Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Supported by

Harry Reid, Part 1

Late Senator Harry Reid of Nevada speaking from podium circa July 2016
Paul Sancya, AP
Then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada smiles as he speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 27, 2016.

Harry Reid recently lost a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer. If Harry was going to lose, his opponent was going to get a hard-earned victory. He sure fought that one.

I say Harry because this is personal. It has to be. We knew each other for nearly sixty years.

When we met, we were taking the bar exam. He was taking it early. He was already married with a family, and wanted to get on with his life. It had always been a struggle. He was born in Searchlight on December 2, 1939. He grew up in a shack his father and other family members built out of railroad ties and tarpaper. His dad was a miner when mining wasn’t doing too well. His mother helped out by taking in wash from the major local employer: the brothel. When he finished eighth grade, he had to hitchhike to Henderson each week to attend Basic High School. He got up before sunrise each day to work in a pastry shop. One of his jobs was to put the glaze on donuts. That gave him needed funds and a lifelong hatred of glazed donuts.

In high school, he met the two people who shaped his life the most. One was a new social studies teacher, Mike O’Callaghan, who taught him about boxing, politics, and a lot of other things. He helped Harry get a patronage job on Capitol Hill so that he could go to law school. The other was another student, Landra Gould. They were married for sixty-two years. They had five children: Lana, Rory, Leif, Key, and Josh, who gave them nineteen grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

Harry and Landra already had two kids when he took the exam. Both of us passed. He lived in Henderson and became city attorney and represented the health board. In 1968, we ran for the assembly and won. We were nicknamed The Gold Dust Twins and stirred the pot in Carson City. We were young men in a hurry and introduced a lot of bills. Some of them even passed! The governor at the time was a Republican, Paul Laxalt, and his party controlled the legislature. Harry and I obviously weren’t Republicans. But we all got along and worked together.

Harry ran for lieutenant governor in 1970. O’Callaghan was running for governor. Most of the experts thought Harry had a better chance. O’Callaghan won in an upset, and Harry became the most important, active lieutenant governor in Nevada history. O’Callaghan was an early riser and didn’t mind waking Harry in the middle of the night to put him to work.

In 1974, Alan Bible was retiring from the Senate. While O’Callaghan sought a second term, Harry ran for the Senate. He won a tough primary against legendary Nevada philanthropist and activist Maya Miller. In the general election, he faced Laxalt, a Republican running in the year Richard Nixon resigned over Watergate. Harry would always tell you that he should have won, and he blew the election. Laxalt won—and they still became friends. The next year, Harry ran for mayor of Las Vegas because in those days, if you wanted to be in politics, the feeling was that you had to hold an office. He lost that one, too. And everybody knew he was finished. They didn’t know Harry Reid. More next time.