Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid died on December 28 at the age of 82. Reid, who was born into extreme poverty in Nevada in 1939, rose to become one of the most influential politicians in the modern Democratic Party. Three of his former aides — Kristen Orthman, Faiz Shakir, and Ari Rabin-Havt — join Ryan Grim to discuss Reid’s life.
Ryan Grim: On Saturday, Harry Reid’s close family, friends, and former staff will gather in Las Vegas to celebrate his life. Next week, the former Senate majority leader will lie in state in the Capitol rotunda.
Reid was born in 1939 in the tiny desert mining town of Searchlight, Nevada. He was raised in the kind of poverty that only survives in pockets of the U.S. today. As chair of the Nevada gaming commission, he transformed Las Vegas from a mob-run town to a corporate and labor-run city, earning himself a depiction in Martin Scorcese’s 1995 film “Casino.” He served 30 years in the Senate, leading the Democratic caucus from 2005 until his retirement after the 2016 election.
Today we’re joined by three of his close aides:
Ari Rabin-Havt joined Team Reid in 2005, and was a guest on our recent episode about the history of the office of the parliamentarian, which was, surprisingly, one of the most popular shows we’ve done. He later became deputy campaign manager for Bernie Sanders in 2020 and he also worked as the researcher for Reid’s memoir “The Good Fight,” one of the few political memoirs I’ve read that was actually a page-turner.
Now, Bernie’s 2020 campaign manager was Faiz Shakir, who joined Reid’s office in 2013.
Kristen Orthman joined him in 2010 and, like Faiz, stayed through his retirement in 2017. She subsequently became a senior aide to Elizabeth Warren and is now communications director at the DNC.
So, I wanted to start with a quick Reid story and see if it jogged any recollections on him. And it’s something that I told in my book, and I mention the book not to plug it, but because it’s relevant.
ARH: Buy Ryan’s book.
RG: Yeah. Buy my book. So it is a story about how Harry Reid during the lame duck of 2010 told the White House that he was going to, and this was his quote, roll the dice on repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — that they had been trying it for the last two years, they had been trying for longer that, hadn’t been able to get it. Obama said: Ugh, I don’t know man. He said look, I really want to get my new START treaty passed — Obama’s number one priority in the lame duck was getting his new START Treaty, this is a nuclear non-proliferation agreement that he had struck with Russia. And he was deeply worried under this theory that losses beget other losses, that if you put Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal on the floor, and it goes down, then it’s like a virus. It’s contagious. And it kills everything else. Because he also wanted to pass DACA, which was struggling even harder than Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal.
And Reid told him: Look, I understand your concerns, Mr. President, but I’m going to roll the dice — and hung up. Which is what he does. That wasn’t personal. When the conversation is over, he hangs up the phone.
He never told this story before. And so I told it in my book, and before the book came out, I reached out to Obama’s office for comment on that. A person goes to Obama, Obama picks up the phone and calls Harry Reid and says: Come on, man. I really wanted Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal — because now, you know, Obama is very much associated with marriage equality, and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell paved the way for marriage equality. Because if you go to the Supreme Court, and the military is still not allowing people to serve openly, then it’s very hard for the Supreme Court to legalize marriage equality.
And Reid says: OK, Mr. President, I’ll call him back and clarify.
He calls back and tells me the exact same thing: Obama, I want to be very clear, the President always supported repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But his main concern was the New START Treaty. He didn’t want to get in the way. But he very much, in principle, supported the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
And so I went back to Obama’s spokesman, and I said: Look, this is what he said. She sighed. And I said: I can call again, if you want. But I’ve been through this before, because once Chuck Schumer’s office had Reid call me, and Reid did the exact same thing that time: agreed to call, but then said the opposite of what he had been expected to.
ARH: Yeah, but he only agreed to call.
RG: Right. He agreed to call.
So does any of that sound in character or out of character?
FS: How many layers of that are in character? So let’s pull out all the strings: On a legislative strategy — I mean, I’m sure it was nice of Harry Reid to call President Obama and let him know what he was thinking — he had made a decision. No one’s gonna walk him off that. Once he made a decision that he was going to push ahead with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, that was a courtesy call. [Laughs.] And so that was him doing his politics, but he had made a judgment and a determination. When Harry Reid made a judgment determination based on the politics and policy merits of something, it was going to happen.
And listen, there’s a reason why he understood where President Obama was at that time, and where he understood him to be now, which is that: Yeah, he’s supportive of it. But is he gonna fight for this? Well, I’m gonna fight for this. And I know the politics enough — I assume Harry Reid would say — that if push for this, I think I can get the cards to line up in our favor. But it’s gonna take some kind of a fight, some kind of a friction, and if I do it — Reid being the person who he is, seeing around the corner, seeing the potential end game — that cards are going to fall into place.
ARH: Well, there’s the Amarillo Slim quote that I think applies to Harry Reid and legislative strategy, which is: “I never make a bet I haven’t already won.”
ARH: And Reid knew the Senate. And there’s no Senator today that has the same knowledge of the Senate procedure than Harry Reid. He spent so much time on the floor in the early part of his career, and even as a leader, in a way that Schumer and McConnell just don’t in the same way. He understood those dynamics at a very deep level. And so I’m sure it was a risk, but it was very calculated.
And there are so many stories from especially the ’09-’10 period where Reid was in front of the White House in terms of the Senate. And to me, I think the thing that this goes to is, I think some of the biggest mistakes the Obama White House made when Reid was leader was when they cut Reid out of the loop or tried to go around him and like went to Biden to negotiate around Reid.
RG: Kristen, you were a junior staffer, then.
Kristen Orthman: Very junior staffer.
RG: Very junior staffer then. What do you remember?
KO: Well, I remember, it was one of the most productive lame ducks ever.
RG: And this is the one where the Tea Party is coming in, so —
KO: It shouldn’t have been.
RG: And we had lost, what, seven seats in the Senate, but Reid, because he had won his reelect when many thought he would not, I think was emboldened and probably rightfully so.
I think, too, you mentioned the DREAM Act vote, which I believe failed.
RG: It did. Same day.
KO: Not believe. I know it failed. But I think that set up DACA. It set up the executive action.
I think he understood: Sometimes you can take votes, and you might lose a vote, but how does that move the ball forward on legislation, or on policy, or on politics?
But yeah, I had actually been on the campaign. So I came back from Vegas for the lame duck and then ended up staying in his office after that.
It was a little chaotic. And I was like a press assistant. So let’s not pretend that I was, like, in the room, Ryan. [Laughs.]
RG: Right. But that campaign was wild, because this is the Tea Party wave. You know, everybody’s getting wiped out. Like you said: seven Democrats lose. Nevada is by no means like a deep-blue state at this point. He has a target on his back. He’s Majority Leader, he’s got the Kochs gunning for him with everything they have, which is endless. And he manages to survive.
And one of the ways he did it was by screwing over the Republicans in the primary, right? Like, basically picking his opponent; doing what Clinton thought was clever when she was hoping that Trump would be the nominee so she could kind of cruise to general election victory. But Reid actually pulled it off.
Would you talk a little bit about that primary?
KO: Yeah. So I was in Reid’s office and ended up moving out to Las Vegas. I’d never been to Nevada, and it was spring of 2010. Every poll had him down.
I was so naive that I didn’t actually realize that I was potentially going out to a losing campaign. Like I just wanted the chance and I’m like: Oh, yeah, no, I’ll do this; I’ve never been to Vegas, it must be fun to live there.
And the weekend I got out there, which was before the Republican primary, a couple of the senior campaign staffers came into the room. I was on the research team then, media monitor was my title, which meant I watched and listened to everything that had to do with —
ARH: A lot of Jon Ralston.
KO: A lot of Jon Ralston, a lot of Alan Stock, a lot of Vegas conservative radio or national conservative radio. And the first week and I’m there, senior leadership comes in and says: We have hundreds, thousands of tapes of Sharron Angle from every county event, because we’ve been tracking her — a tracker with a video camera would go to every event. None of them are transcribed. She might win in three weeks. Everyone, from campaign manager to intern is spending the next three weekends, 24/7, transcribing Sharron Angle.
And like, we just had a treasure trove. So we knew when she won that day in the primary, everything that she had said up until that point.
RG: But what did you guys do to make sure that she won?
KO: I have to be careful, because I was in no way part of a strategy. I was just monitoring the news.
KO: But I think it was, you try everything you can. And maybe you win.
ARH: And there was the chickens for checkups moments that team Reid just blew up.
RG: Was that during the primary, or the general?
KO: That was in primary.
ARH: That was in the primary. That was not Sharron Angle. That was her opponent.
RG: Oh, that’s right. That’s right.
KO: Sue Lowden, who was expected to beat Reid. They took her out in the primary because they just made her keep messing up. Like, she made a mistake. I think a lot of times, it’s like, you take advantage of a mistake. And if they’re a bad candidate, they continue to make mistakes. And then they just snowball.
RG: Her gaffe was saying something like: We don’t need Obamacare, because people can just pay for their healthcare.
KO: Barter for healthcare with chickens.
Sue Lowden: Let’s change the system and talk about what the possibilities are. I’m telling you that this works. You know, before we all started having healthcare, in the olden days, our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor. They would say: I’ll paint your house.
That’s the old days of what people would do to get health are with their doctors. Doctors are very sympathetic people. I’m not backing down from that system.
RG: And so she sounded crazy enough, you’re like: Well, if we’re gonna have a crazy person, let’s have the real deal. The real crazy person, Sharron Angle.
KO: And I think that — yeah. That’s right. And that was at a time when the Republican — I mean, it’s still now — but when the Republican primary electorate knew that’s too loud and wasn’t one of them. Whether she had those gaffes or not, I actually think Sharron Angle would have probably still won that primary. It just made it, you’re fighting on the margins in these instances.
RG: And so then once you’re in the general, what was the play?
KO: Yeah, so in the general election, there was a period of time before Sharron Angle, Ralston would always call them “the D.C. handlers” came in, Senator McConnell’s people, like NRIC operatives, to basically tell her to stop doing interviews, to stop doing whatever.
So there was a month of time before that happened. And she was still going on like call-in radio stations, taking live callers. So my job was to find out what she was doing. And then we would flood the lines. And we would ask her whatever questions we would want. And so we got a bunch of questions out there.
And the one that I am most proud of, because it played a fairly significant role in the campaign, was she was on a Las Vegas radio station. Senator Reid was known for what we called Saving City Center, which was a MGM property that was being shuttered during the — I almost said during the pandemic — [laughs] during the recession.
RG: He basically threatened the banks, right?
KO: Yes, he did.
RG: Good old school —
KO: And we were trying to get her on record, would she have saved City Center? It was such a real project. People saw the cranes on the Strip, they saw like the gates, and that was one of the biggest accomplishments that we were running on. And so she was on the show. I went and called. And I was told: Ask her the City Center question.
So I’m around back, so I wouldn’t be in the office when I was calling. And I’m the person that asked her the City Center question.
KO: And I actually had another question I was hoping I could ask Ms. Angle as well.
Radio host: OK. Do it.
KO: You know, Harry Reid brags all the time about the job he saves in City Center. Would you have made that same call? Would you have saved City Center?
Sharron Angle: No, I would not. The reason is because he may have saved jobs in City Center, but he actually cost jobs in other parts of the city.
KO: And I come running in, and I will never forget, because they were on a delay, and they’re like: Did you ask her? I’m like: Yes! And she said no! Like, she just straight-up said no. I asked a yes-or-no answer.
RG: I would have let it die! Let Detroit go bankrupt. It foreshadowed the 2012 Republican —
FS: Were you “Kristen from Las Vegas,” or did you use a pseudonym?
KO: I used —
ARH: Longtime listener, first-time caller.
KO: I think I said Laura, but because, I think this is the one, because I pronounce words weird because I’m from Boston, he thought I said Waller. I think that’s like a good — how does that tie into Reid broader around the kind of ethos he puts in his team — you leave nothing on the table.
He knew he was like, use whatever, up against the ropes, like all of that, and he was really determined — everyone just worked so hard for him because you knew that he was working hard. And also, look, like politics — yeah, have my team call in and see if we can get her.
RG: Right. Yeah.
KO: I feel like people might bristle at that, but I don’t know —
RG: Yeah. It’s a campaign.
FS: And the mentality is 50+1, right? Whatever it takes to win. Obviously within certain bounds, but —
RG: Although he stretches the bounds. You were there for the Mitt Romney doesn’t pay any taxes, as I was, too.
FS: I think you’re more there than I was. [Laughs.]
RG: I don’t remember if you were in the room or not. But yeah, Sam Stein and I were interviewing him and in an interview, he said: Mitt Romney hasn’t paid any taxes in 10 years.
Who told you that?
Well, I can’t reveal my source.
He apparently had said it already on the Senate floor and nobody had noticed it.
Majority Leader Harry Reid: The word’s out that he hasn’t paid any taxes for 10 years. Let him prove that he has paid taxes, because he hasn’t. We already know from one partial tax return that he gave us, he has money hidden in Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and in a Swiss bank account.
FS: To this day, we can talk about the backup for it, and the sourcing, and all that. [Laughs.] But I think one of the things that I still harbor, maybe I’m in the minority on it, is that I think Reid’s source, and how he knew that Romney — we never really got the full 10 years of Mitt Romney’s tax returns to see what the effective tax rate, whether he paid a single-digit tax rate was probably correct, but I don’t know that we’ll ever find out.
RG: The rumors were that it was through the Mormon tax-accounting grapevine and somehow has come from like John Huntsman, Sr.
FS: That’s the rumor out there. That’s the rumor.
RG: Right. And so people have said that that was below the belt because Romney did pay some taxes.
FS: That’s right.
RG: And then it’s a question of: Well, what do you mean by “no.”
FS: Right. Exactly.
RG: Like, obviously he paid sales taxes.
FS: Yes, but — the quote, and how it would be captured, and the conversation that it would lead to — he was not wrong about that.
RG: He also seemed to be gambling that Romney would not release his taxes. Because in other words, he couldn’t be proven wrong. He could be proven wrong by Roney releasing his taxes, but he seemed to know that —
ARH: But here’s the thing, regardless of what he knew, he knew Romney didn’t want to release his taxes. So either Romney doesn’t release his taxes and Reid’s statement holds or Romney does release his taxes, and he’s doing something he doesn’t want to do.
FS: And think about this strategically just for a minute.
I mean, this is very much how Harry Reid would, I think, look at this race: OK, here’s Obama going up against Mitt Romney. What are Mitt Romney’s weaknesses?
Well, he’s somebody understood to be a financier captured by corporate interests. How do we enliven that? How do we make that something that captures the public imagination? And actually, he not incorrectly understood that having a taxes conversation with Mitt Romney only plays out in one direction. It plays out to the benefit of Barack Obama, who had obviously talked about Bain and a bunch of other things related to Mitt Romney’s kind of elite-dom.
ARH: And don’t underestimate, also, how much Harry Reid would have disliked the elitism and the born-with-a-silver-spoon of Mitt Romney.
RG: Right. Both of you, Ari and Faiz, both went on to work for Bernie Sanders afterwards, who’s Washington’s most famous class warrior – second, probably, to Kristen’s class warrior boss Elizabeth Warren. But I think that of the three of them, Harry Reid might actually hate rich people the most — like, particularly hates them.
ARH: Look, I think he ends up in a different place, because I think both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are more grassroots politicians. So there’s a kind of tactical difference, but on a pure class-analysis point, Reid had a real, personal class analysis.
FS: And I think the other thing to add to that, too, Ari, is that while Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have run for president, and we don’t want to minimize the important stage that that is, you’re Harry Reid, you’re Senate Majority Leader, you’re in the room watching, in many ways, the most high-level conversations about policy discourse in this country. There really isn’t a major policy discourse that you aren’t a fundamental part of. And you are watching it literally every single day about how people who have money, power, and influence are the ones who get meetings, the ones who have inputs, the ones who are trying to drive the show.
And I think while he understood it, and saw it, and obviously worked it to some degree for his own benefits, he harbored and always retained an anger about who was at that table and who wasn’t at that table. And, I think, maintained it in his DNA: Who’s not here and who’s not being represented?
I’ve said it a number of times about him, Kristen will remember, but all these senior, team conversations we’d have with him, one of the first things he’d always ask is like: What’s the right thing to do here? And he just really wanted to know: What is the right thing to do? Now let’s work through the politics and like, who wants this and who wants that, and the caucus, and all this stuff? But that question is so rarely asked, and especially at his kind of level.
RG: Kristen, what’s your assessment of whose hate is purer, to paraphrase Alexander Cockburn?
KO: Yeah, someone at this table, but I think it was you, Ryan, had a thread about where people went to college.
RG: Mhmm. Yeah.
And for people who missed that — and Susan McHugh had told me this after, after one of the interviews, he asked me and Sam where we went to college, and we told him, and afterwards, she said he asked people that because he wants to find out who went to state schools, who went to state schools he’s never heard of, who fought to get where they are.
RG: And so he appreciates them more than if you say: Well, I went to Yale.
He’s like: OK, well, that’s not very interesting to me. Of course you’re in my Senate Majority Leader office because you went to Yale?
KO: Right. And I feel like — so, I don’t know who hates more. I’m going to tap myself out of that answer. I thought what you said spoke a lot to him and what I remember about him, which is that he actually sort of rejected a lot of Washington norms that I think are prevalent in this town, like going to the White House Correspondents Dinner or going to Ivy League schools.
I think it’s almost like he felt maybe: I fought my way a lot harder to be here than others. Is that class conflict? Like yes, like, right? But that’s kind of how I always heard it and thought of it.
And I mean, remember: Nevada didn’t have a law school. He had to come to GW to go to law school, when he was going to law school at the time.
RG: At night, while he was a Capitol police officer.
KO: Exactly. And I’m sure he was resentful of everybody at GW Law School who didn’t have to work nights. I mean, at that point, I think they had two kids. I mean he, infamously, walked into the dean’s office and asked for more money. He was like: I got two kids or —
ARH: Well his car broke down.
ARH: And he went to the dean’s office and said: What do I do?
And the dean was like: I think you should drop out, basically.
And, by the way, he held a grudge against GW for 15 years.
KO: Until he went back as Majority Leader to give the commencement speech.
ARH: And by the way, he lived in D.C., in his apartment, literally like three blocks from the GW Law Campus.
RG: He lived in the Ritz, too, which — what can we read into that?
ARH: He liked the apartment. He liked the location. It wasn’t pretentiousness.
RG: It feels like somebody comfortable in their class position, like comfortable in their working class roots, that they’re not worried that they’re going to get blasted as too hoity-toity for living literally in the Ritz.
KO: Interesting. I never thought of it that way.
FS: Right? The confidence of your own convictions, what you fight for who you are, and then saying: The working class ethic, is yeah, we’d like a good life.
RG: It would be like a politician who feels comfortable enough in their own skin to be able to walk into a bar and order whatever they want from the bar, rather than what about, what did Obama say? Don’t give me one of those fancy Yuenglings. Give me what the locals drink.
Like, it’s Yuengling and it is what we drink.
FS: Yeah. That’s true. Adam Johnson wrote about it in The New York Times, which I think is absolutely right, I think we’d all agree, is that one of his superhuman abilities and traits is to give a shit. He had a very strong confidence in self, confidence in strategic direction, I think it’s one of the reasons he built loyalty around staff. I mean, I associate with the traditional qualities of a father figure, which is, you think of those, it’s somebody who has confidence of direction, caring about a whole family, thinking about opportunities for everybody within that family, looking out for the whole.
There was a projection and I think the reality of confidence that the decisions that are going to be made here are ones everyone can buy into.
RG: And so, Ari, you helped with the research and some of the writing, maybe?
ARH: The research. Mark Warren did the writing.
RG: Mark Warren did the writing, helped with the writing.
ARH: No, Mark Warren did the writing. Let’s —
RG: “The Good Fight” — some of it seems transcribed from Reid. Because some of it sounds like Reid talking.
ARH: Yeah, there were lots: I had about 15 hours of tapes, and then Mark had a bunch of tapes.
RG: So talk a little bit about where he comes from.
ARH: So in ’06, here was this idea floated by Susan that he should read his autobiography. I went out to Vegas and spent a few days with the Senator and Landra. And he told his life story. Then I took those tapes and went around and made sure it was true. Because some of the stuff was like, so outlandish that you were like: This can’t be true.
But, invariably, what happened is you talk to people, and the story would be like, he would be toning it down, and the story would be like far crazier and light You would hear things like this guy Gary Bates who’s passed since, who was Reod’s sparring partner in high school told this one story about Reid when Lefty Rosenthal wanted to kill Reid, and he would stand in the middle and Gary Bates was this professional prizefighter, giant guy, who was mob associated at a time and then kind of got out of that and was like: I love Harry Reid. He’s like everything to me. He loved Reid.
He talked about how Reid wanted to run a marathon. But couldn’t because of security at the time.
RG: Because the mob wanted to kill him.
ARH: So Reid was living in a cul-de-sac in Las Vegas, or Henderson, and Gary Bates stood in the middle of the cul-de-sac with a shotgun. As Harry Reid ran a marathon around the cul-de-sac with a holster, with a six shooter in it, for hours, just sat running around, like, which goes to his —
KO: Like 26 miles around?
FS: Reid was a runner.
RG: That’s insane.
ARH: And he did some crazy stuff like desert super-marathons. But where he comes from, I think, first off, the level of abject poverty he grew up in is something that is under-appreciated by a lot of people. I think, even today, when you see, I think all of us have been to Searchlight.
ARH: When you go Searchlight, eve know, you’re like, holy crap.
FS: Is it a town? Does it even qualify as a town?
ARH: The last time I was there, I think there were five non-trailer structures in the city. One was Harry Reid’s house — not his childhood house, his house now. His childhood house was made of railroad ties. There was the Harry Reid elementary school, there was the library that contained the Harry Reid Museum. There was Junior Cree’s house, who owned the trailer park, and there was the Searchlight Nugget Diner and Casino, which, yes —
RG: This is the kind of upbringing that, in the 1840 presidential campaign would have been considered hardscrabble.
ARH: Yeah, I mean, no indoor plumbing, two-room schoolhouse, and a childhood that was fairly difficult. Like, you hear, there’s a story of his brother Larry who broke his leg once. And they’re in a little shack. And Larry is sitting there screaming for days on end with a broken leg. And they don’t have any money to get him to a doctor.
When Harry Reid beat up his teacher’s son, and to the day he died, you could see on his hand the knuckle-bruise from that fight, his father told him: Yeah, next time when you hit someone, you’ll learn to keep your fist closed.
He’s somebody who the biggest Christmas gift he ever got every year was a $5 Christmas present from one of the owners of a local brothel called the El Rey —
RG: — where he learned to swim.
ARH: Where he learned to swim. This guy, William Martillo, taught him to be honest. There was a thing where Willie Martella caught some kids stealing I think and gave them a whole lecture.
But looking in the Sears Roebuck catalog and that was his fantasy as a kid. And I think he graduates from that school, now has to go to high school and has the determination at like 14,15 to get on the road in the desert, which I challenge anybody, go drive that. Leave Vegas. Drive to Searchlight today, and from Henderson to Vegas, it is 40 miles of nothing. And today, when Vegas has developed out, and Vegas is a lot smaller — you’re in the desert, there are no lights, it’s just desert for 40 miles. And he would hitchhike that to get to high school. He’d hitchhike Monday, he’d hitchhike Friday to get home. He’d stay with relatives in Henderson. And his story is, he meets this girl.
The last time I was in the Senate office with him, it was in the lame duck after he retired, he called and said: Can you come to the Senate office?
And he wanted to give me a book, which is a book about physics, I have no idea why he wanted to — “Seven Rules of Physics” or something?
KO: I feel like every book that was weird, he was like: Let me give this to Ari.
RG: [Laughs.] He’s weird, let me give him the weird book.
ARH: He was like: I want to give you this book. And he gives me his book and then he’s just talking. And he was just remembering different things. And he went into like, this memory of seeing Landra for the first time, driving by her house. And he was like: There was this girl, and, oh, Ari, those shorts she was wearing. And I was like: I’m a bit uncomfortable here, Senator.
ARH: But he saw this girl who was a, by the way, not rich but wealthier Jewish son —
RG: — daughter —
ARH: — of a prominent chiropractor in the city. And that became his entire devotion in life. Like from that literal moment in the driveway, he never stopped.
But to envision the poverty that he grew up in — and the other important story, I mentioned this on Twitter, but he went to the dentist at one point when he was in high school and asked if they could give his mom new teeth and the dentist was like: You got to pay. And he was so incensed that like nobody would help his poor mother, he went out and he got a job. And he worked, not only hitchhiking to high school, not only fighting, at that point boxing — also fighting with people on the street — but doing all that, hitchhiking back and forth, but saving up every penny so he could buy his mom teeth.
And he said to me in the office that day, like: That’s the proudest moment of my life is when I could get my mom a new set of teeth.
KO: There was a video in 2016, when the convention was honoring him. And Faiz and others helped do interviews for it. And he interviewed Senator Reid for it. And I think Senator Reid was mistaken as being, you know, he was kind of short in public or, you know, people, meaning Harry was always like a meme on the right. I think he was extremely sentimental. And some of the pieces that Ari talked about, particularly obviously, with his family and with Mrs. Reid.
But I remember being in the room when he was being interviewed for that video, and he told the buying-his-mom-teeth story, and he started to cry, as like: If I do nothing else in life, I bought my mom teeth.
And maybe people later in life who are ending their career maybe get more sentimental and more reflective. But I think that you can have a direct line between where he grew up, what he saw as a system that maybe failed his parents, and maybe failed some members of his family like Larry or some of his friends, and how he, in his role, was trying to take on that system as much as he could.
And I don’t think we sit here and say he was perfect.
KO: But I think that was a North Star that guided him. And it was, I think, really, for me, my first experience working for a politician to have that be the conviction. I’m so grateful to look back, because I understand that that’s not the norm, you know?
RG: And the viciousness of the system takes on a unique poignancy when it’s afflicting your mother, for whatever reason that is. People can understand that, I think, intuitively, but it’s definitely the case.
Yet, in the early part of his career, he was more of a traditional Western, conservative, New Deal-ish type of Democrat. And I want to talk about his transition throughout his life: Most people move left to right as they get older. He kind of went the opposite direction. And both of you were witness to that.
Ari, you were there very early on, when he decided to embrace the Netroots, which he didn’t really understand, but understood as a phenomenon he needed to embrace. And the Social Security fight seems like the first time that that really —
ARH: Which is a direct line to his mother, because it was: When my dad died, my mom would not have survived without Social Security. That kind of was his North Star and how dare this rich, upper-crust, elitist from Yale named George W. Bush try to take away my mother’s Social Security.
RG: And so, 2004, George W. Bush was reelected.
RG: He says; I’ve got political capital, I’m going to use it, and I’m going to privatize Social Security. In Washington, the pressure was just absolutely intense on Democrats to have an answer.
ARH: Well, there are a few layers here. So let’s take a step back.
We are coming off of the 2004 election where John Kerry lost. You are in a stage where Senate Democrats, in particular, are all about how can we placate Republicans in Bush, since 9/11.
ARH: You have a city with no progressive infrastructure, and even infrastructure today that counts as more mainstream Democratic and then would have been progressive was in its real infancy.
RG: Like Center for American Progress was barely —
ARH: Just started and was pushing Democrats to the left on climate, by the way. Media Matters just was founded and. Moveon.org was just a small, anti-war organization with six staffers. There was no Huffington Post. Huffington Post was started, I think —
ARH: ’05. And when it started, it was literally a blog for Arianna’s celebrity friends.
ARH: And DailyKos was just Markos and like two or three other writers. It was a very small world of online politics. And that was the only world that was at all pushing back on this capitulation culture within the Democratic Party at that moment. And the Kerry campaign ended. And I got a call from Susan to come in and interview for this war room that Reid would be setting up. And I was like: Do I really want to work for this conservative Democrat from Nevada?
And the pitch from them was very, very clear: We’re going to fight. We’re not going to do this capitulation thing. We’re actually going to fight George Bush.
And the first big fight was Social Security. And Reid was just very, very clear, like other Democrats in the caucus. And you have to remember, also, you look at the problems in the caucus today. He had a much more difficult caucus. He had only 45 votes. So he had five votes he could lose. And you had Mark Pryor, Blanche Lincoln, Mary Landrieu, Ben Nelson, Kent Conrad.
RG: There’s five right there. You haven’t started with Max Baucus, and all the other ones.
ARH: I haven’t started with Max Baucus, and then, the king of them all, Joe Lieberman.
RG: Right, who had just basically endorsed the other party.
ARH: Right. The White House’s bet was they could get one of them to cut a deal. And if any one of them said they were going to support social security privatization, you would have lost 10 more votes. And Reid said: I’m gonna hold — like Pelosi fought in the House, but frankly, she was in the minority and couldn’t win in the House.
ARH: Reid was the one who said: No deal.
As I said it to Zack Carter, he pulled the Michael Corleone. He said: My offer is nothing. And this war room that I have is going to sit here and fight on this every day. And it was every day we were putting out material, we were fighting on Social Security. He gave us leeway that other offices wouldn’t do. And what I remember was there were a bunch of bloggers who were like, keeping a whip list. And with Reid’s permission, we would give them details about which senators were wavering behind the scenes. And they would start applying public pressure to those senators. And then those senators would freak out and call the office. And then they’d make a public pronouncement that they weren’t wavering.
But Reid understood, first off, that he had this outside group that would do a lot of his dirty work for him here. So immediately he started to see: Wow, these are other people who like a fight. Then he saw that, by the way, there was substantial financial resources. MoveOn that that cycle did like $30 million for Senate Democrats.
RG: That was a lot of money in those days. And it was more money, because it was a small organization, they didn’t have like an outsized 100-person staff and field program, this was a direct contribution — it was a very direct amount of money into Senate races. And he saw that all these kind of right wingers in D.C. who weren’t doing anything to help with re-election, but would talk a lot, were saying: Oh, these lefties are gonna destroy the party.
And then he saw that: Wait, these guys are supporting Jim Webb and Jon Tester, right? They’re not saying you have to be like super lefty. They’re like: Come out there for Jim Webb and Jon Tester. They’re like me, they want to win. And I think that formed an alliance there.
And he was already feeling uncomfortable with the Iraq War, and I think there was the sense that he was already uncomfortable, and he was moving on Iraq, and I think that’s kind of the start of that transition that you mentioned.
RG: Kristen, did you see it happening in real time? Did you notice him becoming more progressive over time? Or did he just sense that more was possible and pushed harder?
KO: I think it’s probably a combination of both.
RG: Because he did change some views.
KO: Yeah, oh, certainly. I think it was that more was possible. I think, too, you can never underestimate influences in people’s lives. Yes, people are politicians. But when you have grandkids who are — not that Reid ever didn’t take climate change seriously. But to me, what it speaks to, is he was someone who was willing to be pushed. Ari already talked a little bit about that. And he also was willing to be in front of people and here from them — and in this instance, I’m speaking from the progressive wing of the party, it’s not as if he refused meetings and said: I don’t want to hear you out on whatever issue you’re coming in front of me on.
I don’t pretend to be in his head. I also think, you can go back to 2013, 2014, and I think a lot was written particularly around after Sandy Hook and the background check vote, assault-weapon ban vote, and the magazine clip vote. I believe those were the three votes in the Senate then. And before the vote, the assault weapon ban and magazine, I don’t remember the exact vote. But basically, those were the two that people weren’t sure where he was going to be on because he had not been.
And I think he was quite open about how times had changed then. I think he was resistant to talking about, oh, he’s become so much more progressive, or over time his views changed, even though, obviously, they did, but frankly also the country’s views change.
KO: So like, I think his state changed. In many ways, he follows a little bit, where his state what,
ARH: And he helped shape it. Let’s be clear, we talked about 2010, the biggest component prior to the campaign of him winning in 2010 was him getting an early caucus in Nevada in ’08 and creating a registration advantage for the Democratic Party in Nevada.
ARH: That didn’t exist before, that created a voter list for his campaign in 2010.
KO: And he knew that ’08 was going to be a wave election. So he took out some Republicans. I believe Joe Heck as a state senator.
KO: There was like that threshold point where it was like: OK, Obama’s not just going to win Nevada. I mean, it was like a landslide in Nevada. And when a wave happens, you’re going to take some people with you. Joe Heck tries to be moderate, was probably going to run against Reid in ’10, would have probably been competitive. And Reid was like: We’re playing in every race, because some we’re going to be able to bring over the finish line because I think it will probably be a wave election.
And he was right. And there were a couple people that lost who were potential competitors, Republicans, to him in ’10.
I want to go back to one thing Ari was saying. He mentioned Susan around the war room.
RG: Susan McHugh, his longtime aid, who the book is dedicated to, actually.
KO: I think that Reid had such an eye for talent, and for staff, and he knew how to empower them. He taught me so much. But one of the things that I feel like he taught me was how to be a leader of a team. Part of being a leader of a team is you empower them, and you understand that you can’t do every job. And you need to like empower your team and trust them and know that people are going to fuck up, people are gonna make mistakes, but I trust you, Susan, to go out and find the best talent for the war room, and that, collectively, if we have a strategic vision and mission, this is what we’re going to do.
RG: Right. And the other thing that makes Reid unique in this era is that he built this machine in Nevada in a time when machines are out of fashion. And it wasn’t that he took over one. He kind of built it from scratch —
ARH: And there wasn’t one.
RG: And the machines come with, to your point, what a lot of progressive like good-government types would just say: That’s corrupt. That’s over the line. The way that you’re building power here is just too much.
But he seemed willing to say: No, we’re gonna we’re gonna fight on every front that’s available.
KO: Well, and I think, too, specific to Nevada, I mean, he was the often one of the only successful Democrats — I mean there was Governor and Senator Bryan, but he was I think he was able to do that in the state because he was the leader, he was the most prominent Democrat. Once he started gaining national notoriety when he won in ’98 by 400-whatever votes, it was twofold: He understood if I’m going to win again, I need to change the infrastructure here, I’m not going to be able to skate by.
I think if he’d been losing, yeah, I think there’d be a lot of people that were like: What are you doing with this machine?
But I think he was winning and like, again, I think we would all agree that not everything is perfect, etc, etc. But I think he had a way of bringing people in and bringing different parties — when I say parties I just mean it like factions of the party interest in — and I think he think understood that, in your terms, machine building,
ARH: But it’s also factions of the state in the way where he had culinary and that relationship with Dee Taylor and what Dee built in Nevada, and you also have to go back in his history.
RG: You’re talking about the union.
ARH: The union, but you just have to go back in its history, Las Vegas itself is shaped by Reid’s term as gaming commissioner, that you don’t have the transition from the mafia to corporate Las Vegas without Harry Reid’s term as gaming commissioner. And Steve Wynn has said it to people. Steve Wynn doesn’t build the Mirage.
RG: And no fan of Reid’s.
ARH: No fan of Reid’s, but basically is like: I don’t exist without Reid cleaning the city up and kind of becoming an inviting place for large corporations to come in.
And then you have as senator, we mentioned, the City Center project earlier, but you cannot underestimate what that meant —
RG: And so this is in the wake of the financial crisis. So what happened? Tell that story.
ARH: City Center was being built. One of the Middle East sovereign wealth funds was the —
RG: I think it was the UAE.
ARH: I think it was the UAE sovereign wealth fund that was the financier of the project. They basically pulled out on MGM. They had a $35 million payment due. And they were like: No, we’re not going to pay. Sorry, MGM.
And City Center is, just to be clear, it’s the ARIA, it’s the Vdara, it’s the now Waldorf-Astoria, it was the Mandarin before. But it’s the complex that sits next to Bellagio between Bellagio and Mandalay, and it’s a giant hotel and casino, and it was the biggest development project in Las Vegas at the time. We’re talking 10,000 construction jobs.
Vegas got hit after 9/11— hard — and then obviously the financial crisis hits Vegas because not only are people not going on vacation and spending money, but also you had all this Wall Street cash kind of financing —
KO: Foreclosure crisis.
ARH: Then you have a foreclosure crisis that hits the outside of Las Vegas really hard, because Vegas was one of the key places of people getting liar’s loans and all that, which I’m sure Ryan has talked about on some podcast.
And Reid, basically, when UAE pulled out of MGM, not only was this project going to die, but the entire MGM corporation could have been taken down by it, which wouldn’t have only meant these construction jobs, but MGM Grand, you go down the strip —
KO: Union jobs, culinary jobs.
RG: The economy of Las Vegas.
ARH: Yeah! You’re talking half the casinos in Las Vegas going bankrupt at once. And Reid comes in and basically calls up banks and is like: You’re going to come in here and I don’t care — you’re going to save this project.
And you could say that’s not appropriate for a senator to do, and once again Reid would say: I don’t care. I got to save these jobs. MGM is critical to my state. Sorry.
Ari, Kristen, Faiz, thanks so much for joining me.
RG: So after we turned the mics off, Ari asked if he could tell one more story about Reid. And I thought it was worth including, so here’s that one.
So after his time in Utah, Reid comes back to —
ARH: Well, after his time in D.C. So he goes to Utah for law school, he goes to D.C., where there’s kind of an amazing story.
RG: Where a Nevada congressman tells him it was a good thing that Kennedy got shot. Because he was bringing the country towards communism.
ARH: Right. There was that.
RG: That was when he was a Capitol police officer.
ARH: There was when he flew to — he took the bar exam before he graduated from law school which is ridiculously rare.
RG: Yes. He said he had to lobby a commission to go early, and knew that it was graded on a curve, looked at the list of 50 people who were scheduled to take it, and he was like: I’m smarter than more than half of those people.
ARH: Remember, Nevada was a tiny state at that point. More than tiny.
RG: He knew the people on the list.
ARH: He knew everybody on the list.
The other thing was, so he flies back to Las Vegas, and the fee was like $50 and Mike O’Callaghan, the guy who became governor, his high school boxing instructor, met him at the airport and handed him a $50 bill because that was the fee for the bar exam, and he had never seen a $50 bill before. That was the most money he had ever held in his hand at that point.
And he takes the bar, he goes back, he graduates, he comes back to Nevada. He starts in private practice, becomes county attorney, is running for different offices, but builds up a pretty prominent litigation practice.
RG: Or becomes a state legislator.
ARH: And you had full-time jobs when you were doing those things. But becomes a pretty active litigator. I think he tried like 50 cases in court, which now somebody would do across like an entire career in law, but he did it in a few years. And a few of those cases are just — they say a lot about Reid and they are obscenely interesting.
RG: I love the Russell Payne story.
ARH: That’s an amazing one.
RG: And you researched this one?
ARH: Yeah, we talked about it in the book and we researched it. And it’s one of those stories I talked about before where you hear a story from him, and then you hear it from others and you’re like, dear God.
So there’s a kind named Russell Payne, son of a prominent, prominent doctor. They have a vacation home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. And Russell’s up there with his parents and his parents disappear, and Russell’s kind of covered in blood, but they can’t find the bodies. Russell is actually friends with Gary Bates, who I’ve mentioned in this interview.
RG: Right. Who is the mob-linked bodyguard?
ARH: Gary calls Reid, and is like: You need to get up here. You need to help this guy out.
Reid flies up —
RG: — with a revolver, he says.
ARH: It’s very clear that the sheriff really wants to pendant on Russell Payne, not because he’s obviously guilty, which he kind of is, obviously, something happened to the parents and it’s pretty obvious Russell Payne was responsible, but the sheriff is very, clearly anti-semitic, and Reid was always somebody who I think, partially because of Landra, partially because of Mike O’Callaghan, who was a Korean War vet who went to fight in Israel at one point, had one leg — was always very astutely observant of anti-semitism and really it always was something that struck Reid really harshly.
Well, by the way, by the fact pattern the kid was clearly guilty of something, though they didn’t have bodies yet. And the city was going to press forward because of this anti-semitism angle. So Reid flies up, meets Gary, meets Russell, and decided to get him out of the state. While they’re doing this, they find the parents’ bodies. And Reid and Gary concoct this ridiculous plan that, by the way, you can read about in Reid’s book. It’s the most interesting chapter — to me, if you want to just do some interesting reading, download Reid’s book, “The Good Fight,” skip the Senate chapters, read this is chapter six I believe it’s “The Cases Nobody Would Take.” The Russell chapter should be a movie.
So they fly up, and Reid and Gary concoct this like fakakta, plan where like, they split up and they hide Russell in a car, and I might be getting this wrong, Reid like drives West and Gary drive south and the sheriff pulls over Gary to arrest Russell, but Gary’s in Reid’s car.
RG: I actually just read it recently again, and it is a great chapter. Reid assumed that the police would expect the kid to be with him — 25 years old, but he calls him a kid — so Reid goes to the airport and buys like two tickets. But then sends Payne with somebody else to drive out of Wyoming into Idaho rather than fly from Wyoming down to Vegas. And when he gets to the airport, he’s right. The police are there. And they’re like Mr. Reid, where’s Russell Payne?
ARH: He’s like: I don’t know.
RG: I don’t know where Russell Payne is. So he drives to Idaho and then took a private plane from Idaho down to Las Vegas. And then there’s a long extradition fight.
ARH: So what Reid did, he got to Las Vegas, and he immediately has Russell surrender to the Las Vegas PD where, look, Las Vegas is like this tiny town. Everybody knows Reid, and so Reid is able to fight extradition for years. And the other great scene was — and the way Reid describes it is so funny, it’s like vintage Harry Reid — where the guy calls in this famous litigator of the day, this famous defense lawyer, I forget the name at this moment. And the guy comes in and what Reid remembers about the defense lawyer and he’s in the book, but he would always comment on it and get this like a smile on his face, was the guy had like a garter belt for his socks.
RG: Yes! [Laughs.] And wasn’t wearing pants when Reid came into the hotel room.
ARH: Yeah, he comes in, the guy’s wearing boxers and a garter belt holding up his socks and Reid thinks this is the funniest thing. Like, decades later, he’s still like: Ari, the guy was wearing a garter belt on his socks — who does that?
RG: And Russell ended up not using the attorney because he asked — you go ahead.
ARH: He asked the attorney: How much would you take?
And the attorney said: Everything you got.
RG: Right: That’s my fee. That was his standard fee for these types of trials. Everything you have. How bad do you want to not spend the rest of your life in jail?
ARH: And the guy’s like: Well, I’ll go with Reid. I’ll take the discount.
And Reid ends up fighting this based on the kid was on a drug, prescribed medication, that his dad had prescribed that was supposed to make you smarter, but apparently just made you crazy. And it caused a mental breakdown, and the kid killed his parents. And basically, for a double homicide, they got down to essentially like manslaughter because of medical issues. But it was one of the first cases ever in the country where a double murder was reduced down to this. And Reid fought it because as soon as he saw an injustice, even in an insane situation, he felt the need to fight that injustice.
And Russell did, I think, six years in prison and then went on to live his life in Las Vegas.
RG: Yeah. And he also represented a woman who was accused of bouncing a couple checks.
ARH: Well, the one that always sticks with me is the a prostitute came in about her storage unit items being stolen.
RG: Right that one. Right. She’d been evicted without going through the proper process.
ARH: And his law partners were like: Why are you taking this case? It’s not the Russell Payne case where the guy’s got unlimited amounts of money — this is no profit. This woman’s not going to win.
But Reid saw an injustice and saw these storage companies bullying this woman and a lot of consumer protections became based on this case, because this woman won. And it basically said: You can’t abuse people just because they’re — and this is years ahead.
And the thing that’s interesting is it’s not like Reid was pro-sex work. In fact, he was pretty anti-sex work to the end. He thought Nevada should reverse its prostitution laws as late as like 2018 or 2019. He thought it was bad for the state of Nevada had legal prostitution in certain counties. But he saw an injustice against the individual.
RG: Well, Ari Rabin-Have, thank you for joining me.
ARH: Thank you, Mr. Grim.
[End credits theme.]
RG: That was Ari Rabin-Havt. Earlier we also spoke with Kristen Orthman and Faiz Shakir.
That’s our show. Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our podcast fellow is Truc Nguyen. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
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