Harry Reid Had a Rare Political Superpower

Senator Harry Reid, who died a few weeks after his 82nd birthday, possessed a quality unique among politicians: profound comfort in his own skin. In his personal life, this brought him peace of mind. In politics, it was practically a superpower.

Intensely curious about the world, Mr. Reid followed the news closely and was an avid reader, but one thing he rarely looked at was his own clips. Every day in his Senate office, his staff compiled reams of news stories that mentioned him — and usually they went straight into the files, unread.

We spent countless hours preparing for interviews. I learned that the least effective way to persuade the senator not to say something was to explain that it would generate bad press.

If anything, that made him want to do it more. The words “my staff tells me not to say this” raised our anxiety and reporters’ eagerness, prompting them to stretch their recorders a few inches closer to catch his quiet voice. At the 2008 opening of the Capitol Visitor Center, which for the first time allowed tourists to wait in line for tours indoors, Mr. Reid said, “My staff tells me not to say this, but I’m going to say it anyway: In the summer because of the heat and high humidity, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol.”

Mr. Reid’s comfort in his own skin came from his family and his upbringing. He was raised in a house made of railroad ties in a town called Searchlight, Nev., which can be reached only by traversing miles of desert. To the consternation of anyone who ever had to visit him, he continued living there until 2014, when the need to drive long distances for medical care or to see anyone other than the 445 people who live in Searchlight finally became untenable. As a child, to get an education, he hitchhiked across that expanse, more than 40 miles to the city of Henderson.

Where he came from was never far from his mind. Once, when describing the importance of health care, he explained that the issue was important to him because when his brother broke his leg, they did not have a doctor, let alone health care. So his brother simply lay on the bed, screaming in pain until his leg healed.

Mr. Reid’s deep-rooted sense of self had a huge impact on politics and federal policy, allowing him to identify and pursue strategic goals with clarity, unmuddied by ego. He evaluated tactics based on whether they would advance his goal. If they gained him an inch of advantage, that was enough.

Ideologically, Mr. Reid was to the right of most Democrats for much of his career but shifted left in later years. No one had a better sense of what it would take to win a fight or greater resolve to see it through, come what may. This tracked with his evolving view of how to win in a purple state like Nevada, which went for George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008.

Mr. Reid built a machine that focused on the tough work of building coalitions between organized labor and progressive groups and invested in the nuts and bolts of politics, like voter registration. This machine (and the state’s changing demographics) helped Democrats register many voters: Around 2002, they were behind Republicans by 7,000 voters; by 2020, Democrats held a 110,000-voter advantage. This helped Democrats win crucial races — not just his own victory in 2010, a terrible midterm year for most other Democrats, but also 2016, when Senator Catherine Cortez Masto won by over 25,000 votes, and 2018, when Senator Jacky Rosen won by about 50,000 votes.

Countless remembrances will mention that he was a boxer, but learning to throw a punch seemed less important to his career than learning to take one. Mr. Reid wasn’t just unafraid of bad press; he saw it as a necessary part of achieving a goal. If he wasn’t taking slings and arrows in service of some greater good, he figured, he wasn’t doing his job.

When Republicans shut down the government in 2013 to try to defund the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Reid convinced Democrats to hold the line. In control of the House, Republicans began passing bills that funded popular parts of the government and sending them over to the Senate, daring Democrats to block them. They did, and headlines like “Shutdown Blocks Kids With Cancer From Clinical Trials” proliferated. Mr. Reid helped the caucus members steel themselves against the bad press. It passed, and Republicans surrendered, reopening the government after securing almost zero concessions and being dealt a humiliating defeat.

This foresight is probably why Social Security remains intact. In 2005, Mr. Reid refused to let Mr. Bush privatize the program at a time when conventional wisdom held that Democrats should either collaborate with Mr. Bush or offer their own plans. Mr. Reid rejected each change the president proposed, recognizing that as soon as the Democrats began considering reforms, they would lose their strategic advantage. He persuaded conservative Democrats like Max Baucus, who had helped write the 2001 Bush tax cuts and was tempted to compromise on Social Security, to hold the line. They did and won.

When many Washington insiders and commentators declared the Affordable Care Act dead after Scott Brown’s surprise victory in a Massachusetts Senate race in January 2010, Mr. Reid worked with a longtime collaborator, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to get it done.

Mr. Reid was willing to cross many other Democrats and call for reforming the filibuster for judicial nominees (other than Supreme Court justices) because he had a kind of foresight and pugnaciousness they didn’t — and the perspective to see when they were wrong. In 2013 he secured the votes to eliminate the Senate’s filibuster-induced supermajority threshold for confirming nominees, a move that allowed President Obama to dramatically reshape the federal judiciary. Today that change has allowed President Biden to confirm the most judges of any first-year president since Ronald Reagan.

For people like me who worked in his Senate office, Mr. Reid put his commitment to family into action. He was ahead of his time in creating a family-friendly workplace.

Working for the Senate leader was a demanding, stressful job. In 2013, a few months after my first son was born, I was late to a morning staff meeting. I was told by the executive assistants and schedulers to wait outside. I was sure I was going to be fired. When the meeting was over, the staff filed out. I shuffled in, thinking, “This is it.” But instead of firing or even scolding me, Mr. Reid said, “I can see you’re having a hard time. What do you need?” Flabbergasted, I blurted out the truth, which was that I’d like to be able to be home most nights for dinner. He immediately assented, stuck to it and never stopped asking after my son.

To fully appreciate the man he was, you have to understand that, in his 30-plus years in Washington, Mr. Reid never attended a single White House Correspondents’ dinner. He hated going to fund-raisers and prided himself on being in and out the door in 10 minutes or less — and preferring instead to be home at dinner with his wife, Landra. He attended one congressional picnic, which he went to only because his son wanted to impress a woman he was dating at the time. (They’re now married.) He never attended a White House holiday party. He went to one state dinner — for Argentina, because another son had served a two-year mission there. He did not own a tuxedo.

In between, he changed the world.

Adam Jentleson (@AJentleson) is the executive director of Battle Born Collective, a progressive strategy organization; a former deputy chief of staff to Senator Harry Reid of Nevada; and the author of “Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy.”

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