Tom Daschle: Remembering a man who wouldn’t stay down
Harry Reid came from a town where you couldn’t afford to stay down.
When he was just 11 years old, Harry followed his father hundreds of feet underground into the mines below Searchlight, Nev., where he would pan for gold and keep his dad company as the older man pounded through nearly impenetrable rock. He spent his childhood one cave-in or errant blasting cap away from becoming a fatality of those mines, as his father’s brother and a neighbor had become just a few years before. But Harry always came back up.
When he was in high school, his government teacher and boxing coach, future Nevada governor Mike O’Callaghan, had an odd technique for motivating his fighters. He’d drive behind them in his car as they ran up a steep hill. “If they stumbled or fell and did not promptly get up and continue,” he later recalled, they knew “there was a good chance they would be run over. But Harry never complained.”
In the ring, as a scrappy middleweight, he was matched against superior fighters. But even though he wasn’t big or fast or especially athletic, every time he hit the mat, he’d come up swinging.
In the two weeks that have passed since we lost Harry Reid to pancreatic cancer, there have been a lot of beautiful tributes written, trying to capture what made my friend of more than 40 years so unique. But it was probably the words of O’Callaghan himself in the forward to the beloved book Harry wrote on his hometown that captured him best.
“There was always something different about Harry,” O’Callaghan recalled. “It must have been the spirit of the mines in Searchlight, something raw and untamed and confident. He had no fear.”
There’s often a thin line between intensity and irrationality.
I’d argue that punching out a girl’s father just to take her on a date is unwise, but Harry and his high school sweetheart, Landra, were married for 62 years after that punch; his father-in-law’s nose eventually healed, and Harry and Landra raised five wonderful children together, who in turn raised their 19 beloved grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
I’m certain that representing one of Nevada’s first Black policemen against the local sheriff because he was denied a promotion due to race wasn’t popular in 1974, but that officer went on to help run the state’s largest police force.
I’m sure plenty of folks thought chairing the Nevada Gaming Commission in the 1970s — which required Reid to go toe-to-toe with organized crime — was sheer lunacy. But they didn’t know Harry.
He wasn’t irrational; he was fearless. After all, how do you convince a person who had to hitchhike 40 miles a day just to attend high school that he couldn’t accomplish anything he set his mind to? It made him a formidable opponent, but an even better ally.
I served with Harry for four years in the House, but our bond really began when we both ran for Senate in 1986. We hit the trail together, two inlanders in uncertain races. As we worked for every vote and every dollar, I marveled at the way that being an underdog sent Harry into overdrive. Even when he had his own election to worry about, he was always reaching out to help me: Did I want to come to this event? Did I want him to make that call?
His kindness was sincere, and his candor was second-nature. Telling the truth in Washington requires its own kind of fearlessness. When we got to the Senate, even the folks who didn’t like what he said respected that he gave it to them straight.
Harry’s loyalty and friendship were rare certainties in an uncertain political world. When we heard that Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) planned to retire in 1994, stepping down from Senate leadership, Harry walked straight into my office, past my assistant, opened my door and said, “You’ve got to run. I’m going to support you, and we’re going to get the votes.” Then he walked out.
He was relentless. As a Senate whip, he literally wore down the carpet between the Senate floor and my office. When we traveled abroad together, he was fanatically disciplined about his morning runs. On a trip to Serbia, when we got in late, he headed out solo the next morning, neglecting to note the name of our hotel. He got so lost that he had to flag down a Serbian policeman for help. It was probably the only time Harry Reid didn’t know where he was going.
He surely never forgot where he was from, however. Harry hung a photo of his hometown in the leader’s office so he could look at it every day as he made his way to the Senate floor. It was a constant reminder of where he came from, what kind of fighter he was, who he was fighting for.
Harry was a fearless champion for the people of Searchlight and others like them — the ones below ground and below the poverty line. The miners and shift workers who no longer have to choose between seeing a doctor and feeding their families because Harry made sure the Affordable Care Act would cover them. The future generations from all walks of life who will inherit the wild, beautiful landscapes that he fought to preserve. The millions of Nevadans whose voices now help drive our electoral process because Harry put the state’s presidential caucuses early on the political map, ensuring that the Silver State, like its senator, would punch above its weight. Their future is his legacy.
Harry’s book on his hometown is part history, part love letter. As a tribute to the indefatigable spirit of the place and its people, he titled it, “The Camp That Didn’t Fail.”
In Harry Reid, Searchlight gave the us “The Man Who Didn’t Fail,” who kept his word and kept his promises. Who never stayed down, but who instead rose tirelessly to fight for what mattered most — for his hometown and his state and his country. For all of us.
What a gift that remote mining town gave the world, and how fortunate we are to have had him.
Former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) is one of the longest-serving Senate Democratic leaders in history and one of only two to serve twice as both majority and minority leader. Daschle is the founder and CEO of the Daschle Group, a public policy advisory of Baker Donelson.