One of the nation’s most powerful politicians was also a steadfast ‘home teacher’ at church
Harry Reid’s legacy started with his rise from poverty in rural Nevada, eventually becoming the U.S. Senate majority leader.
The late-Utah Sen. Bob Bennett would occasionally introduce his Democratic colleague from Nevada, Harry Reid, to his conservative family members and friends by saying that some Latter-day Saints believe a member of the church will play a role in saving the Constitution from hanging by a thread. He’d then point to Reid with a wry smile and say, they may be surprised to learn that this is the man who will actually do it.
Reid passed away on Tuesday, but not before influencing the course of U.S. history more than most kids from Searchlight, Nevada (population 318).
Tributes to the senator — who represented his home state in the U.S. Senate from 1987 to 2017 — have focused on his tenure as Senate majority leader and his passage of blockbuster bills like the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank reforms of Wall Street. Former President Barack Obama wrote on Twitter that he “wouldn’t have been president” and “wouldn’t have got most of what I got done” if it wasn’t for Reid’s “encouragement,” “support” and “skill.”
Reid unexpectedly decided to bow out of politics after losing eyesight due to an exercise accident in 2015, and he was later diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2018. But even after exiting public life, the inertia of his clout shaped the 2020 Democratic nomination. The Atlantic dubbed him the Democratic National Committee’s “Kingmaker,” and Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders and even Michael Bloomberg, among others, sought Reid’s counsel during the most recent presidential cycle.
“I never call Harry that I don’t learn something,” Warren remarked to The Atlantic.
Speaking with those who knew and worked with Reid over the years, a portrait of Nevada’s most powerful politician emerges. It begins with a rough-hewn boy whose “little guy” politics and impish pugilism began while fighting his way out of an impoverished childhood. The steady presence and leadership skills that marked his elder statesman persona came later in life with time and experience, including with countless lessons learned in his home as a husband and father and a lay leader serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the faith to which he and his wife, Landra, converted during college.
Long before Reid was the most powerful Democratic politician in the West, he was the chairman of Nevada’s Gaming Commission, a thankless role that carried with it the ire of both the powerful and the corrupt.
In 1978, Reid was offered a bribe of $12,000 to approve new gaming devices for casinos that promised to generate some $100 million in profits. Reid set up a meeting to accept the bribe, while secretly tipping off the FBI so agents could be present to arrest the fraudster.
As agents stormed in, Reid — fully aware of the plan, but nonetheless incensed — leaped on top of the man, cursing him: “You tried to bribe me!”
FBI agents had to pry Reid off.
The bribe led to a conviction in federal court. Two years later, Landra, Reid’s wife, discovered a bomb hitched to their family car. It was never proven in court, but Reid had suspicions about who was responsible.
He learned that success in Nevada politics meant survival.
And that was never taken for granted in the arid expanse of rural Nevada. The lone tree in front of Reid’s home died during his childhood. And when Reid was born in 1939, the town of Searchlight, Nevada, felt like it was dying as well. The gold rush of the early 20th century had come and gone. Reid’s alcoholic father — who later took his own life — was one of the few miners left there.
Searchlight’s main pass had almost no industry other than a handful of brothels, where Harry’s mother made a living as a laundress and where a young Harry learned how to swim. When Reid reached high school age, he hitchhiked 40-plus miles to attend school in a Las Vegas suburb where he boarded with relatives during the week.
His years at Basic High School equipped him with a pair of life-altering relationships: Mike O’Callaghan, his government teacher who later became Nevada governor, and Landra Gould, who later became Reid’s wife. O’Callaghan was a one-legged Korean War veteran who also taught Reid how to box; at age 19, when Gould’s father opposed the idea of his daughter marrying Reid, this came in handy. The trained boxer fought his father-in-law in the Gould family’s front yard.
Reid and Gould eloped shortly thereafter.
Thanks in part to O’Callaghan, Reid earned a scholarship to the College of Southern Utah (now Southern Utah University) in Cedar City, Utah.
While there, the college-age Reid purchased a health insurance policy from Dixie Leavitt, father of future Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt. The plan had a nine-month waiting period on maternity, which Reid misunderstood.
Just under nine months later, the young, poor couple gave birth to their oldest son, Rory. When insurance didn’t cover the maternity costs, Reid called Leavitt and explained the situation. “Did you think your plan covered maternity?” Leavitt asked Reid at the time. Reid explained that he did.
“Send me the bill,” Leavitt replied.
The expenses were covered in full. Reid was so moved that years later he recounted the story on the Senate floor when Dixie Leavitt’s son, Mike, was facing a stiffer-than-expected confirmation to become the 10th administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. There was little pushback toward Leavitt from Democrats after Reid shared the story.
“At the time, I had no idea (Reid) would rise to what he rose to,” Dixie Leavitt said. But rise he did.
Reid eventually transferred to Utah State University, again on scholarship, where he graduated near the top of his class with a double major in political science and history and a minor in economics.
In Logan, while living in the basement of a Latter-day Saint family, the Reids joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Reid’s upbringing was largely devoid of religion, and Gould was Jewish, but the Book of Mormon, faith in a forever family and the power of Jesus Christ’s gospel drew them toward baptism.
Reid’s first taste of life in Washington came in law school, when he and Landra relocated to the nation’s capital to attend George Washington University. Reid worked night shifts for the U.S. Capitol Police to help pay for his schooling; one Washington-area friend recalled Reid taking his Latter-day Saint scriptures with him, and when assigned to work the elevator, he would study during the downtime.
Upon returning to Las Vegas to serve as a city attorney, Reid “prided himself on taking the cases of society’s underdogs,” a Time article described. At 28, Reid won a seat in the Nevada Legislature; at 31, he became the state’s youngest lieutenant governor as the running mate of O’Callaghan, his old teacher and boxing coach.
If the O’Callaghan-Reid administration was smooth sailing — the governor is remembered as the most popular in Nevada history — Reid’s subsequent four-year stint as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission was his first real dive into hot water. By 1970, tourism was Nevada’s No. 1 industry, with gambling as its cash cow; by 1975, gaming-related taxes composed half of the state’s budget. But rising up the ranks of Nevada’s political world in the 1970s still wasn’t easy, especially when you’re regulating the state’s most powerful and shadowy business.
Before his appointment with the gaming commission, Reid lost his first race for the U.S. Senate in 1974 to Paul Laxalt, former Nevada governor and close friend of Ronald Reagan, by a razor-thin margin (624 votes out of some 160,000 cast). A year later, he refocused on local politics, running for Las Vegas mayor — and lost again.
In 1980, Nevada’s population growth resulted in the state receiving a second seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Reid ran for the House in 1982 and 1984, winning both races comfortably.
In 1986, Reid ran for the U.S. Senate once more, this time challenging James Santini, a four-term U.S. congressman who switched party affiliation (from Democrat to Republican) after leaving the House. Lew Cramer, who then served as the high priest group leader in Reid’s church congregation in northern Virginia, recalls the race being neck-and-neck, with a wardrobe adjustment playing a humorous role.
“I told him, ‘Harry, this is kind of against my own personal political interest, but you’ve got to quit wearing blue shirts during the campaign,’” Cramer, who worked in the Reagan White House, recalled. “‘Wear a white shirt, and let people know that you’re a member of the church.’”
Reid won the race by five percentage points. He wore a white shirt.
For God and for country
Politics aside, Reid would make it a habit of introducing visitors to his office to the Book of Mormon. “Everybody knew he was a Latter-day Saint, and he wasn’t shy about it,” one Washington-area acquaintance recounted.
One of those visitors was Sen. Larry Pressler, a Republican from South Dakota. Reid and Pressler first connected at the Senate Prayer Breakfast, and Pressler recalls complaining to Reid about the tough business of politics.
“Reid said, ‘Well, you’ve just got to feel that you’re doing it for God and for your church and your country and your fellow man, and that’ll make it a lot easier,’” Pressler recalled.
In 2015, Reid assisted in teaching Pressler with Latter-day Saint missionaries and ended up performing his confirmation as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Reid also spoke at the baptismal service and called Pressler “extraordinary in so many ways.”
While the intersection of Reid’s liberal politics and his faith caused heartburn for some, to him it was a natural pairing. “I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it,” Reid famously said in a 2007 forum address at Brigham Young University.
“He was a partisan on the Senate floor, but there was no more faithful saint in our ward than Harry,” Cramer said, who lived in the McLean 1st Ward with the Reids. On one particular Sunday, when Cramer encouraged his fellow high priests in the congregation to do their home teaching (visiting other families in the congregation to teach and help with their needs) he recalls looking around the room and thinking, “They all loved the gospel. But (Reid) is by far the most dependable home teacher.”
It’s something Bob Bennett, also a fellow congregant, would frequently say.
Bennett’s son, Jim, recalls his father marveling that Reid would not only visit his home teaching families in Virginia, but he would then go home to Nevada and make home teaching visits there as well. Bennett, who served alongside Reid in the U.S. Senate as a Republican from Utah, had ideological differences but recognized Reid’s immense impact on behalf of their shared faith. “Harry Reid has done as much to further the work of the Kingdom as any politician that has ever served in national office, including me,” Bennett said in 2012.
Sen. Gordon Smith, another fellow Latter-day Saint senator from Oregon, would occasionally host diplomats and other dignitaries at his home. One night, a massive thunderstorm moved the party inside. Soon the power went out; seated in the dark, as one party attendee recalled, Reid turned to an ambassador and said, “We need more visas for Mormon missionaries!” The ambassador asked how many. “How about 150?” Reid responded. “All right, you’ve got it,” the ambassador replied.
Harry and Landra had five children, a daughter and four sons. One of his sons named his second child — and Reid’s 16th grandchild, of 19 total — Harry. “Wow! Another Harry Reid,” the elder Harry declared later in a speech. “I was really happy. It surprised me. I felt so emotional.”
Harry then said he called his four other children to inform them that he was “disowning” each of them — “They had fifteen chances between them to name their babies after me,” he joked. When one of his children protested that they had girls, Reid replied, “You could have named one of them Harriet!”
“They were an outstanding family,” Cramer said, “The words to describe them are kind, gracious, humble, dependable.” Many children served missions, and all five married in Latter-day Saint temples. Although he’ll be remembered for his very public career, those who knew him said his heart was really at home.
Working across the aisle
Thomas B. Griffith, a former federal judge appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, recalls Reid’s strong support during his confirmation, despite his appointment by a Republican president, George W. Bush. Reid knew Griffith well from his time as the chief lawyer for the Senate (a nonpartisan position) and as the general counsel of BYU. The announcement of Griffith’s nomination had drawn some criticism from The Washington Post. Reid — then the Senate Minority Whip — summoned Griffith to the Capitol and met with him just off of the Senate floor.
“Look, Tom, you’re going to be confirmed,” Reid said, his arm around him. “This isn’t about you. The only way you mess this up is if you take it personally and fight back.” Griffith recalls Reid’s comments as comforting and instructive. “He knew that it wasn’t pleasant for somebody to go from being a private citizen, to being in the middle of a national political battle,” Griffith said. The judge was confirmed by a vote of 73-24, with the support of the entire Democratic leadership team.
Griffith wasn’t the only Republican judge who felt that Reid treated him fairly. “Harry Reid was very good to the judiciary in Nevada,” Judge Jay Bybee recounted, now a federal judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, who was also nominated by George W. Bush in 2003.
Reid’s ability to maintain friendships among political enemies was embodied in his relationship with John Ensign, a Republican challenger for Reid’s Senate seat in 1998. Reid won the race by only 401 votes (out of 435,000), but two years later, Ensign won an election for the other Nevada Senate seat.
When the pair became Senate colleagues, they agreed to work cooperatively on any nominations for judges. The goal was to sidestep national politics and put their home state first, so any time a Nevada judge was nominated, they would not vote until both had reached a consensus. Reid and Ensign both supported Bybee.
But Reid could also be a bitter partisan, and he was prone to political bickering — even petty bickering.
In the mid-2000s Reid said, plainly, that “President Bush is a liar. He betrayed Nevada and he betrayed the country.” Later asked if the comment was appropriate, he demurred, but said the words expressed how he felt. On another occasion, he told a group of high schoolers, “The man’s father is a wonderful human being. I think this guy is a loser.”
In 2012, during Mitt Romney’s bid for president, Reid claimed that the Republican nominee had not paid any taxes for 10 years during an interview with HuffPost. Days later, just three months prior to Election Day, Reid repeated the same claim on the Senate floor.
Reid never apologized, despite later admitting that Romney did pay taxes but didn’t release his tax returns. Romney did release his 2011 tax returns, showing some $1.9 million paid in federal taxes; Reid remained ambivalent.
“He didn’t win, did he?” Reid said in 2015.
Reid later said he and Romney had a “makeup session,” orchestrated by Mike Leavitt, and called the Utah senator a “very, very fine human being.”
But far more Republicans in the West haven’t been as ready to forgive and forget Reid’s partisan excesses.
In 2014, Southern Utah University announced it would name a Center for Outdoor Engagement on campus after Reid. After a group of Cedar City Republicans protested, the university removed Reid’s name. “It’s just the right-wing wackos in Utah, no big surprise there,” Reid later said. “I was embarrassed (by the backlash),” said Dixie Leavitt, for whom the SUU business school is named. “We had an element that pushed the thing until they disbanded it, which is not right.”
The swan song
In the spring of 2016, a worried Reid called on former President Bill Clinton.
Reid sensed that working class folks like his own brother Larry were more supportive of Donald Trump’s campaign than Democrats realized.
So the senator went to broker a deal, according to a report in The Atlantic. Reid knew Bernie Sanders wouldn’t win at that point, but he hoped to find a way for Sanders and his faithful base to feel like they could somehow “claim victory in accepting defeat.”
Clinton listened, but there would be no deal. Hillary Clinton, of course, lost the presidency. Four years later, in 2020, things once again looked dicey for the Democrats.
The one moderate candidate who stood the best chance against Trump, Joe Biden, was trailing heavily. He lost Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. Suddenly, however, Biden pulled off a victory in South Carolina.
The Democratic establishment saw an opening, and within 48 hours, Pete Buttigieg, who was leading through the first two weeks of February, as well as Amy Klobuchar, withdrew from the race and backed Biden. Later the same day, Reid formally and publicly endorsed Biden in an op-ed in USA Today.
Reid’s efforts to unite the party in 2016 had faltered. But the kingmaker wasn’t going to make the same mistake in 2020. After years of mastering the art of political coalitions in the senate, Reid was singing his swan song, brining Democrats in line for one last victory.