My Eulogy for Senator Harry Reid
He was always, unfailingly, himself.
Mr. President and First Lady Biden, Vice President and Second Gentleman Harris, Leader Schumer, Speaker Pelosi, Elder Ballard, most of all to Harry’s beloved Landra, the Reid children and grandchildren, friends and former staff, it’s a great honor to be with you today to pay tribute to my friend, Harry Reid.
Now, to be clear, and as Chuck mentioned in his remarks, I suspect Harry himself would not have wanted to sit through this thing. Harry did not like being the center of attention. It made him a little awkward. He was uncomfortable when people said too many nice things about him.
But as he looks down on us today, Harry is going to have to suck it up. Because few people have done more for this state and this country than this driven, brilliant, sometimes irascible, deeply good man from Searchlight, Nevada.
I first met Harry in 2005, after I’d been elected to the Senate and Harry had been elevated to become Democratic Leader. And I was the sole African-American in the Senate at the time, a mixed kid with a funny name. And given how different our backgrounds were, I did not know how well Harry and I would hit it off. He was older, of course. His kids were grown. I didn’t know what kind of music he liked, but I figured he didn’t listen to Jay-Z. On the issues, he had a reputation for being a little more conservative than I was, reflecting the politics of his western state.
So, he invited me to his office for a chat shortly after I’d been sworn in. There was not a lot of small talk. In fact, there was not a lot of talk at all. He asked me what committee assignments I wanted. I told him. He said he’d see what he could do. Half the time, his voice was so soft, I could barely hear what he was saying.
Afterwards, my senior colleague from Illinois, Dick Durbin, asked me how it went. I said, “Man, I don’t know. The whole conversation lasted maybe 10 minutes. He did not seem particularly pleased with my taking up his time.” “Don’t worry,” Dick said. “If Harry didn’t like you, it would have only lasted five minutes.”
That was Harry. As has been observed, Harry was not a schmoozer or a back-slapper. He did not regale you with long, drawn-out stories and he did not appreciate long, drawn-out stories. Despite the years he’d spent in Congress, despite all the power he wielded, his reputation as being the consummate Washington insider, what I came to realize was that Harry always remained something of an outsider in Washington, which makes sense, given the remarkable path to the Senate that he had taken, a path that was at least as unlikely, if not more unlikely than mine.
Others have mentioned Harry’s extraordinary journey out of Searchlight, a tiny, desert town an hour from away from just about everywhere, how Harry had to hitchhike more than 40 miles each way to Henderson and stay with relatives just to go to high school, how he put himself through college and law school, moonlighting as a uniformed Capitol Police officer to help cover tuition and support a young family.
Fair to say, it was not easy. There must have been times where he must have felt doubt about achieving his dreams, like the time his car broke down and he walked into the dean’s office to say that he wasn’t sure if he could afford to finish school. As Harry remembered it, the dean looked him up and down and said, “Mr. Reid, why don’t you just quit?” That dean did not know Harry Reid’s character.
Like others who would later underestimate the man, hardship had forged a steel in Harry, a fighting spirit that explained his success in the boxing ring, despite being significantly undersized.
He liked to talk about his boxing. “You know, Barack, I wasn’t a great athlete. I wasn’t big and strong, like some of the guys I went up against. But I had two things going for me. I could take a punch and I never gave up.” That’s about right.
That same dogged determination marked Harry Reid’s political career. He lost his first Senate race by just 600 votes. Six months later, he ran for mayor of this town and lost in a landslide.
But Harry did not give up. He got himself a seat in the House, then the Senate, finally became Senate Majority Leader. And let’s face it, he enjoyed every minute of proving doubters wrong again and again and again. “Sometimes the people who motivate us the most,” Harry would later say, “are the ones who believe in us the least.”
So yes, being tough, being a fighter was one of Harry’s singular characteristics. Apparently, once a staffer handed him some draft remarks in which he was supposed to refer to himself as “a former boxer.” And Harry crossed out the word “former.” He was 70 years old at the time.
But there were other aspects to Harry’s character that helped explain his extraordinary achievements, qualities that, at this particular moment in our history, seem especially relevant. First and foremost, Harry was a pragmatist. At a time when so many Americans across the political spectrum apply strict purity tests to our politicians, demanding they toe the line on just about every issue, at a time when so often compromise is portrayed as weakness, Harry had a different view. He didn’t believe in high-falutin’ theories or rigid ideologies. He thought most people make decisions based on their life experience, based on the immediate needs of their families, based on their own self-interests, no matter what they may tell themselves.
And as a result, Harry met people where they were, not where he wanted them to be. And he was willing to cut deals, even with folks he didn’t agree with or particularly like.
I heard Nancy Pelosi say, she never heard Harry say anything bad about any of his colleagues. I don’t know about that, Nancy. But he would work with them. I love Nancy, but…
But he would work with them if that’s what it took to move things forward. In a battle between perfection and progress, Harry always chose progress.
That pragmatism made Harry adaptable. When he first got to Washington, Harry’s voting record wasn’t so different from those who’d represented his state in the past, holding traditional positions on issues like gun rights, immigration, reproductive health. But as Nevada and the country changed, as Harry met more and more people from different walks of life and realized their struggles weren’t that different from his family’s had been in Searchlight, Harry’s views on some of these issues changed as well.
He didn’t consider that a weakness. He understood that he wasn’t always going to be right about everything. He knew how to listen and to learn, and was humble enough to admit when he had to change his mind and grow.
And by the way, speaking from personal experience, it helps when you’re married to somebody who’s wiser and brighter than you. I know something about that.
After Harry introduced a bill repealing birthright citizenship in the 1990s, for example, Landra pointed out that her own father had been a Russian immigrant. Later Harry would say, “I came to the realization that I was way off base. I am so glad she righted the ship.”
Now, of course, there are plenty of politicians who change their positions just because they want to get reelected. They’ve got their fingers out to the wind. They’re interested in clinging to power for its own sake. But for Harry, the whole point of holding office, the whole point of wielding power, was to actually get things done on behalf of those he represented.
During his time as Leader, that is exactly what he did, he got things done. Without Harry, we would not have passed the Recovery Act, helping to prevent another Great Depression. Without Harry, we wouldn’t have saved people’s jobs, helped people stay in their homes. Without Harry, we would not have passed Wall Street reform, reining in some of the worst abuses of the financial industry. Without Harry, there would be no Affordable Care Act.
People forget that there were many times during the debate over healthcare reform when it looked like nothing was going to get passed. But Harry, working with Nancy Pelosi in the House, working with then vice president, now President, my partner, Joe Biden, Harry refused to give up, maneuvering and applying pressure like only he could.
The deals Harry made to get that law done didn’t always look pretty, but they got votes. Whenever I would object to a change he wanted to make, whether because of some policy concerns or worries about the optics, Harry would tell me, with some exasperation in his voice, “Mr. President, you know a lot more than I do about healthcare policy, okay? But I know the Senate.”
He was right. Harry did know the Senate, better than just about anyone else. More importantly, he understood why the work we were doing mattered.
Growing up, Harry’s family didn’t have health care. He told me he didn’t even know what it was. When Harry’s brother broke his leg, he stayed in bed and waited for it to heal. When his father needed a tooth removed, he yanked it out himself. Harry remembered those times. He knew what that was like. So, when Harry put everything he had into passing the ACA, he didn’t do it to burnish his own legacy, he did it for the people back home and families like his, who needed someone looking out for them when nobody else was. Harry got things done.
And here’s another thing that set Harry apart: He was always, unfailingly, himself. That may not sound exceptional, but in Washington it is an exceedingly rare quality. Harry was the first to admit he wasn’t the most charismatic, or politically correct, speaker. After a press conference, he’d sometimes go up to a staffer and say, “Okay, tell me everything I did wrong.”
But Harry knew who he was, and had the distinct advantage of not really caring what other people thought of him. In a town obsessed with appearances, Harry had a real vanity deficit. He didn’t like phonies. He didn’t like grandstanding. He was proud of the fact he didn’t own a tuxedo. When he had to go to fundraisers, he would try to get out in under 10 minutes. And apparently the only White House Congressional picnic Harry ever attended was for his son Key’s benefit. Key wanted to impress a girl he was dating at the time. Key and Maile ended up getting married. So, Harry grudgingly admitted, it was worth the sacrifice.
Finally, for all Harry’s toughness, all his hard-nosed views about politics, Harry loved his family, loved his staff, and Harry was a true and loyal friend. During my time in the Senate, he was more generous to me than I had any right to expect. He was one of the first people to encourage me to run for president, believing that despite my youth, despite my inexperience, despite the fact that I was African-American, I could actually win, which, at the time, made one of us.
You wanted Harry in the foxhole with you. His willingness to fight by my side, to stick with me even when things weren’t going our way, my poll numbers had gone down and some Democrats thought it might be prudent to maintain a healthy distance from me, his willingness to be there, to fight, would last throughout my presidency. It’s a debt to him that I could never fully repay.
I remember, toward the end of my time in the White House, Michelle and I invited Harry and Landra over for dinner, along with Joe and Jill, and Nancy and Paul, Chuck and Iris. During the meal, Harry was his usual curmudgeonly self. Occasionally, he’d offer an opinion on this or that, muttered about the food was pretty good, but generally he was keeping his own counsel.
But at the end of the night — and those who were there, I suspect, will remember this; I sure do — Harry suddenly asked for everyone’s attention. “Listen,” he said. “Everybody here knows that I don’t show a lot of emotion, okay. That’s just how I grew up. I just want to say that I’m really proud of what I’ve done with this president, and I love this guy.” And then, without any warning, he leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.
I think it’s fair to say that we were all surprised. And I laughed, and I said, “Well, thanks, Harry. I love you, too, man.” and I put my arm around him, which I think was just too much for him. Because he said, “Well, okay then, it’s past my bedtime.” And with that, he and Landra headed for the door.
Pragmatism, adaptability, a premium on getting things done, a lack of pretension, and abiding loyalty, that’s what Harry Reid represented, a man of old-school virtues. They are qualities that are in short supply these days and yet, it seems to me they are precisely the qualities our democracy requires.
Harry understood we don’t have to see eye-to-eye on everything in order to live together and be decent towards each other and that we can learn to bridge differences, background and race and region. He knew that our system of government isn’t based on demanding that everybody think exactly the same way. In fact, it presumes that in a country as big and diverse as ours, people rarely will, but we can still work together.
Harry may have been a proud Democratic partisan. He didn’t shy away from bare-knuckle politics. But what is true is that I never heard Harry speak of politics as if it was some unbending battle between good and evil. Because he knew what was true for himself was true for everybody, that we’re all bundles of contradictions, we all have our flaws, we all have our blind spots, but despite all that, it was possible for us to affirm our collective humanity, because that’s what made America great.
Once we had both left office, I didn’t see much of Harry, but we’d call each other on the phone from time to time. He’d tell me about Landra and he’d speak with great pride about his kids and his grandkids and all that they were doing. He told me about his illness and the treatments he was going through, and what was keeping him busy.
At some point during those calls, he’d usually mention somebody he’d run into who had thanked him for getting them health care, or save their job. And particularly in recent months, maybe knowing he didn’t have much time left, he’d allow himself a hint of nostalgia, and talk about how together we’d made a darn good team, how we’d done pretty well for the American people.
As I would start to reply, yes, he would cut me off. “Okay then, Mr. President,” he’d say, and hang up. The whole conversation would last about five minutes. But in those five minutes, he’d communicate more than some folks do in a couple hours.
That’s who Harry was, a man who knew what was important and didn’t believe in dwelling on what wasn’t. One former colleague explained it by saying, “To Harry, goodbye was an unnecessary word.”
It might not have been necessary for Harry, but it is for us. Goodbye, Harry. Thank you for everything. Nevada has never had a greater champion. The Senate and the country benefitted from your extraordinary leadership. And I could not have asked for a better, truer friend. I sure did love you back.