Reid: Not really a townee?

As I have previously posted, Mark Leibovich managed to get some good stuff on Mitt Romney's tax returns from the majority leader in his new book, "This Town."

Leibovich, I think, is torn on Harry Reid: He sees him as antithetical to the slick phoniness of This Town but also possessed of a self-editing mechanism that could be switched on once in awhile. But Reid can, sometimes awkwardly, summon artifice in certain situations.

Leibovich, for an amateur Reidologist, gets him pretty well. He sees that the majority leader has no patience for many things -- fundraisers and fat people (and dogs!) high on the list. He is socially awkward and politically ruthless. And while Reid may be charismatically challenged, he also merits a comparison from the author to baseball genius Billy Beane. (Brad Pitt as Harry Reid in the upcoming biopic? I don't think so.)

Some say Reid comes off well in the book because he is so different than so many other of the characters. Maybe. But it's not all gravy.

Here's some of what Leibovich wrote:

Entrusted with a Senate supermajority and endowed with all the magnetism of a dried snail, Harry Reid owned the beleaguered face of change in 2009.
Reid, a man of thoroughgoing cynicism, is nonetheless capable of a boyish hullabaloo at times like this. So what did Harry Reid do to mark this key step in his ascent to Senate majority leader? He rose from the couch and he kissed the TV— tenderly, caressing the screen. And then he sat back down to receive from Schumer something between a pat on the head and a noogie. Reid then started placing congratulatory calls to the Democrats who had won . None of the calls exceeded thirty seconds, and each was punctuated by a variant of “I love you.” Reid professed his love to Senator Kent Conrad, who was reelected in North Dakota (“ Love you, man”), Sherrod Brown in Ohio, and Hillary Clinton in New York, who told Reid she loved him back.

“He is one of those people who meant so much to me,” Reid said of Kerry, belying the scorn he had expressed to others for the lanky Bay Stater over many years. Reid had observed privately to colleagues that Kerry had no friends. No matter: Reid was John Kerry’s friend today, publicly, and it felt nothing but sincere. “So I say to John Kerry,” Reid concluded, “I love you, John Kerry.” Kerry nodded slowly and appeared to choke back tears.

Bespectacled and slight, Reid is frequently described in terms of something else (“ He looks like a civics teacher”). It is similar to how, say, the size of hail is never described on its own merits, only in terms of other things— marble-size, golf-ball-size. Reid could also pass for an oddball taxidermist who keeps a closet full of stuffed pigeons, or maybe the harried proprietor of the pet store that has just been robbed for the third time this month (or, in his case, hit up by Ben Nelson of Nebraska for some provincial goodie in the stimulus bill). What Reid does not look like is the amateur boxer and habitual street-fighter he was in his youth —or, more to the point, one of the most potent, odd, and overlooked phenomena of This Town.

Reid’s movie would be in black-and-white, and maybe slightly pink to account for his facial coloring. Known as “Pinky” growing up, Harry Mason Reid is slight and tiny-eyed and looks about his age (seventy-three) but could also pass for someone born in the 1800s. He sees all of “that Hollywood stuff” as a great market inefficiency of Washington. Like how Billy Beane, the protagonist of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, strips away all the intangibles of evaluating baseball talent: emotional attachments to players, their “makeup,” and ephemeral notions such as “clutch hitting” and “baseball tradition.” The only thing that matters to Beane is creating better methodologies and blocking out the traditional metrics. To Reid, the obsession in Washington to the show-horse aspects of the game (getting credit, being “seen”) is misspent energy that brings clouded thinking. What matters is maximum efficiency and, ultimately, survival. “I can get in and out of a fund-raiser in five minutes,” Reid boasted to me.

Reid loves being alone, either with his thoughts or with his wife, Landra, to whom he has been married fifty-three years. He also has a great eye for political loners and bringing them into his fold. He recognized immediately that Barack Obama was an outlier when he came to the Senate in 2005. Obama was a charming and persuasive “natural” of a performer but unreachable in basic ways and not well suited to the chamber. It was Reid who in 2006 encouraged Obama to run for president. This came as a shock to Obama at the time and to the Hillary Clinton camp when this conversation was revealed. Reid, who had repeatedly stated his neutrality in the 2008 presidential race, believed that Obama would never have the patience to hang around the Senate long enough to achieve the impact he craved. It also appealed to Reid, on a level somewhere between mischievous and Darwinian, to watch the two celebrity members of his caucus, Obama and Clinton, kill each other.

As Obama’s presidency unfolded, Reid appealed to a side of him that was fiercely pragmatic and transactional. “Harry has the toughest job in Washington,” Obama said of Reid. “He just grinds it out.” Obama, whose favorite movie is The Godfather and who has something of a Mob fetish, has always been drawn to loyal fixer types like Reid who quietly take care of business.

Reid caters with supreme efficiency, no wasted motion. To keep phone calls streamlined, Reid often skips saying good-bye. The other party might keep talking to a dead line for several seconds without realizing it. I first met Reid in 2005, not long after he had become the Democratic leader. When Jim Manley walked me into his office and introduced me, Reid barely looked up and said to Manley, “Is this the sleazeball you told me about?” He had me at “sleazeball.”

Reid randomly called my desk a few years later to wish me a “happy Jewish holiday .” I don’t remember what Jewish holiday it was, or if I even knew it was a Jewish holiday. Reid then bragged to me that he was a “hero” to the then nine Jews in the Senate because he had adjourned the chamber in time for them to get home for whatever Jewish holiday it was. He reeled off the names of all the Senate Jews: Lieberman, Schumer, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California, etc. He concluded with Ron Wyden of Oregon, and when I expressed surprise that Wyden was Jewish— and mock surprise they even had Jews in Oregon— Reid deadpanned, “Yes, there are two of them in Oregon, and we have one of them.” And he hung up without saying good-bye, or shalom. When wandering alone, Reid will sometimes break into a slight grin, as if he has just told himself a joke. Reid reminds me sometimes of a child— a peculiar child who has an imaginary friend who he speaks to unfiltered when he is alone, or not alone. Reid was once being wired up for a television interview in Las Vegas and was overcome by the need to tell the technician fastening his microphone that he had “terrible breath.” When an aide asked Reid later why he would possibly say such a thing, Reid calmly explained that it was true. He has a heightened sense of smell. He once complained about the body odor of summer tourists trekking through the Capitol, taking the occasion of a dedication ceremony for a new Capitol visitor center to make his annoyance public. “In the summertime,” he said, “because of the high humidity and how hot it gets here, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol.” He is also surprisingly food- and body-obsessed, more evocative of a teenage girl than an earthy old boxer. He will occasionally partake of yoga (in black Lycra stretch pants) with Landra in their Ritz-Carlton apartment. He can be harshly judgmental of fat people and other ill-conditioned creatures. When George W. Bush invited Reid to the Oval Office for coffee as a gesture of goodwill at the end of his presidency, Reid promptly insulted the president’s dog, Barney, who had trotted into their meeting. “Your dog is fat,” Reid told the president.

When I asked him if it’s ever painful to recall his own youth, Reid shrugs. “The only thing I don’t like is to watch movies about suicide and stuff like that,” Reid says, as close as he comes to publicly contemplating his inner life. But he is capable of pointed moments of empathy. Once, a young communications adviser, Rebecca Kirszner, who had just started working in Reid’s Senate office, kept misreading a phone number that Reid had been trying to dial for a radio interview. In his straight-to-the-point manner, Reid asked her, “Do you have a learning disability?” Embarrassed, she quietly said yes. Reid looked Kirszner in the eye and said, “You must have worked twice as hard to have gotten where you are.” No one had ever said this before to Kirszner, who was taken aback, and moved. “I did,” she whispered. Reid’s sense of Washington psychology is grounded heavily in seeing—and, in certain cases, exploiting— the past humiliations of others. As with many politicians who grew up in poverty and endured family turmoil and other adversities, Washington has also been a powerful reinvention canvas for Reid. The city is filled with proving grounds that double as sanctuaries, like the Senate floor.

In an interview in his office, I asked Reid what he really thought of Tom Coburn. He paused for several seconds, and I imagined a little self-editing gerbil inside his skull hurling itself in the unimpeded pathway that typically connects his brain directly to his mouth. A look of slight agony fell over Reid’s sober countenance, the look of someone whose self-editing gerbil is not well-trained. “Here’s what I think of Tom Coburn,” Reid said finally , and then there was another long pause . “I am going to have to go off the record for this , otherwise you won’t get a good idea of what I think of him.” This was Reid being cordial to Tom Coburn.

Harry Reid tells a favorite story about his friendship with the late Forrest Mars, the billionaire candy magnate who kept a home in Nevada and struck up a friendship with Reid. Reid liked Mars because he was an odd character, and he likes odd characters. He never gave Reid any money, but Reid kept visiting him because he liked talking to Mars. Finally, Mars wrote Reid a check for $ 1,000. “I’m doing this because I like you, not because I think it will do me any good,” Mars told Reid. “I learned a long time ago, if you give your money to lobbyists, they will do a lot more good for you.” His reasoning is that the lobbyists, rather than individual donors, are far more likely to get meaningful access to the elected official.

In the interview, Reid fell into his bumpkin default mode and carelessly referred to Obama as a “light-skinned” African-American who didn’t have a “Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Uh, Senator Reid shouldn’t have said that. Not good. Luckily, this was on deep background, as Manley reminded Heilemann and Halperin, just to be triple safe, after the interview ended. Sure, sure, they said. And then the words wound up in Game Change. Manley raised Holy Hell. Heilemann and Halperin had their justifications— then said something about how they would not talk about how they conducted their research for the book. There was some misunderstanding over ground rules, or something, that I never quite understood. Really , you could ask a hundred different reporters and flacks what “deep background” meant, and get a hundred different answers. Everyone agreed that Reid’s remarks were “unfortunate.” Republicans called for Reid’s resignation. The majority leader called Obama immediately to apologize. Manley called Heilemann and Halperin “liars.”