Harry Reid Has a Few Words for Washington

Early on the afternoon of Dec. 11, about an hour after an Oval Office meeting between President Trump, the Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and the incoming House speaker Nancy Pelosi devolved on live TV into a shouting match — a “tinkle contest with a skunk,” in Pelosi’s postgame grandiloquence — I pulled up to a McMansion in a gated community outside Las Vegas. I presented my ID and pre-issued bar-code pass to a security guard. Another guard emerged from a sedan in the driveway, instructed me to leave my rental car across the street and pointed me to the front door.

“I put this out here because I knew you were coming,” Harry Reid, the former Senate leader, said, pointing to a large gold menorah on his desk. It was not clear whether Reid had someone buy the menorah especially for my visit or just keeps one lying around in case some reporter of (nominal) Jewish identity happens to drop by around Hanukkah. (Reid’s wife, Landra, was raised in a Jewish household in Los Angeles before she and Reid converted to Mormonism together, after they married.) Either way, Reid seemed both amused and pleased with himself, as if he could see that I was not quite sure how to receive this odd-duck gesture. During his time in office, he always got a kick out of embracing the awkward panders of political life, even if — especially if — they mocked the refinements of smoother politicians than him.

Reid, who is 79, does not have long to live. I hate to be so abrupt about this, but Reid probably would not mind. In May, he went in for a colonoscopy, the results of which caused concern among his doctors. This led to an M.R.I. that turned up a lesion on Reid’s pancreas: cancer. Reid’s subdued and slightly cold manner, and aggressive anticharisma, have always made him an admirably blunt assessor of situations, including, now, his own: “As soon as you discover you have something on your pancreas, you’re dead.”

I had planned to visit Reid, who had not granted an interview since his cancer diagnosis, in November, but he put me off, saying he felt too weak. People close to him were saying that he had months left, if not weeks. Valedictories were planned, and lifetime awards were bestowed. Efforts were underway to rename the Las Vegas airport in his honor, preferably before his own time of departure. Reid refuses to believe that this honor will ever happen. “When I practiced law, I did a lot of personal-injury work, and I never spent one penny until that check was cashed,” he explained to me.

When I went to see him in December, he was confined to a desk near the front door of the house, unable to move without the aid of a walker that rested behind him. Still, he looked better than I thought he would. The last time I saw Reid, during the 2016 presidential campaign, he was wearing dark glasses and was still bruised from a freakish exercise-session mishap in early 2015, when an elastic band apparently snapped and propelled him into some cabinets, breaking ribs and bones in his face and blinding him in his right eye. The visible damage from this incident had abated at last. Wearing a tan sweater over a dress shirt, he looked about how he did a decade ago: roughly his current age, in other words.

Reid’s health, even before the cancer diagnosis, was a factor in opting not to seek re-election for a sixth Senate term in 2016. Over the last few months, he has had chemotherapy and two back surgeries and has suffered a range of other ordeals, some related to the accident, for which Trump delighted in mocking him. “I think he should go back and start working out again with his rubber workout pieces,” Trump said in an interview with The Washington Post in September 2016.

In fairness, Reid had dismissed Trump as a “spoiled brat,” a “con man” and a “human leech.” As Senate majority leader, Reid was essential to passing President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda, but his dead-eyed realism and morose tones always hung in contrast to the hope-and-change intoxications of those years. His den is adorned with a bright painted portrait of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — one of his heroes, whose view that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” was often echoed by Obama. But Reid himself always seemed more predisposed to believing that the arc of the universe bent toward an ornery brawl.

Reid once called the Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan a “political hack,” Justice Clarence Thomas “an embarrassment” and President George W. Bush a “loser” (for which he later apologized) and a “liar” (for which he did not). In 2016, he dismissed Trump as “a big fat guy” who “didn’t win many fights.” Reid himself was more than ready to fight, and fight dirty: “I was always willing to do things that others were not willing to do,” he told me.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, he claimed, with no proof, that Mitt Romney had not paid any taxes over the past decade. Romney released tax returns showing that he did. After the election, Reid told CNN by way of self-justification, “Romney didn’t win, did he?” Reid took rightful criticism over this. Still, in retrospect, there’s something almost quaint about the outrage over the episode; Trump routinely surpasses Reid’s unscrupulousness with a few tweets before breakfast.

Leaving Washington on the eve of Trump’s takeover, Reid insisted that he was happy to be escaping. Maybe, he allowed, it would have been different if Hillary Clinton had won. But “with this, no,” he told New York magazine at the time. “I’m not going to miss it.”

And yet, two years later, it was easy to sense him pining for not just the political action but also the particular political action of Trump’s Washington. “No one would enjoy the fight with Trump like Harry Reid would,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat who lost her re-election race in November. The president “is an inherently weak man,” she said. “Harry would smell the weakness and say, ‘Damn the consequences.’ ”

In some ways, Washington, under Trump, has devolved into the feral state that Reid, in his misanthropic heart, always knew it could become under the right conditions. Politicians are always claiming to be eternal optimists; Reid is no optimist. “I figure, if you’re pessimistic, you’re never disappointed,” he told me.

Reid has decided to live out his last years in Henderson, a fast-growing and transient Las Vegas suburb. His house is in the upscale Anthem neighborhood: a fortified village of beige dwellings of various sizes and otherwise indistinguishable appearances. There is a Witness Protection Program vibe to the place, accentuated by the security detail.

Reid attended high school in Henderson, hitchhiking 45 miles each way from his hometown, Searchlight: a drive-through smudge of a town between Las Vegas and Needles, Calif., which, in his youth, boasted at least a half-dozen brothels and not a single church. His acidic outlook was informed by his childhood, during which he endured extreme poverty and dysfunction and substance abuse in his family. He took up boxing in high school and put himself through George Washington University Law School by working as a Capitol Police officer. Back in Nevada, he was schooled in the piranha bowl of Las Vegas politics. This education included a stint as Nevada’s gaming chairman in the 1970s, which placed him in the cross hairs of the Las Vegas mob. (Some of the plot of the film “Casino” was based loosely on Reid’s experiences.) There were numerous threats to his life and at least one actual attempt (a bomb discovered under the hood of his family car).

The former F.B.I. director James Comey, after he was fired by Trump, compared Trump to the head of a mafia family, with its codes of silence and loyalty, its fear-based leadership style and fealty to a single godfather. “It’s not about anything else except the boss,” Comey said in a recent interview at the 92nd Street Y in New York. Others have drawn the same parallel, and I asked Reid if, given his unusually relevant professional experience in this area, it rang true. Reid expelled a quick and dismissive chuckle. “Organized crime is a business,” he told me, “and they are really good with what they do. But they are better off when things are predictable. In my opinion, they do not do well with chaos. And that’s what we have going with Trump.”

Still, Reid added: “Trump is an interesting person. He is not immoral but is amoral. Amoral is when you shoot someone in the head, it doesn’t make a difference. No conscience.” There was a hint of grudging respect in Reid’s tone, which he seemed to catch and correct. “I think he is without question the worst president we’ve ever had,” he said. “We’ve had some bad ones, and there’s not even a close second to him.” He added: “He’ll lie. He’ll cheat. You can’t reason with him.” Once more, a hint of wonder crept into his voice, as if he was describing a rogue beast on the loose in a jungle that Reid knows well.

The Trump era and Reid’s illness have occasioned an inevitable reconsideration of Reid’s legacy and all its contradictions. The Affordable Care Act, which Reid managed to navigate past the oppositional tactics of his persistent nemesis, the Republican Senate leader (and now majority leader), Mitch McConnell, has so far withstood McConnell and Trump’s efforts to dismantle the legislation. Reid was also prescient in urging the Obama administration and congressional Republicans to go public about the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election; the letter that Republican leaders agreed to co-sign weeks after they were briefed on the investigation did not identify Russia by name. “They did nothing — or nothing that I’m aware of,” Reid said.

But McConnell’s and Trump’s own most substantial accomplishment to date, the appointment to the federal bench of an unprecedented number of conservative judges, including two Supreme Court justices who might well end up hearing a challenge to the Affordable Care Act, was made vastly easier by Reid’s decision, in 2013, to get rid of the filibuster for judicial appointments. Reid remains unrepentant about this. “They can say what they want,” he told me. “We had over 100 judges that we couldn’t get approved, so I had no choice. Either Obama’s presidency would be a joke or Obama’s presidency would be one of fruition.”

Still, a certain nostalgia for the Senate leader has set in among Democrats, even those who had their disagreements with him. McCaskill was critical of Reid during their tenure together and did not back him for caucus leader in 2014. There are two major components of a Senate leader’s job, she said. “One is to make the trains run on time and getting things done that his caucus believes in,” McCaskill told me. “But the trains need to be bright and shiny while they’re running,” she added, referring to the communication and messaging part of the job that she said Reid was less well suited to.

McCaskill told Reid at the time that she did not plan to vote for him and explained her reasons to him. He replied that she was the only one of his nonsupporters who had the nerve to tell him directly. “Oh, no, why would I?” Reid told me when I asked him if he felt betrayed. “And I won, didn’t I?”

Reid’s successor is Chuck Schumer, his former caucus deputy who engineered much of the Senate Democrats’ communications and campaign strategy during Reid’s tenure. They had been close during Reid’s 12 years as Democratic leader, Reid serving as the arid desert yin to Schumer’s bombastic Brooklyn yang. When we spoke, Reid told me he did not wish to be seen as second-guessing Schumer. “My personal feeling should have nothing to do with it,” he said. But clearly Reid has more than a few of those personal feelings. He has told confidants that he felt Schumer was too eager to assume his job before Reid was ready to leave. Reid has also criticized, privately, Schumer’s instinct for accommodation with both McConnell and Trump.

In our conversation, Reid seemed incapable of not constantly reminding me that he did not wish to talk about Schumer, as if this itself was something he wanted me to emphasize. “I do not call Schumer,” he told me. Then: “I call him once in a while — not weekly. Let’s say monthly I may call him.” This sounded straightforward enough until he added: “I talk to Nancy often. I love Nancy Pelosi. We did so many good things, and we still talk about that.” And just the day before, he said, he called Richard Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who, along with Schumer, was Reid’s top lieutenant in the Senate and is now Schumer’s Democratic whip. “We came to the House together in 1982,” Reid said of Durbin. “We had wonderful conversations.” (Schumer declined to be interviewed; his spokesman said in a statement that Schumer and Reid “have different styles but they complemented each other well. They are still good friends and talk regularly.”)

In fairness, there’s little that any Democratic leader can do at a time when the opposing party controls the presidency and both houses of Congress, as Republicans did until this month. Durbin told me that he has sat with Schumer and Trump together at the White House. “They are discussing things at a New York level that most of us on the outside don’t understand,” Durbin said. “With Chuck, it’s his grandfather who had some business with Trump’s father or some darned thing. It’s a totally different ballgame.”

I asked Durbin whether this approach had yielded any results. “The obvious answer,” he conceded, “is it hasn’t worked very well so far.”

David Krone, Reid’s former chief of staff, is of the view that leaving Washington saved Reid’s life. “He wouldn’t be alive today if he had pancreatic cancer and he was still the Senate leader,” he told me. “He would not have made it.” Still, Krone said, “I think he misses it, definitely.”

When he was in Washington, Reid used to spend an inordinate amount of time on the Senate floor. “I was always afraid that I would miss something,” Reid used to say and told me again in Nevada. In retirement, he said, “For me to sit here and say I don’t follow politics — you wouldn’t believe me, O.K.?”

On the Friday afternoon before Christmas, just hours before the government shut down over Trump’s demands for more funding for a border wall, I called Reid to see how closely he was following this latest brinkmanship. “Landra and I have been watching the news; we have it on now,” Reid told me. The shutdown, he allowed, was “interesting.” Reid takes an anthropological interest in the changes that Trump has wrought on his old institution. “You can’t legislate when you have a chief executive who’s weird, for lack of a better description,” he told me. He said he could never understand how his former Senate colleague Jeff Sessions allowed himself to be so abused and humiliated by the president. “Why in the hell didn’t Sessions leave?” he said. “Same with Kelly,” referring to the departing chief of staff, John Kelly. “I’d say, ‘Go screw yourself.’ I could not look my children in the eye.”

I asked him if he could identify at all with Trump’s dark worldview. “I disagree that Trump is a pessimist,” Reid said, as if to allow him that mantle would be paying him an undeserved compliment. “I think he’s a person who is oblivious to the real world.”

One of Reid’s assets as a leader, when he was in office, was his willingness to feed the egos of his colleagues before his own; he was happy to yield credit, attention and TV appearances. Yet when I visited Reid in Nevada, I detected a whiff of, if not neediness per se, maybe a need to remind me that he has not been forgotten. He told me that he received a lovely call that morning from Barbara Boxer, the former Democratic senator from California. He gets calls from his former colleagues all the time, he said, and they tell Reid he is missed. He had a final conversation with John McCain over the summer, just before McCain died, punctuated with “I love you”s.

Reading Reid can be difficult. Is he playing a game or working an angle or even laughing at a private joke he just told himself? When speaking of his final goodbye with McCain, he broke into a strange little grin, his lips pressed upward as if he could have been stifling either amusement or tears. It occurred to me that Reid, typically as self-aware as he is unsentimental, could have been engaged in a gentle playacting of how two old Senate combatants of a fast-vanishing era are supposed to say goodbye to each other for posterity.

Reid seemed to recognize my puzzlement and shrugged. “As has been written since I left,” he told me, “I was kind of a strange guy.”

Mark Leibovich is the chief national correspondent for the magazine.

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