Remembering Harry Reid, 1939–2021

Remembering Harry Reid, 1939–2021

The Nevada senator was a brilliant strategist, but his real secret was his ability to take your biggest vulnerability and make it your strength.


The most awkward job interview I ever had was with Harry Reid.

He wasn’t someone who talked to fill up space, which was rare in Washington. He let there be silence—sometimes long silences—and then waited to see what you did with it. And I didn’t think I did very well. But somehow I got the job and became his communications director.

Back then, we couldn’t have been more different. And in some ways, that holds true today. Even after his death.

Reid is being memorialized now as a progressive and the Lion of the Senate, but when I first met him—after the Democrats lost everything in 2004—he was simply the last man standing. Our nominee for president lost. Our Senate leader lost. We were in the minority in the House. Reid was it.

And he was no liberal. He had won his last race with the slogan, “Independent. Like Nevada.”

But there weren’t a lot of Democrats in elected office at the time. And it was a good job being offered: the communications director for a newly envisioned Senate Democratic Communications Center. Reid and his chief of staff, Susan McCue, had watched previous leaders use the staff mainly for their own benefit. They wanted to change that. They wanted to help the whole caucus. They wanted a war room.

Harry Reid knew that Democrats needed a message. We needed to stay strong. We needed to fight back.

He saw that as his duty—and ours. So we were there to help with talking points and press conferences, to help frame the big stories, to get our senators on TV, to talk to producers. To explain what we were doing, have a strategy, and show it.

By now, story after story has been told about that side of Reid. About his ability to think 10 steps ahead. About his deep understanding of a deliberative body that has, in recent years, become more of a “legislative graveyard.”

His backbone was no secret, and it’s a big reason why so many electoral and legislative victories happened under his watch. He didn’t view compromise as evil. But he also knew that some things—some rights, some dignities, some basic common sense—were too important to sacrifice.

Still, in the few years of working for him, and nearly two decades of knowing him, what made Reid a great leader wasn’t all that. It was his ability to take your biggest vulnerability and make it your strength.

That’s actually how he saved Social Security. Back in 2005, President Bush was determined to dismantle the program. And every Democrat in the caucus was worried about Senator Max Baucus. A Democrat from Montana, he had a good relationship with the President and had worked with him in the past.

So what did Harry Reid do? Rather than box Baucus out, he put him in charge of saving the whole thing. That’s right: He hugged Baucus as tight as possible, assigned him to be the lead strategist of whatever deal we came up with, and then barnstormed the country with other Senators to rally support. He took the caucus’s biggest vulnerability—Baucus—and made him our strength. Social Security is still kicking today because of that decision.

This trait didn’t just help Harry Reid legislate masterfully. It also made him a wonderful boss.

While other Senators were known to ask about SAT scores in interviews, Harry Reid wanted to know what adversity you had faced in your life. What made you tough. Sometimes, that could be the thing you were most embarrassed about. But Harry Reid didn’t do embarrassing.

One day, not long after I started, he asked me with his typical bluntness: “Do you have a learning disability?”

I’d been reading him the wrong numbers for radio interviews he’d been trying to call into. I’d also been dyslexic my whole life, and ashamed of it for just as long. I couldn’t speak. With tears in my eyes, I just nodded yes. I felt defeated. Like a failure. An imposter.

But Harry Reid looked me right in the eyes and said, “You must have worked twice as hard to get where you are.”

No one had ever framed it that way to me before. No one had ever seen my biggest weakness as a strength—least of all me. But he did. He gave me confidence. He made me believe in myself and know my worth. He taught me how to fight—and taught me what was worth fighting for.

At a time when politics was dominated by men (and let’s face it, it still is), Harry Reid also understood the value of strong women. His office was full of them, which meant so much to me as I started on my way. He treated us like equals and always sought our advice. After every press conference, he’d turn to me and say, “Ok, what did I do wrong?” He had the thickest skin I’ve ever seen, always looking to find and refine his weaknesses—and he was confident enough to hear our harshest feedback.

So many of the women I love and respect most in politics came through Harry Reid’s office. To him, we weren’t vulnerabilities. We were assets.

He lifted us up, let us grow, and kept up with our careers and lives long after they’d diverged from his—even though he surely had better things to do with his time. So many bosses in D.C. don’t give a crap about their staff. But Harry Reid wanted us to fly. He wanted us to find love and have families. And once we did, he wanted to hear about our kids. He cared, and he made sure we knew it.

It’s no wonder all of us cared for him deeply right back. When Adam Jentleson, another Reid alum, and I started a cooperative to help Democrats fight harder, better, and smarter, it was only fitting that we named it Battle Born, a nod to him and the motto of the state he loved deeply.

I know he appreciated the subtlety of it. After all, in a town and a job surrounded by people who loved the cameras, Harry Reid couldn’t care less. Senators would often bicker about who could speak first at a presser. Not him. “Give them my spot. I’ll go last,” he’d say. He was never one for showmanship.

But he did love a good story. And perhaps there’s none more inspiring, more remarkable, and more American than his. Born in abject poverty in Searchlight, a mining town of 200, Harry Reid died having forever changed American politics—and America writ large.

He also changed himself. Over the course of his life, he changed his circumstances drastically. He changed professions. He changed religions. And when it mattered, he wasn’t afraid to change his mind. He left the Senate with different positions on immigration, gay marriage, and abortion than he entered it with. And he knew that evolution made him better, made him stronger.

There are only two things I can think of that Harry Reid never wavered on. The first was his love for Landra, his wife. Theirs was one of the few pure love stories in all of Washington, and it’s what he wanted for all of us.

The second was his love for Nevada. He never forgot where he came from, and always remembered the people he was fighting for and the reason he’d gotten into the fight in the first place. He made sure everyone who worked for him understood Nevada and the beauty of the West. We all had to go visit and learn it—and yes, we all fell in love with its magic, too.

Out there, we saw firsthand the people, the places, the environment that shaped Harry Reid into who he was: a great man on an even greater mission.

In his last speech to the Senate, he spoke about no longer feeling ashamed of his background. Over the course of his career, he realized that the hardships he’d faced and overcome weren’t vulnerabilities—they were strengths. Harry Reid, the guy from Searchlight, was the man, the mentor, the leader he was because of them.

He was one of a kind, and he’ll be forever missed.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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