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In Search of Harry

This Reid read shows how the two-fisted politician fought his way to the top

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History will likely remember Harry Reid only as the Senate Majority Leader who took it upon himself to announce “the war is lost,” a statement that rankled even anti-war proponents. And that’s a pity. Reid is a tenacious lawmaker, true, but as he illustrates in his fascinating new tome, The Good Fight: Hard Lessons from Searchlight to Washington, he is also a man of blunt simplicity and hard-scrap values, the son of a miner who no doubt still has some dirt under his fingernails.

Written with the able services of Esquire’s Mark Warren, Fight is a dissection of Reid’s past and present life, alternating flashes of childhood in Searchlight (about 30 minutes south of Las Vegas) with his run-ins with President Bush over the war in Iraq and privatizing Social Security.

Read Reid

The Good Fight: Hard Lessons from Searchlight to Washington
****
Harry Reid with Mark Warren
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
$25.95

Reid is the antithesis of most members of the current Bush administration. For him, nothing came easy. Growing up in near-poverty taught him the value of even the simplest possessions, and his parents’ alcoholism and fighting taught him to be a good father to his five children, all of whom have gone on to successful careers. What he’s lacked in political politesse over the years he’s made up for in loyalty to his party and his state. He had great respect for George Bush the elder, but has little but contempt for the heir to the throne, who in his opinion has done more to undo the country than any president before him.

Regardless of your opinion of Reid, a staunch Democrat who has been the cause of much of President Bush’s current consternation with Congress, it’s impossible not to be won over by his rags-to-riches story, ably assisted by some priceless tidbits: How he learned that stealing was wrong not from his father, but from the local “whoremonger” in Searchlight; how some of his fondest memories were of getting to swim in the town’s whorehouse swimming pool; how he grew up in a town without a church; how injuries, including broken bones, were rarely treated because there was no hospital nearby; how a man with no religious affiliation married a Jewish woman in secret in a Mormon church (he and his wife would later convert to Mormonism); how he decided to become a lawyer because his school’s guidance counselor said that was what he should do, even though he had no idea what a lawyer was.

Along the way, Reid does not shy away from some of the more personal aspects of his life. Most politicians are thought to have thick skin, but Reid shows himself a man easily hurt, and one who can hold serious grudges. While still a young man and seeking to buy his mother dentures, he bristled at a rude dentist who suggested he didn’t have enough money and stormed out of the office; when he told the dean of his law school that he felt overwhelmed with the demands of school, work and a family, and the dean suggested he just quit, Reid went on to graduate seemingly out of spite, and turned his back on the school for 42 years!

Reid’s admission that his feelings can be hurt is perhaps not a shocking one, but refreshing all the same in a political culture that demands stoicism. But make no mistake—the man can fight, both figuratively and literally (he pursued a short-lived career as a boxer). And whatever pain Reid has felt in his life has been channeled into his work—his father’s suicide after battling depression led Reid, 24 years later, to help create the National Suicide Prevention Strategy.

The book reaches its page-turning zenith with Reid’s experiences as a trial lawyer in the ’60s, lieutenant governor in the ’70s and, later, chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission. It’s a great twist on the usual who’s-who retellings of the old Vegas—Reid tried to contact Howard Hughes for a face-to-face meeting with then-Gov. Mike O’Callaghan (took him three months to find him), got boxing tips from Muhammad Ali and almost had lunch with gangster Tony “The Ant” Spilotro. (Reid didn’t know who he was!) Along the way, his reputation was challenged (he came away clean but exhausted by the media attention), he received numerous death threats and began carrying a gun with him everywhere. And he still refuses to watch Martin Scorsese’s Casino because it portrays “Lefty” Rosenthal as a good guy.

Reid’s polemics against the Bush administration make it difficult to recommend this book to the previously uncommitted, because Reid picks easy targets upon which to vent his wrath—Bush, Bill Frist, Donald Rumsfeld—and overly praises those who need it the least—Robert Byrd, Tom Daschle, Jim Jeffords. The Good Fight, it would appear, is getting a Democrat elected president to override all those evil Republicans.

But given that he came from the least privileged background imaginable and got to where he is the old-fashioned way, it’s hard to not be at least a little won over by Sen. Reid—or, at least, the notion of him.

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Magazine's managing editor, having previously served as associate editor at Las Vegas Weekly, assistant features ...

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