During a long, combative career in US political life, Harry Reid, who has died aged 82, made his most telling contribution as Democrat majority leader in the Senate. There, in 2010, he pushed through and then vigorously defended President Barack Obama’s groundbreaking healthcare reforms.
Given the huge strength of Republican feeling against “Obamacare”, the president needed a streetfighter to drive his measures through to the statute book – and Reid was the man for the job. Quietly spoken but toughened by a hard early life and years spent swimming in the shark-infested waters of Nevada politics, he fought through the deeply polarised atmosphere that surrounded Obama’s health reforms to shepherd the Affordable Care Act through the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Just as importantly, he defended that landmark piece of legislation – which aimed to extend health insurance to more than 30 million uninsured people – against repeated attempts at derailment by a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
In particular, he orchestrated Senate resistance to House amendments that would have emasculated Obamacare, and in 2013 brokered a deal that ended a partial government shutdown engineered by Republicans in protest at the legislation.
Obamacare aside, in Washington Reid was a centrist Democrat, and for the liberal wing of the party far less dependable than his firebrand counterpart in the House, Nancy Pelosi.
He was opposed to abortion, supported the 1991 Gulf war, and at first backed George W Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, although in 2007 he came out against the second conflict there. He also raised more than a few hackles when he observed that Obama had been helped in his presidential campaign because he was “light-skinned”.
But Reid survived that problem, as he survived so many others on the road to his elevated position in the Senate, and Obama acknowledged the early encouragement that Reid had given to his presidential aspirations. To the Democrats, he was a usefully blunt, outspoken scrapper who was happy to tackle the Republicans head on – and was prepared to publicly call Bush a “liar” and a “loser”. Although a pragmatist, he would not cut deals with the Republican leadership on what he saw as vital issues.
“I know my limitations,” he once said. “I haven’t gotten where I am by my good looks, my aesthetic ability, my great brain or my oratorical skills.” Reid’s strengths were his sheer energy and political shrewdness, honed during a long rise to the top from difficult beginnings.
He was born in Searchlight, Nevada, a tiny, searingly hot former gold-mining town in the Mojave desert, in a shack that had no toilet or hot water. Until the 1950s, Searchlight was best known for a notorious brothel called the El Rey, where it was said that Reid’s mother, Inez (nee Jaynes), did the laundry. His father, Harry Sr, was a miner and an alcoholic; in 1972 he shot himself.
There was no high school in Searchlight, so Reid had to stay with relatives 40 miles away in Henderson, outside Las Vegas, where he went to high school at Basic Academy. His lucky break came there in the burly shape of Mike O’Callaghan, the school’s football and boxing coach. Young Reid was tough: he boxed as a middleweight and played on the football team. “I’d rather dance than fight, but I know how to fight,” he said later.
An ambitious young man, he graduated from Utah State University, where he became a Mormon. He went to Washington DC and found a job with the US Capitol police, who are charged with protecting Congress, while he worked for a law degree at George Washington University.
From there he returned to Nevada to become a prosecutor and, shortly after his father’s suicide, married Landra Gould, the daughter of Jewish immigrants.
He soon became involved in Democratic politics, first in Henderson and then statewide. By 1968 he was a member of the state assembly and in 1970 was asked by his high school mentor, O’Callaghan, to run with him. O’Callaghan was elected governor of the state and Reid became his lieutenant governor.
In 1974 he ran for the Senate, but was narrowly beaten by Ronald Reagan’s friend Paul Laxalt. In 1975 he stood, again unsuccessfully, for mayor of Las Vegas, a city dominated by gambling, tourism and entertainment.
From 1977 to 1981 he was chair of the Nevada Gaming Commission, a job that was to be the making of him. When he was offered a bribe of $12,000 by Jack Gordon, the Las Vegas gambling and prostitution operator, Reid tipped off the FBI. At the moment when Gordon produced the money, FBI agents rushed in; he was sentenced to six months in prison. In 1981, a bomb was found under Reid’s car, which he always blamed on Gordon’s heavies.
After that, the more respectable elements of the US gambling industry supported Reid, although his opponents repeatedly tried to tar him with suggestions of ethical violations.
In 1982 he was elected to the House of Representatives from the Las Vegas district, and served there until 1986, when he entered the Senate for the first time. He was re-elected easily in 1992, but six years later was nearly beaten in a high-spending campaign that his Republican opponent, John Ensign, a man with casino connections, freely conceded was “nasty”. Nonetheless, Reid and Ensign eventually became good friends as Nevada’s two senators.
By 2004, when Reid’s time for re-election came around again, Nevada’s population had grown so fast that many of his constituents had never heard of their senior senator. So Reid raised a lot of money for a campaign to make himself known. He became the leader of the Democratic minority in the Senate in 2005 after Tom Daschle failed to be re-elected, and after the 2006 election – when the Democrats benefited from the unpopularity of the Iraq war and the mishandling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – he was confirmed as the Democrats’ majority leader, serving in that role until 2015.
He retired from the Senate as minority leader by not seeking re-election in 2016, following injuries in an accident with exercise equipment in his home. In 2018 he revealed that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Reid was known in Washington for his terse manner. In a tribute to him in 2019, Obama joked: “Even when I was president, he would hang up on me.” Shortly before his death, Las Vegas’s airport was renamed after him.
Reid is survived by Landra and by their four sons and one daughter.
Harry Mason Reid, politician, born 2 December 1939; died 28 December 2021
In national newspapers an obituary (obit for short) is a news article that reports the recent death of a prominent person. Although it tends to focus on positive aspects of the subject’s life this is not always the case. According to Nigel Farndale, the Obituaries Editor of The Times: “Obits should be life affirming rather than gloomy, but they should also be opinionated, leaving the reader with a strong sense of whether the subject lived a good life or bad; whether they were right or wrong in the handling of their public affairs.”
In local newspapers, an obituary may be published for any local resident upon death. A necrology is a register or list of records of the deaths of people related to a particular organization, group or field, which may only contain the sparsest details, or small obituaries. Historical necrologies can be important sources of information.