The Prince in Winter: Harry Reid enters his final year after forging an unusual bond with the president

Nearly a quarter-century into his capital career, Harry Mason Reid was the leader who wasn’t.

Elected in 1982 after a rollercoaster career in Nevada, Reid had shown a fierce determination in climbing the rungs to become Senate Democratic leader 22 years later. But the guy with the stooped shoulders and shuffling gait might have been mistaken for a file clerk in the halls of the Capitol instead of the most powerful Democrat in the Club of 100. He was the leader who rarely appeared on the Sunday shows, the one who would rather read Roberts Rules of Order than The Making of the President. Reid was the awkward senator with the acid tongue, the one who called George W. Bush a ”loser” and whose floor speeches often included ear-crunching adlibs such as, “Only 36,000 people lost their jobs today, which is really good.”

But he was in the milieu he was born to be in, using his legislative prowess to bring home tens of millions of dollars in pork. Reid was a national leader, but he was a parochial senator, known mostly for Nevadacentric accomplishments. He was recognized not for his ability to get things done but for stopping things, especially a nuclear waste dump planned for his state since he was first elected to Congress.

But then Reid made the call that would help change the course of the country’s trajectory and his own career arc, one that would put Barack Obama on the path to the presidency and himself on the road to national prominence. Today, as Reid, now 75, shuffles into his leadership suite, blind in his right eye, the retiring senator can see clearly what he has wrought, with a daily reminder sitting atop a chest of drawers.

Reid had seen the picture of a small African-American boy, Jacob Philadelphia, patting Barack Obama’s head during an early visit to see the new president in 2009. He wanted one. So, Obama sent the Democratic leader a copy, inscribed with a note: “To Harry – this is the change you helped make happen.”

Reid, not an emotional man in private or public, has told people that he has shed many tears over that photo. Indeed, the personalized snapshot encapsulates a remarkable relationship between two very different men of different generations, one that began as a marriage of convenience, or more a symbiosis, and metamorphosed into a genuine friendship in a capital world defined by artifice. And the change that Reid made happen for Obama after the president was elected gives the picture even more resonance, a reminder of a bond that has only been cemented by events, large and small.

Reid, a serial meddler in other people’s political lives, saw Obama’s potential early, promoted him and nurtured him, encouraged him to run for the White House before almost anyone else and singlehandedly saved his presidency in the first two years.

This has been an odd couple—one who disdained the legislative process and one who thrived inside it, one known for his oratorical skills and one known for his repeated gaffes, one repelled by the legislative fray and one who thrives inside it, one who favors caution and one a natural-born, sometimes reckless risk-taker. Reid is a man of almost no patience, Hang-Up Harry, who does not even know how to end phone conversations, while Obama is a man of almost infinite patience, which has frustrated his allies and foes who occasionally see it as dithering. But as much as they come from such disparate backgrounds and have such diametrically different approaches, these also are men raised by single, working mothers, men whose drive and ambition forged lives that were destined to intersect.

“On a personal and professional level, they are extremely close,” a senior White House official told me. “They are the yin and yang. They balance each other out perfectly.”

Obama, in recent comments, including one on a Las Vegas NPR station and one to POLITICO, clearly has appreciated what Reid has done for him. Obama credits Reid – and he has said this more than once, too – with helping him with a raft of critical achievements.

“It’s hard for me to express how much I love Harry Reid,” the president said on Aug. 24 at a Las Vegas area fundraiser for Reid’s anointed successor, Catherine Cortez Masto. “Everything I’ve accomplished I’ve accomplished because Harry Reid was there by my side.” 

Obama confidant David Axelrod, who observed the relationship from the beginning, said he believes the president and Reid developed a genuine affection after enduring numerous battles together.

“Those qualities of Harry – that unshakable loyalty, that tenacity, that willingness to jump on grenades for him….was something not lost on (the president),” Axelrod said. “It was a generational, father-son kind of thing.”

Those elements of Reid’s character, the tenacity and loyalty, are what have sustained him throughout his nearly half-century in public life, with 30 years of that spent in the U.S. Senate. His indomitability, hewn from a hardscrabble childhood, has allowed Reid to withstand electoral losses and cringe-worthy gaffes that would have ended almost any other career. Reid’s seeming imperviousness to political pain and willingness to say almost anything to further his agenda – and agenda driven by partisan warrior instincts but leavened by core values that have especially been revealed in his later years—explain his longevity and why he has been Obama’s best and most effective ally on Capitol Hill.

Reid’s mastery of the legislative process, which some would argue is LBJ-like, has inured greatly to the president’s benefit at critical junctures, especially in his first two years. Adam Jentleson, Reid’s chief spokesman, said his boss has a unique combination of skills. “He has a preternatural ability to read people,” Jentleson said. “He never does the same thing twice, and he knows exactly the technique to use (with different people.)”

Or, as another Reid intimate put it, “He is able to convince people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do.”

The toughness of the former boxer, which has spawned countless Reid metaphors through the years, has contributed to his long tenure, which will come to an end in a year, as will his remarkable partnership with Obama.

“I don’t think there are very many historical analogies,” said James Thurber, a prominent historian at American University. “I can authoritatively say from my experience this is a unique relationship.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that without Reid, who pushed through the stimulus package and then the Affordable Care Act with his legislative legerdemain, or what Republicans might call black magic, Obama might not even be around to tell this tale.

“If not for Harry Reid, he may have been a one-term president,” said Billy Vassiliadis, Nevada’s most influential consultant and an adviser to both men. And, it appears, Obama knows it.

“Harry Reid is a friend and a fighter,” Obama said in a statement. “As a colleague in the Senate, I leaned on Harry’s experience and learned from his steadfast commitment to choosing what is right over what is easy. And as the leader of the Senate Democrats during my time as president, Harry has proved a vital partner in moving our country forward."

Reid was even more effusive. “Barack Obama has proven to be one of the finest and most honest men I have ever known,” Reid said in a statement. “I have the deepest affection for him as a person and as a leader."

How this partnership began and where it has led both men is a Washington love story like no other.


Harry Reid already had been in the Senate for 18 years when Barack Obama was elected in 2004. Reid was 64; Obama was 43. They were a generation apart, but their careers were about to intertwine in ways neither could have foretold.

Reid had won re-election in a rare landslide. Six years earlier, he barely survived against charismatic Rep. John Ensign by 428 votes, an election Reid later said he should have lost. This close call was no aberration for Reid, who began his career in the state Legislature in 1968, became the youngest lieutenant governor in Nevada history at the age of 29 and then lost by 600 votes to Paul Laxalt in a Senate race. Reid then foolishly ran for mayor of Las Vegas six months later. He lost decisively and watched as pundits wrote his political obituary.

If not for the generosity of his longtime political patron, Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, who appointed him as the state's chief gaming regulator, Reid would never have had the perch to spring back into politics when Nevada received a second congressional seat after the 1980 Census. Reid made a name for himself taking on the mob, had a bomb put in his car (it did not detonate) and famously took on Lefty Rosenthal (portrayed by Robert DeNiro in the movie, “Casino”) at a raucous public meeting.

Reid won that congressional seat and then set his sights on winning Laxalt’s Senate seat, which he did in 1986. Reid, plodding but premeditated, began to ingratiate himself to his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, showing a willingness to take on tasks others would eschew. Three years after he arrived, and the so-called Keating Five scandal broke, ensnaring a quartet of senators, Reid took on the duty of shuttle diplomat, negotiating details of punishment with his comrades. His light touch in private, which would later prove valuable in securing votes for leadership, would later contrast with his frothing public persona. Reid’s upward climb within the Club of 100 included cultivating a relationship with eventual Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who made him his whip. And it gave Reid the Democratic leader’s position after the 2004 election and Daschle’s defeat.

Newly minted boss Reid almost immediately was impressed with the freshman senator from Illinois. Obama had given a celebrated speech at the Democratic National Convention that year and then benefited from a scandal that knocked his opponent out of the Senate contest.

Reid, never mistaken for Cicero, was enthralled by Obama’s communication skills. During 2005, as the Senate debated the ongoing Iraq War, the Democratic leader made a rare trip to the Senate floor to watch Obama, who had been against the conflict before he was elected. “He was mesmerized by his speech (against the Iraq war),” recalled Jim Manley, then Reid’s spokesman. 

Vassiliadis remembered that when Obama came to an event at the culinary union’s training academy in Las Vegas in 2006 that Reid called the consultant and urged him to come see the new senator, that he was “a very impressive young guy.”

“I’ve never gotten a call like that from Harry Reid before,” Vassiliadis said. “And I never got one since.”

Reid also marveled at Obama’s ability to distill complicated issues and make them understandable, Manley said. Reid was always looking for ways to enhance Obama’s profile. In 2005, when no one else wanted to take on the thorny issue of lobbying and ethics reform, he gave it to freshman Obama, who was eager for the responsibility, unlike hardened members who saw no upside.

One day shortly after Obama had agreed to lead the initiative, he and Reid went to the press gallery to field questions from reporters. There they were, the rookie and the veteran, sitting in leather chairs, being peppered by the Fourth Estate for a half-hour. “Obama was looking very relaxed, like he had done it a million times before,” Manley said.

“That (giving him high-profile legislation) really helped him (Obama) a lot and gave him a lot of visibility,” said Thurber, the historian. “It’s rare for a leader to give that to a freshman.”

Reid was so taken with Obama and, some speculated, so worried bout Hillary Clinton’s pro-Iraq war vote as she prepared to mount a presidential bid, that he summoned the newcomer to his office in the spring of 2006. (Reid wrote in his book, “The Good Fight,” that it was in 2007 but later acknowledged he could have been mistaken.) Reid and Clinton had a cordial but far from warm relationship. He was close to Chuck Schumer, who was the senior senator from New York but junior to Hillary in celebrity, and Reid could not help but notice the occasional stories that percolated suggesting Clinton would be a more effective Democratic leader.

Other accounts have reported just how stunned Obama was by Reid’s entreaty, which emphasized the time was propitious for an African-American president, especially because it was widely assumed he would clamber on board the incipient Clinton candidacy. Reid was the consummate insider, so it was counterintuitive that he would go with Obama.

And it mattered.

Obama already was thinking of making a bid, but to know that he had the support of the Democratic leadership. That was different.

But, Axelrod said, “Maybe he would have run anyway. But when the leader asks you to run, that event added an element of seriousness to it, internally. Reid was very sensitive to the fact that the Iraq War was such a huge issue at the time. Obama had a different position. There was a freshness to him that was really appealing. Reid’s concern also was for his members, who would give them the best updraft, the best tailwinds.” (Reid fretted because it was 49-49, with two independents. And his move would pay off. The Democrats would win eight seats in 2008.)

Almost no one knew at that time that Reid had pushed Obama toward the presidential race. That included the Reid’s son, Rory, who in early 2007 signed on to run the New York senator’s campaign in Nevada. One Democratic presidential candidate asked me toward the end of 2007 if it was a waste of time to campaign in Nevada because Reid had signaled, through his son’s involvement, that he was supporting Clinton.

But this was Reid the political card player at his best, maintaining his public poker face, even urging his staff, as one put it, “to treat them all (the Democratic candidates) the same.” Some, perhaps including Hillary Clinton, might call this devious and disingenuous; to Reid, it was just his way of playing the game. (He would not formally embrace Obama until June of 2008, when it was a fait accompli.)

Whether Reid engaged in a cold political analysis, as he did so often (“He does almost nothing that isn’t calculating,” one Reid ally said.), or whether he truly believed that the country was ready for an African-American president (“He was enamored of the idea of shaking things up,” suggested another Reid intimate), that was the beginning of the beautiful friendship.

And it would only grow deeper, albeit more difficult, after Obama won.


On Jan. 4, 2009, the outlook for the economy was dark but the LBJ room in the Capitol was aglow with optimism. The country had just elected the first black president, and two weeks before he was sworn in, Barack Obama was meeting with congressiona leaders. More than a dozen elected officials and staffers were there, including House Speaker John Boehner and his chief deputy, Eric Cantor, along with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his lieutenant, Jon Kyl. The president, full of hope and change, told the group he was committed to listen, not just to talk, to reach out to both parties, according to a participant who made notes of the meeting that I have obtained. “My commitment (is to) listen, not just talk, reach out to both parties,” Obama said, according to the notes. The country needed a stimulus package, anywhere from $800 billion to $3 trillion, Obama said. “Shocking #s but they are what they are,” Obama said, the notes say.

Majority Leader Reid, heralding what would become a seven-year pattern of unswerving support, echoed the president. With two wars and a bad economy, he said, “We all have obligations to work together.” McConnell and Boehner sounded similar cooperative notes.

But Reid and Obama left the meeting with completely different impressions of what they had heard. The president believed the Republicans; the Democratic leader did not.

This would be a harbinger of the coming years—Reid constantly frustrated that the White House thought deals could be made with the opposition. Reid was convinced from dealing with Boehner and McConnell, and from watching the rise of the Tea Party, that the Republicans would do all they could to thwart the new president.

“Reid said he saw right away the Republicans would do anything to undermine Obama’s legacy,” said one person whom the majority leader talked at the time. “The president and his staff thought he could cut a deal with the Republicans.”

Two weeks later, as Robert Draper would write, Republicans left behind any hint of bipartisanship on the night of the president’s inauguration. At a secret meeting, they vowed to squash the president’s agenda. Boehner and McConnell were not there, but they were soon on board, setting up what would become a two-term challenge for Obama and Reid.

What ensued after that confab in the LBJ room was the most critical period of the Obama presidency and the finest hours of Reid’s legislative career, as he steered first the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and then the Affordable Care Act, improbably, impossibly to the president’s desk.

Reid, the institutionalist, did this while zealously protecting the legislative branch’s prerogative (“I do not work for Barack Obama. I work with him,” Reid told The Huffington Post in February.) and with his caucus members’ political lives always paramount in his mind. His ability to soothe these four dozen or so mammoth egos, which was inextricably linked to him keeping his own leadership position, has been one of Reid’s greatest skills. His awkward public presence is a contrast to his private facility with people, his ability to sense exactly what a member needs.

“I don’t think there is a politician with a bigger disconnect between his public persona and his private persona,” one Reidite told me. Or, as another Washington insider put it, “You have 50 former class presidents, all of whom think they should be president or leader. Harmonizing that, and political interests, is an incredibly hard job. Harry is known in public for his acid comments, but one of the things (people don’t know) is his incredible patience.”

What is often forgotten, too, is that Reid embarked on his singular quest to pass the president’s two controversial, momentous and occasionally deeply unpopular bills just as Reid’s own daunting re-election cycle began. Reid was losing, often badly, in polls taken during 2009 even as he was pushing legislation that Republicans were determined to vilify and kill.

Obama knew all of this and appreciated it.

“I think it was an interesting relationship with Harry in those early, titanic battles around the recovery act and health care,” Axelrod told me. “In one of his (the president’s) early meetings with Harry, Harry said, ‘I was a boxer and I wasn’t particularly fast and particularly strong but I knew how to take a punch.’ The president really appreciated Harry’s willingness and ability to take a punch and his pugnacity.”

Obama also knew Reid had a tough re-election looming and wanted to make sure his legislative point man was protected. The relationship was not cemented yet, but Obama knew he had to get Reid what he wanted.

Vassiliadis, who was a top adviser to Reid during his 2010 re-election campaign, recalled a meeting he had with the president in 2009. “I saw him here (Las Vegas), and he said to me: ‘Whatever you think Harry needs, you got it.’ You could tell by the intensity of the statement, it was not just a check the box. It was: ‘Hey, we need this guy.’”

And he did.

Compared to the later health care bill, the stimulus was relatively easy. But ARRA was a heavy lift for Reid before it passed the Senate on Feb. 10, with only three Republicans joining his 55 Democrats and two independents.

“I’m not sure I have ever seen Reid work harder,” his ex-aide, Manley, said.

Reid introduced the measure two days after that meeting with the president and his fellow legislative leaders, knowing that any promises made there were unlikely to be kept. He was right. And during the next month, his office was a hub of activity as he tried to get the necessary 60 votes to avoid a filibuster.

He would bring members into his conference room and then meet with administration officials, usually Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and budget maven Peter Orszag, who had the negotiable stimulus numbers in a book.

“Reid would shuttle back and forth between the two places,” Manley remembered. “He did everything in his power.”

Reid and Pelosi were both concerned that some economists they trusted suggested that the right number to ensure the economy was stimulated was $1 trillion. They knew, as Manley put it, “That was such an easy number to demonize.”

Reid immediately saw he would have to get to a lower number. He also knew he needed to get three Republicans to ensure the bill would not be blocked. He set his eyes on Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

This was Horse Trading Harry at work, essentially buying votes the same way he later would with Mary Landrieu and Ben Nelson on Obamacare. Suddenly, there was $6.5 billion in new medical research that Specter wanted, one insider recalled. And then a transportation funding fix Snowe wanted. Collins wanted the number below $800 million, and knocking out some school construction money did the trick.

After he had all three – and Democrat Nelson as well (he had fretted about the $1 trillion number), Reid wasted no time. “He wanted to deal things quickly,” one Reidite told me. “He didn’t want anyone to slip away.”

So a quick news conference was held on a Friday evening, with Reid and the others announcing the compromise. Even Pelosi did not know it was coming, so Reid quickly scurried over to her office. Manley insisted Reid do what he hated to do – take the more furtive, underground path so he would not be seen, He told Pelosi, who was able to use the new number -- $787 million – to get wavering members of her caucus, and the deal was ratified.

And Reid was multitasking, too. The Affordable Care Act was introduced in the House and then the Senate during the summer of 2009, a series of bills that were being molded per the president’s January declaration in his State of the Union that he wanted universal health care. Reid had taken stewardship of two momentous pieces of legislation, both of which the Republicans were determined to entomb.

During the next year, before Obamacare passed the Senate on Christmas Eve, Reid fielded constant calls from Emanuel, with some days the conversations numbering in the double digits.

Much has been written about Reid’s horse-trading to get the health care bill to the threshold, this time with no Republican votes. Reid, who has been described as doing whatever it takes to get something done many times, all but bribed Nebraska’s Ben Nelson with increased Medicaid funding for his state, an infamous maneuver that was dubbed “The Cornhusker Kickback.”

Reid’s attitude, as one insider confided, was simple: “The president asked me to do something and I’ll get it done…. Reid would say (to the White House): ‘I can do it. Let me do it.’”

This the president knew, as one of his senior aides said: “When we worried about fissures on the Hill, we had Reid’s commitment that he could deliver. He would say, ‘I got this.’”

During the wrangling of votes for health care, when Reid knew no Republicans would help and he needed every Democrat, he used all of his interpersonal skills so rarely seen in public, those that allowed him to make deals with Republicans on the stimulus and mollify his members on Obamacare.

“He figures out what matters to people,” Jentleson said. “Sometimes he will get to the person that a member listens to.”

Reid would use whatever wheedling method was most effective, as he did during this time with North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp. “Some people are worried about you,” Reid said, referring to her vote, according to an eyewitness. “I’m not worried about you. By the way, I talked to (a donor in North Dakota) last night. He loves you.

Subtlety, they name is Harry Reid. Whether it was letting Heitkamp know he knew who she needed for money or telling the White House to get certain members what they needed, Reid uses all of his available tools. During all of this time, Reid rarely had direct contact with Obama, establishing a pattern that would mostly serve both of them well. His respect for the office, his faith in his staff guided Reid’s behavior. “He doesn’t like to call the president unless he has to,” said one Reidite.

But Reid did call the White House and ask for assistance if he needed it to move members. “Reid knows his members very well,” a senior White House official told me. “He knows who they don’t like and what they don’t like. He told us who to (have) call them, who not to (have) call them. He is a very proficient puppet master.”  

Occasionally, Reid would summon an Obama aide to his caucus, which was unsettled about some aspect of the Affordable Care Act (the public option, the subsidies) or unfavorable media attention. During one meeting after Ted Kennedy’s death, when many Democrats seemed to have stuck their necks out for naught on Obamacare, tensions boiled over, according to one participant. Minnesota’s Al Franken “boiled over” and let Axelrod have it, wondering why the president couldn’t do more to get the votes.

Reid knew he had to let his members vent – “He and the president were adults about it,” said one insider – but those sessions with an Axelrod or David Simas, who managed the bill, were uncomfortable.

Several sources described the tense atmosphere in those caucus meetings as Reid stood by and let his members excoriate the White House representative. It was, both Obama and Reid knew, part of the game.

“They (White House reps) got knocked around,” said one person who was there for a few of the pummelings. “Reid would look at his shoes or his tie.”

Reid knew, as one who knows him put it, that “part of the art of being a leader is to know when to allow our troops to vent and when to vent with them. Some of this inevitably was aimed at the White House, and Harry would allow that, the ritual flogging.”

This does not mean that the president did not occasionally get frustrated with legislative leaders, although there is little evidence he and Reid ever had a serious strain in their relationship. But this period is when Obama’s disdain for the process, which he had fleeting experience with while briefly a senator, was sown. Some would describe it as haughtiness, a feeling that the president thought he was above having to do what is necessary to get laws passed, which was Reid’s raison d’etre.

“Like many presidents, he was somewhat uncomfortable with Congress, if not irritated by them,” said Thurber. “Reid helped him with that, a lot more than (House Democratic Leader Nancy) Pelosi did.”

Indeed, as one insider pointed out, Pelosi had to count to 218 and had disparate caucuses within her caucus. But Reid had arcane Senate rules and majorities that were faux majorities, thanks to the 60-vote rule.

A prime example of the disconnect occurred when Reid, doing what he does, gave Finance Chairman Max Baucus what one wry observer called “a lot of leeway” with the Affordable Care Act. “Max Baucus was convinced he could bring several Republicans along,” one insider said. And even Reid, who had relationships with some key Republicans, including Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, may have underestimated the ferocity of the opposition.

But Reid wanted to give Baucus as much time as possible, which enraged some at 1600 Pennsylvania who wanted Reid to jam it through. But, as one of his aides told me, Reid knew timing was everything. And when he knew the moment had arrived, he would say, “It’s time for me to do the deal.”

That time came after he had secured Nelson’s vote, and on Christmas Eve 2009, that deal was done. Reid, with notecards in his pocket with scribblings about each member on his whip count, worked the floor and got the bill passed, despite complications from Ted Kennedy’s death in August. Reid’s staff badly wanted to leak to the media just what Reid had done to accomplish what once seemed a quixotic task, but the leader would have none of it as the White House fed reporters tales of how Obama passed health care.

“He doesn’t like to talk, and that’s an advantage for a president,” Thurber said, neatly capturing Harry Reid.

“Reid definitely didn’t get enough credit (for 2009 victories), just by virtue of his nature,” a White House official insisted. “He was dealing with a gamut of members with very different ideologies, but he was able to drive stuff through without doing too much in the limelight. The president will never forget that.”

The accomplishment spoke for itself, as did the fuming and obloquy from the right, which Reid always has fed on. And Obama knew who had gotten it done.

“The Senate was the battleground, and he was their (the White House’s) Patton,” Vassiliadis said. “He was the guy who is going to take territory. He reveled in the role of being the president’s go-to guy.”

Said Axelrod: “That was a bonding experience. These guys went off to battle together.”

But just a few weeks after Reid pushed Obama’s most important bill through the Senate, on Jan. 8, a revelation seemingly threatened the bond that had been built. In the pantheon of Reid gaffes, which included calling President George W. Bush a “loser,” saying the Iraq war “is lost” and suggesting Capitol tourists had a foul odor, this may have been the worst.

“Game Change,” the detailed account of the ’08 campaign had been published, and authors Mark Halperin and John Heilleman had revealed Reid’s early enthusiasm for Obama’s candidacy, partly because he was a “light-skinned” black man who spoke “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

The utter awfulness of the statement, reeking of apparent racism, surely would destroy the Obama-Reid relationship. But it did not.

Sources report that the president immediately forgave Reid, attributing it to the leader’s generational disconnect and self-editing lapse. “At no time did I believe the president thought Harry Reid was a racist,” Vassiliadis, who talked to Axelrod at the time and was a go-between, recalled. “The president’s reaction to defend him was immediate and strong.”

Indeed it was. “Harry Reid called me today and apologized for an unfortunate comment reported today,” Obama said in a statement. “I accepted Harry’s apology without question because I’ve known him for years, I’ve seen the passionate leadership he’s shown on issues of social justice and I know what’s in his heart. As far as I am concerned, the book is closed.”

It is a measure of the strength of the friendship that had been welded during the year’s legislative fights that what could have been a cataclysmic end became a mere footnote.

Almost simultaneously with the “Negro dialect” flap, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which had regularly been critical of the senator and crusaded during 2010 for Reid’s defeat, published a poll showing that Reid losing to all comers and that the four-term senator was viewed negatively by more than half of Nevada’s voters. The article’s first paragraph suggested there was speculation “that it’s time for the Nevada Democrat to retire rather than lose re-election.”

The health care bill, which would pass the House in March 2010 and be signed by the president, was not helping. But Reid would not back away from the measure and was one of the few candidates running that year who ran ads touting the new law.

“The focus groups showed it was killing us,” said Vassiliadis. “But Reid was wearing it anyhow, and when we ran spots in favor of Obamacare, it helped. The bleeding stopped.” That is, it solidified the base.

Reid was “proud of the legislation,” even if it did not contain everything he wanted, Vassiliadis said. “It was core to him. He was emotional about it.”

The duality of this man putatively with a working-man’s internal compass and the politician’s win-at-all-costs survival instincts was on display as the year went on. In one of the greatest and most Machiavellian campaigns ever run in American political history, Reid, who had built a Nevada organization par excellence, was bolstered by a group called Patriot Majority, a third-party group not coincidentally run by a former staffer. Patriot Majority spent hundreds of thousands of dollars inserting itself in the GOP primary, pounding frontrunner Sue Lowden, who hurt herself, ironically, by attacking Obamacare and suggesting people should barter with their doctors.

Patriot Majority and the Reid campaign itself were executing a deliberate plan to pick Reid’s general election opponent by helping to elevate a former legislator named Sharron Angle , whose repeated, outrageous statements (talking of “Second Amendment remedies to fix the country’s problems and telling a group of Hispanics “some of you look a little Asian to me.”) made Reid look as smooth as Bill Clinton, defeat Lowden and move into the general election. In the two months after Angle was nominated in June, Reid’s campaign destroyed her with free and paid media, and despite polls, including the Review-Journal’s, showing Reid would surely lose, the race was effectively over by September.

Obama did not sit on the sidelines, either, and delivered on that promise made to Vassiliadis months earlier. He appeared at an early major campaign event at Caesars Palace’s Colosseum, drawing 4,000 people, and raised six figures at a high-dollar fundraiser.  He and his wife appeared in the state a half-dozen times, including an appearance by First Lady Michelle Obama on the eve of the election. She gave him a huge, symbolic hug after the rally.

A few days later, Reid was re-elected by a larger-than-expected margin, nearly 6 percentage points. Shortly thereafter, the editor and publisher of the Review-Journal were cashiered. No one missed the connection.


Harry Reid, a lawyer by trade, knows the difference between the rules of evidence in a courtroom and in the political arena. The former’s are well defined; the latter’s are virtually nonexistent.

So in the summer of 2012, when Reid began doing interviews saying that presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney had not paid his taxes, he knew exactly what he was doing. The stunt that encapsulated how little he ever cared about political blowback and just how far he is willing to go, crossing lines others would never approach.

Reid began ratcheting up pressure on Romney to release his tax returns, even resorting to innuendo on the Senate floor that the GOP nominee had not paid anything to the IRS for a decade. “I was told by an extremely credible source”—believed to be Jon Huntsman Sr. --  “that Romney has not paid taxes for 10 years,” Reid would assert.

Romney and his allies vehemently pushed back, insisting he had paid plenty of taxes, and accusing Reid of blackening his office. Comparisons to Joe McCarthy were made. Fact-checkers all but called him a liar. Invective filled cable news programs. Even Jon Stewart was mad.

Reid was not cowed. Reid did not tone it down. Reid did not flinch. Instead, he just kept going and going and going. He wasn’t sure if it was true. But he didn’t care.

“He did not blink an eye,” said one Reidite. “A man who has never gambled in his life is the biggest gambler.”

Some said the White House eventually got nervous that Reid was going too far. But, just as he did with legislation, in the campaign’s hurly burly, Reid sent a signal back to Obama that the president had heard many times before, going back to 2009: “I got this.”

Even after the election, when Romney produced tax information (some say Reid never believed the evidence the GOP nominee provided), Reid was unrepentant, telling CNN’s Dana Bash, “Romney didn’t win, did he?”

The right-wing blogosphere exploded with pent-up frustration three years coming, lacerating Reid as shamefully unapologetic. And Reid? He just shrugged his shoulders and probably winked out of his good eye.

“Harry really doesn’t give a shit whether he’s offending elites or editorial writers,” one close observer of the Democratic leader said. “He just doesn’t care….”

One insider speculated that both Reid and Obama, each man from humble beginnings, saw Romney as not having worked for his money. They bonded over that, too. “Both men don’t like entitled people,” the insider told me. “They want to knock people like that down a peg.”That same pattern, going after wealthy Republicans and employing hyperventilating rhetoric, the consequences be damned, would later resurface in Reid’s almost daily Senate floor rants against the Koch Brothers. They, too, have responded, as Romney did, which was part of Reid’s plan. When Reid called the Kochs “un-American" in 2014, the Kochs put out a statement that concluded, “We are disappointed that Senator Reid is attacking private citizens rather than the problems facing this nation. It is no wonder that Americans have lost faith in Congress.”

But Reid, as ever, was happy to be the lightning rod, to take the focus of others, be it his caucus or the president. As one Reid-watcher pointed out. “He will draw a person into a fight, as in boxing, and then make the enemy inflict wounds onto himself.”

Indeed, that was the strategy Reid was employing a few months later when he was negotiating with the Republicans on the approaching fiscal cliff. But by New Year’s Eve 2012, but Harry Reid was in no mood to croon Auld Lang Syne. He was singing the blues.

During the last few days, House Speaker John Boehner had dropped an F-bomb on him for declaring on the Senate floor he was dictatorial, and the president had allowed Joe Biden to negotiate around Reid to secure a deal on the fiscal cliff. Reid had warned Obama that it would not go well, and now he believed the deal Biden had secured on tax brackets and the sequester were too generous.

“They gave where Reid wasn’t willing to give,” said one Reid aide. “That was a tough moment in the relationship (between the leader and the president).”

Reid allowed Biden to present the accord to his members, but when the leader introduced the vice president to the caucus, a source in the room said, “He made it clear it wasn’t his deal.” And what happened?

“Biden got the shit kicked out of him,” the source said.

For years, the White House had relied on Reid to get their deals done. Just a simple “I got this” from the Democratic leader was enough. His loyalty and his ability were unquestioned.

But not this time. Reid would end up voting for the deal after a tense four days, which was described in detail by The Washington Post in a story with a headline that would have infuriated a different kind of politician: “How McConnell and Biden pulled Congress away from the fiscal cliff.”

Just a few months earlier, Reid thought Obama was on board, realizing he couldn’t cut a deal with the House. The day before Labor Day, the president called him to let him know he was going to call out Boehner in his holiday address.

That emboldened Reid to make his play, pulling out of the bargaining sessions, believing he had the Republicans where he wanted them. “The reason he is a tough negotiator,” one person close to Reid said, “is that he is immune to giving something to the other side to make them feel better.”

Reid believed, as he had from the beginning of 2009, that Obama did not realize just “how beholden to the Tea Party the Republicans were,” another aide told me, revealing the leader’s uncanny prescience at figuring out the legislative matrix.

“There was a building sense of frustration,” the aide said. “The president and his team for far too long thought they could negotiate.”

Obama’s flexibility and Reid’s toughness came into play over the holiday weekend as McConnell took to the Senate floor to say he had no “dance partner.” When the administration sent over concessions on tax cuts and the sequester, Reid was so furious he threw it into his ornate office fireplace. And after Biden went around him, the leader refused to sell the deal to his own caucus, telling members to vote their consciences.

Even in this difficult moment, though, when Reid thought the White House had not trusted him, had even pulled out the rug from underneath him, he did not blame the president, sources said.

“Despite some of the trash talk that appeared in print in recent years, their relationship was always rock solid,” Manley told me. “They are both alike in they don’t get too wrapped up in staff talk. Obama cause he is cool- and Reid cause he doesn't let anyone distract him from what he wants to do.”

When McConnell lobbed a call into Biden after Reid was done bargaining, the Democratic leader, hoping to make the Republicans sweat, urged the White House not to have the vice president return it. When Biden did, presumably with the president’s assent, Reid was not happy. But the personal relationship was not affected, sources on both sides say.

Obama appreciated what Reid did for him during his re-election, and their friendship deepened during that time. That was on full display during one Obama visit to Nevada, which was a critical swing state and an early decider, thanks to Reid’s influence with the Democratic National Committee.

“The president was campaigning in Nevada, had cut an ad for somebody, the two had finished their business and then, kind of out of the blue, Harry gave the president a hug and walked away,” one person who witnessed the Vegas incident recalled. “There was something really powerful and genuine about it. Harry’s not a hugger.”

Nor is the president. But he remembered what Reid had done.

After he declared victory on Election Night and left the stage, Obama called Reid and told him the last chapter had yet to be written. “We will finish together,” the president said.


Election Day 2014 was a disaster for the Obama-Reid team.

The Democrats didn’t just lose the Senate; they hemorrhaged nine seats, giving the GOP the largest gain in a midterm in a half-century. The Democrats lost 13 more seats in the House, giving the GOP the largest majority since 1928.

The recriminations began almost immediately, with election-year frustration boiling over into post-balloting rage. And, most astonishingly, in a break from Washington decorum, Reid’s chief of staff, David Krone, talked openly to reporters and in a New York Times story, essentially blamed the president for the November nosedive.

This, surely, would be an irreparable rift between Reid and Obama, causing all of the goodwill of the first six years to evaporate. But, in a classic display of Reid’s loyalty to his staff, which they all talk about, and to Obama, which his folks do, too, Reid’s quote to the Times said it all.

“They should just get over it,” he said. “I have a good relationship with the president. This is all staff driven. Get a life. Forget about this.”

This had happened before with Reid, who gave his aides so much freedom to advocate for him that they often got into scrapes with other offices, whether it was the White House or, for many years, staffers for fellow Democratic Sen. Richard Bryan, who served with Reid starting in the late ‘60s in the Nevada Legislature, when they were known as the Gold Dust Twins.

No one on Reid’s staff, who talked about his personal flourishes such as personalized thank-you notes, was surprised by his running interference for Krone. And no one in the White House, least of all the president, held any of his angry chief’s fulminations against the loyal leader.

The demotion from majority to minority leader was not, however, the worst moment for Reid after the election.

On New Year’s Day, after inexplicably setting up an elastic exercise band in the bathroom of his barely furnished new home in Henderson, Nevada, the equipment snapped and sent him hurtling him to the ground. The force crushed Reid’s right eye, likely rendering it useless for the rest of his life, badly bruised his face and broke ribs. Obama, vacationing in Hawaii, called to make sure Reid was all right.

As could only happen with Reid, who is loathed by Republicans, the bizarre mishap spawned a raft of loony conspiracy theories, including whether the mob, once accused of trying to blow up his car, had finally wreaked revenge on the former gaming regulator. But the subsequent and substantive speculation centered around whether Reid would now run again in 2016, whether the accident would push him into retirement.

Reid was planning on a sixth Senate bid, although those close to him say he was not 100 percent there after the electoral nightmare of November. His formidable political team was ready for anything, including the possibility that popular Gov. Brian Sandoval, who would be a prohibitive favorite, might run.

Rather than pushing him toward not running, though, his injuries motivated Reid to recalibrate from thinking about not running to considering another bid, so as to not look as if he feebly limped into the sunset. (It infuriates him that some still believe this is what stopped him from running again.)

Reid instructed his staff to begin interviewing campaign managers and he insisted in every interview that he would run. What else would he say?

No one except his wife, Landra, who has more influence on Reid than anyone by orders of magnitude and who has had her own serious health issues the last few years, knows exactly why Reid announced on March 27 that he would not seek another term. Maybe he simply, at the age of 75, has had enough.

One person close to Reid said the prospect of the arduous slog of a campaign, which he could have lost, combined with six more years in the toughest job on Congress may have persuaded him to hang it up. The idea of being just another senator after being leader did not appeal to him, either. Some close to him think he actually decided not to run right after the Democrats were crushed in the election, determined to announce his retirement so he could focus on regaining the majority in 2016 as his final act.

Despite the accident, Reid, whose shuffle has become more pronounced and slower in the last few years, has not lost a step in the arena in which he has no peers.

Just this year, with the president’s enduring gratitude, he helped gather support for the Iran deal and, tellingly, did not stand in the way of the Trans Pacific Partnership, which he opposes.

How he handled those two issues shows just what a master he is of the Senate.

Reid has for years talked openly about much he does not like trade deals, either showing his ideological bent or labor fealty. Indeed, there was tension with the White House while the Democrats had the majority in the Senate that he would refuse to bring deals to the floor. “It was a MAJOR priority for the president and Reid wouldn’t budge,” one of his intimates emailed.

But this year was different.

When TPP came up during a critical procedural vote, Reid sat at his desk as undecided senators milled behind him. He acted as if he wasn’t paying attention, blasé about the moment. But Reid knew what was happening, an aide said, and if he wanted to kill the bill, he would have been in the scrum, doing his deal.

Contrast that to how he handled the Iran deal vote, which was very iffy. “He stood in well, facing the Senate chamber, directing people, giving people the eye,” a Reidite recalled. “That’s the contrast.”

Neither were lost on Obama, who knew Reid could have entombed the trade deal and realized the leader was under tremendous pressure from the Jewish community to scuttle the Iran deal.

“Harry has been incredibly loyal and committed to the president’s agenda,” Axelrod said. “The president was lucky to have him there.”


Harry Reid, not easily surprised and rarely given to cursing, was stunned.

“Well, I’ll be damned. Well, I’ll be damned,” Reid said across  National Public Radio airwaves when he heard the surprise caller interrupting his interview March 27 on the Las Vegas affiliate. “What a guy.”

The guy was the president of the United States, calling into the station a few hours after Reid had announced he would not seek a sixth term. Sitting in his DC office, Reid was noticeably emotional, choked up at Obama’s gesture, surreptitiously arranged by his staff.

If you listen to the mutual admiration society that followed, you can hear Obama’s voice crack a bit, too, as both men seemed to realize their unusual friendship, at least in public life, was coming to an end. And the two Democratic doyens, so different and yet so similar, seemed to forget they were on live radio, their guards down, caught up in a unique moment between two of the country’s most powerful politicians.

“I think that when the story is written and when all is told, I think you are going to have somebody who has done more for this state and more for this country than anyone who has ever been in the Senate,” Obama said on KNPR. “I could not be prouder of him.”

And the president then gave one of the most apt descriptions of Reid, referring to his “curmudgeonly charm” before asking for his friend’s forgiveness in again gushing without a governor, “there are a lot of folks who are slicker, give smoother TV interviews but in terms of someone who has heart and cares about ordinary people trying to chase the American Dream. I don’t think there’s anybody, ever.”


It sounds treacly enough, but considering that Reid did for Obama, considering how Reid essentially saved Obama, it also has verisimilitude.

As for his Nevada legacy, no politician in the state’s history has accomplished more. Reid may be one of the most polarizing figures, inside and outside the state’s borders. But, through his lofty perch, he has brought billions back to Nevada, visible in higher education and private sector edifices, among other places. Every acre of wilderness in Nevada is attributable to Reid, and that hole in the wilderness called Yucca Mountain, where billions of dollars have been dumped but nuclear waste has yet to be, is empty because of him. (One of his more remarkable accomplishments with Obama was to persuade a man from a huge nuclear-waste producing state to be against a project all of the industry has long desired.)

Reid, who does not wear his Mormon faith on his sleeve, has been socially conservative most of his career, an anomalous pro-life leader of Senate Democrats. But he clearly has changed in the last few years, especially on issues such as gay marriage, which he now supports. He also has become even more of an environmentalist than the guy who stopped nuclear waste, pushing for clean energy in Nevada against the state’s powerful utility monopoly, winning nearly every battle. This is part of his legacy and one he seems to relish.

No matter how he is remembered by Senate historians, Reid has been the most powerful legislator, the most effective kingmaker, the most influential player, for good or ill, in Nevada annals. And as Democratic Party insiders in Nevada know, having watched Reid erect a machine and bring the state attention by securing early-state status, après Harry, le deluge.

That March day on KNPR, Reid could not contain himself either, boasting before the president got off the line of their accomplishments and then riffing on the relationship: “We’ve done it as friends. We’ve done it as people who love our country. We love it as a couple of people who have backgrounds that are so unusual. How in the world did Obama and Reid get to where they are? (He chuckles that inimitable Reid chuckle.)….I have so much affection and admiration for Barack Obama. We’ve proven that to each other.”

No two figures in American public life during the president’s tenure have engendered such bilious reactions from their foes, such raw hatred and intense loathing, as Obama and Reid. That they have survived, even prospered, inside that crucible has been a testament to an almost filial connection between two men who never had the benefit of a father-son relationship.

Without Harry Reid, Barack Obama might not still be living at the White House. You get the sense Obama realizes this, using his final two years to pay back the debt, granting Reid’s wish for a controversial 700,000-acre national monument in Nevada, visiting the state to announce his executive actions on immigration.

Both of those moves – and more are likely in the next year as they conclude their careers—infuriated Republicans. That will suit both members of this unique and historic political odd couple just fine.

(Images from Reid's office, Scripps, Reuters, Washington Times, NewsMax, Spectator, Politico and Watchlog.)