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The Senator from Searchlight

As I emerge from my writing hiatus, I am channeling my dad who was an early riser and read two newspapers before my mom had opened her eyes each day. She always said that Dad was her alarm clock and way too often his morning greeting was “guess who died.” What a way to start the day.

Harry Reid, lawyer, and politician who served as a United States Senator from Nevada from 1987 to 2017, died on December 28, 2021. He was eighty-two. Reid had led the Democratic Caucus in the Senate for 12 years and was Senate Majority Leader from 2007 to 2015.

Harry was born in Searchlight, NV a desert boom town that grew out of a gold strike in 1897. His dad was a miner, and his mother was a laundress for one of the local brothels. The first house that he remembered was little more than a shack with no running water or indoor plumbing.

Side note: top of the list of unlikely natives of Searchlight, NV is costume designer Edith Head, who won more Oscars than any other woman in history.

From Harry Reid’s obituary in the Washington Post:

A combative but soft-spoken former amateur boxer, Mr. Reid displayed an economy of personal magnetism and embraced the art of the scrappy insult. Columnist Molly Ivin’s called him “charismatically challenged.” Obama, a friend, and political ally, euphemistically remarked on his “curmudgeonly charm.”

Here’s how I remember him.

It was a crisp Saturday morning in the winter of 2007. I didn’t usually work on Saturday mornings, but this was a different Saturday morning. Harry Reid, Majority Leader of the United States Senate, had asked for a behind the scenes tour and his office had specified Saturday morning. So, the Archivist of the United States, Dr. Allen Weinstein, Director of the Center for Legislative Archives, Richard Hunt, and I were working on Saturday morning.

Right on schedule, a black SUV appeared at the guard house at 9:00am and I watched as security looked in the passenger window, confirmed the occupant, and waived the driver on. I waited at the loading dock, my usual post when folks sporting security details drove into the building. As the car cruised to a stop, I walked down the ramp and greeted Leader Reid as he opened the front passenger door to hop out.

He was taller than I expected, dressed in a western-style tan suede zip-up jacket, a red and tan plaid shirt, and a light denim pair of daddy jeans. His shoes were side-buckle boot style a shade or two darker than his jacket. They had been polished, but not recently. His quiet, be-spectacled countenance was well known to political junkies everywhere, and it was cool to shake hands with him for the first time. Not known for saying the right thing, Reid’s first sentence was right on the mark with me. “Thanks for coming in on a Saturday to show me around.” No problem, I lied. And we were off.

I led Reid to the elevator (his one aide chose to stay behind with the car), and he immediately suggested that we do the stairs. Our banter was brief, but casual and easy. I had been warned by associates that Harry was as dry as the Nevada desert, had a scowl as his default expression, and was a man of few words. I remember thinking that this was going better than I expected.

Allen Weinstein awaited our arrival in his office and displayed his usual child-like delight to be in the presence of Washington super-stars. He got a faint smile from Reid, who I imagined was prepared not to like Allen. As a George W. Bush appointee, albeit to a non-political job, Weinstein’s association with the neo-cons put him outside of the Democratic Leader’s comfort zone.

We took turns showing Reid the goodies that we had made color facsimiles of as mementoes of his visit. We rolled out territorial records of Nevada, a copy of the Senator’s certification of election as a United States Senator, and other records to make the point that our national archives represent a collection of many local records. Harry got the point but seemed underwhelmed.

I recall that his demeanor changed when we went up into the stacks to visit the Legislative "Treasure Vault" and to meet Richard Hunt. Like his predecessor Dr. Mike Gillette, Richard is a natural showman, a knowledgeable archivist, and a wonderful host. He had arranged this newly renovated vault space for comfort of guests and had a horseshoe of tables opening to the modern shelves that held the goodies. He was able to pull the records from a pre-positioned book truck and walk into the horseshoe to describe the records and dramatically place them before our visitors. Comfortable chairs were the final amenities added.

Sporting his white cotton gloves, Richard presented the hand-corrected draft of the Bill of Rights, the last will and testament of Alexander Hamilton written just before his fatal duel with Aaron Burr in Weehawken, NJ, a complaint by a Tennessee still owner (Andrew Jackson) that the government owed him back taxes for the year his moonshine business went up in flames, a petition signed by the people of New Salem, Illinois (including one A. Lincoln) for a new postal road, and the commission of Ulysses S. Grant as General of the Army signed by President A. Lincoln. Each document was accompanied by Richard’s dramatic reveal, perfect length explanation, and presentation of historical context.

As was the case with most visitors, the Senator leaned closer to the documents with every new surprise. The room transformed from tension to relaxation and Reid began talking about the history of Searchlight Nevada, the Wild West judges of the Nevada territory, and some of the bareknuckle politics he grew up with. Priceless.

And then the pièce de resistance. We knew that Harry Reid converted to Mormonism while a college student and had held more public offices than any member of the Church in history. Our secret weapon with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was a handwritten declaration of Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, from the Territorial Records of Utah. It always struck the mark. It was like whipping out the original of St. Paul's letter to Ephesians for a Christian audience. It never failed to bring a final moment of awe and inspiration to a visit. Were those tears behind those rimless spectacles?

As I have thought about Harry Reid this week, I have contrasted him with other Senate leaders that I spent time with over the course of my career. His combative reputation and quiet reticence were not a great combination in a politician and my experience was that he didn’t “connect” at first meeting. We had to do all the work and it took the display of awe inspiring documentary history to lead him into conversation.

In contrast Tom Daschle, Trent Lott, Bill Frist, Howard Baker, and Bob Dole were all people with a smile and an outstretched hand and shared the gift of making you feel like you were standing on level ground. Robert Byrd and Ted Stevens both had cooler personalities, similar in demeanor to Reid.

My experience over 10 years with the current minority leader, Mitch McConnell is that it all depends on whether he wants something from you, or you want something from him. In the former, he is summer, but in the latter he is winter.


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