’ve been able to do.” This prompted some laughter in the chamber, and only the slightest of acknowledging smirks from Reid himself. He spoke of how he was able to stock the federal judiciary in Nevada with a diverse group of judges, when previously it had been all white men.

He spoke of suicide. Reid’s father “killed himself,” he said several times in the speech, without missing a beat:

We’ve directed spending to study why people kill themselves. Because we don’t know for sure. Isn’t it interesting that most of the suicides take place in the Western part of the United States? You would think it would be in those dark places like Maine and Vermont, where it’s so dark and cold. But no, it’s in the bright sunshine of the West. And so we’re learning a lot more. That has been so good to me as a person. And we have now funded projects around America where there are suicide prevention programs that are extremely important, there are suicide victims’ programs where people can get together after someone, a loved one, kills themselves. So, that’s something that I’m glad I worked on.

Harry Reid is everything unfashionable, and everything I like, in a politician. There is no performance, no art. He is not inspirational. He is curt. If he does not like you, he will tell you. If he’s only talking to you because his aides forced him to, he will tell you that, too. He does not care what the press says about him. He does not care how bad it looks for him to live in the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C. He is effective. He wins elections for Democrats in Nevada not through messaging or hiring the savviest data analysts. He wins because he controls Nevada politics and has built an effective political machine in Clark County that turns out the vote. He is proud of this. He is terse and fearless. He does not believe that Donald Trump deserves respect just because he won the election, and he is right. Harry Reid has earned everything he has, including the right to retire. It’s a tragedy for Democrats that he will not be in the Senate the next four years, resisting.