A political book that packs a punch

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has written a book that disproves the notion that what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas.

If that were the case, this plain-spoken, rather colorless Nevada Democrat probably would still be head of the Nevada Gaming Commission and fighting to clean up the casinos, rather than confronting political adversaries like President Bush, Republican lawmakers, bureaucrats, lobbyists, journalists and sometimes even fellow Democrats.

Instead, the four-term senator has emerged as one of the most powerful people in the nation’s capital since becoming majority leader after the 2006 election. If you want to know how and why, the answer lies in this remarkable and often brutally candid memoir, which may be unlike any ever written by someone still in high public office. It paints a portrait of a shrewd, disciplined and principled politician with a very long memory, one who hates to lose and seldom does.

Almost any chapter of this slim volume, which inexplicably has no index, will show you what I mean. For example, Reid tells of delivering the 2005 commencement address at George Washington University Law School, where he won a law degree in 1964 while working the evening shift as a Capitol policeman for three years under a Nevada congressman’s patronage.

He had been carrying a grudge against the school after being refused financial aid when he told the dean he was working full time, his wife was pregnant with their second child, his car had broken down and they couldn’t make ends meet. In fact, the dean suggested he wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer and should quit.

“It is true that I had been upset for four decades, and in that time could not be stirred to answer an invitation or a piece of fundraising mail from anyone at the university,” he writes. “The source of my scorn was simple: Success in my life, given my background, was unlikely enough without being kicked by Dean Potts when I was down. … if he was trying to clear me out like a weed among the orchids, then he picked the wrong guy.”

Reid decided he’d held his grudge long enough and it was time to “apologize to the entire faculty, administration and all of the law students for my pettiness,” which he did, telling his audience, “It’s not how I’ve tried to live my life.”

The lesson for Reid was clear, and it tells a great deal about his style of leadership.

“It actually felt good to bury the hatchet at GWU,” he writes. “They were very gracious in receiving me. … In any case, I had neither the time nor energy to hold on to past resentments. I guess that forty years was enough. In 2005, there were far too many battles to fight, on far too many fronts.”

Reid, who labored tirelessly as whip under Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota, decided he would be a different kind of leader than Daschle.

In an implicit criticism of the former leader, he writes: “Whereas Tom had centralized control of the party’s priorities in the leader’s office, I wanted to empower the ranking members on the various committees, give them more autonomy, and place trust in them. I also wanted to establish a bigger and broader leadership group to better harvest the talent and take advantage of the diversity of the Democratic caucus. There would also be something of a change from Daschle, who tended, more often than not, to keep his own counsel. As his whip, I had been very close to him. But he rarely branched out very far beyond me. I resolved to cast a wider leadership net.”

Reid’s criticism of Daschle is couched in the mildest terms, but he is scathing in his denunciation of political adversaries like President Bush and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), whom he says was over his head in the job, as well as several Republican colleagues like Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), “who is always with us when we don’t need him.”

The book is replete with harsh judgments of Bush, whom Reid publicly accused of lying on two occasions: once when he approved a huge nuclear waste facility at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain after promising during the 2000 campaign that he opposed it, and again when Reid says Bush misled him by claiming it was Frist’s idea to invoke the so-called nuclear option by changing the Senate rules to allow a simple majority to invoke a filibuster.

“Once again, the president had lied to me and I told him so,” Reid says. “I still meet with him. He still invites down when he has to. I’m sure he’s not happy about what I said, but I’m not happy about him misleading me either.”

Reid is especially critical of Bush’s conduct of the Iraq war.

In a particularly jarring anecdote, Reid recalls a conversation with then-Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas), who praised the first President Bush as a quality person. But he added, “Watch out for his wife: she’s a b---h.”

Reid then writes, “I have never had anything against Mrs. Bush, but guided by Bentsen’s crude advice, I’ve always said that our forty-third President is more his mother than his dad. … I believe that the current President is an ideologue who has done incalculable damage to the government, reputation and moral standing of the United States of America.”

There’s much more in this fascinating book, especially about Reid’s early life of poverty in the mining town of Searchlight, Nev., his early career as a Las Vegas lawyer and Gaming Commissioner who battled the gambling industry’s Mafia interests, and his growing disenchantment with and opposition to the Iraq war.

And anyone looking for Reid to declare which Democratic presidential candidate he supports will be disappointed, just as whoever is elected president this year, Democrat or Republican, will be sorely disappointed if he or she underestimates this former boxing champion.

ABOUT THE BOOK
The Good Fight: Hard Lessons from Searchlight to Washington
By Sen. Harry Reid and Mark Warren
Putnam, 2008
304 pages, $25.95