Oh No Harry Reid Died

Harry Reid was a warrior.

The former Democratic Senate majority leader died Tuesday at 82. Pancreatic cancer took his life but his legacy will endure. That’s not a trite sentiment we say when a public figure passes away. (Have you met us?) No, Reid made a difference. At least 31 million Americans have health care right now because of the Affordable Care Act, which Reid steered to passage through the Senate against unified Republican opposition.

Yes, Reid had a massive 60-vote supermajority, but that included Joe Lieberman and Democrats from Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota, Arkansas, and West Virginia. The Affordable Care Act was a game changer for Americans, even without a public option (which Reid wanted). In the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, Reid also passed a sweeping $787 billion economic stimulus package that helped America avoid another Great Depression.

Obama said in a statement after Reid’s death: "I wouldn't have been president had it not been for your encouragement and support, and I wouldn't have got most of what I got done without your skill and determination.” This also isn’t hyperbole. As former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs noted yesterday, Reid personally recruited Obama to run for president in 2006.

In the spring of 2006, then Sen. Obama said he was going to the Capitol, Sen. Reid wanted to see him. We both wondered why. A short time later, Obama returned, came into my office and said, a little stunned, "Harry wants me to run for President." It was the start of the journey.

Yes, Reid reportedly claimed that Obama could win the presidency because he was a "light-skinned" African American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” but he personally apologized to Obama for the dumb comment.

“If Harry said he would do something, he did it,” President Biden, who served as Mr. Obama’s vice president, said in a statement Tuesday evening. “If he gave you his word, you could bank on it. That’s how he got things done for the good of the country for decades.”

That seems a very pointed remark from Biden, given recent events.

Reid grew up poor in rural Searchlight, Nevada. According to the New York Times, "his home had no indoor plumbing, his father was an alcoholic miner who eventually died by suicide, and his mother helped the family survive by taking in laundry from local brothels.” Less than 50 years later, he would join the Senate and soon lead his party’s caucus. He was a master organizer in Nevada, and the state’s Democratic Party was nicknamed the Reid Machine.

Yet the three-decade Senate tenure of this soft-spoken yet ferociously combative Nevadan, a middleweight boxer in his youth, also traced the chamber’s evolution from a collegial and consensus-oriented institution to the partisan and fractured body it has become. Republicans placed some of the blame on Mr. Reid for this change, pointing to his 2013 decision to upend Senate rules by doing away with the filibuster on most nominations by a president.

I have to disagree with the Times' version of Senate history. After all, it was a "collegial and consensus-oriented” Senate that confirmed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Reid didn’t come from privilege and he didn’t view the Senate as a country club. He fought for his constituents and for Americans in general. It’s also annoying that his decision to kill the judicial filibuster (excluding Supreme Court nominations) is presented without the larger context that Republicans had abused the rule to block Obama’s nominations, often for unrelated legislative reasons.

"For the first time in the history of our republic, Republicans have routinely used the filibuster to prevent President Obama from appointing an executive team and from appointing judges," Reid said. "The need for change is so, so very obvious. It's clearly visible. It's manifest we have to do something to change things.”

We realize now how difficult such a rule change is, no matter how obviously necessary. And Reid had a narrow Senate majority after 2010, before Republicans gained control in the 2014 midterms.

Prior to his death, and especially after his retirement in 2016, Reid was known as a hardscrabble fighter, perhaps one better suited to the current moment than his successor, Chuck Schumer. However, so many tributes yesterday recognized Reid’s humanity and generosity of spirit. Former Obama staffer and immigration advocate Cecilia Muñoz described him as always "willing to listen, to change his mind, to grow as a leader.”

He’ll be missed.

[Nevada Independent / The New York Times]

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."


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