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Biden, Obama among those to eulogize Senate titan Harry Reid at memorial service

President Joe Biden speaks during a memorial service for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Las Vegas.
Susan Walsh
/
AP
President Joe Biden speaks during a memorial service for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Las Vegas.

In eulogy after eulogy at his memorial service Saturday, Harry Reid was remembered as a consummate politician, a loving husband and father — and perhaps more than anything else, a man who rarely said goodbye before hanging up the phone.

The nation's foremost Democratic politicians, among them President Biden and former president Barack Obama, gathered in Las Vegas to memorialize Reid, the former Senate Majority Leader and titan of Democratic politics who died last month at the age of 82 after a life that brought him from a tiny town in Nevada to the halls of power in Washington.

"The desert shack he called home, the miles he hitchhiked to school, the boxing ring where he always got up, the family tragedies he endured, the cancer he and Landra fought, the halls of power he walked, the state he transformed, the country he shaped — he was proof that there's nothing ordinary about America. Ordinary Americans can do anything, given half a chance," said President Biden.

The list of speakers and attendees at Reid's service matched the size of his political influence. Besides Biden and Obama, attendees included Vice President Harris, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer, Reid's successor as leader of the Senate Democrats.

"His modesty made him unique, you might say, in politics. But his humility was rooted in his strong values from a humble childhood rising from Searchlight to the spotlight, and becoming one of the most celebrated and consequential Senate leaders in decades," said Pelosi.

Reid had a "vanity deficit," Obama said

Over the course of three hours, speakers told colorful stories about Reid one after another — how he once asked to be dropped off in the middle of the Nevada desert for a marathon training run; how he kissed the TV after Democrats retook the Senate in 2006; or how, upon seeing a speech draft in which he was refer to himself as a "former boxer," he crossed out the word "former."

Reid's five children — daughter Lana and four sons, Key, Josh, Leif and Rory — remembered a loving father who wrote meaningful letters to his children for birthdays, graduations or simply because he was bored while listening to a speech on the Senate floor.

"In a town obsessed with appearances, Harry had a real vanity deficit. He didn't like phonies. He didn't like grandstanding. He was proud of the fact that he didn't own a tuxedo," said Obama.

In his eulogy, Obama described coming to the Capitol as a junior senator from Illinois in 2005, where he felt daunted by the apparent differences between himself and Reid — their age, skin color, political leanings, even taste in music ("I didn't know what kind of music he liked, but I figured he didn't listen to Jay-Z," Obama said).

But in Reid's background from a poverty-stricken family in the small town of Searchlight, Nev., Obama said that the two men were able to find common ground.

"Harry understood we don't have to see eye-to-eye on everything in order to live together and be decent toward each other, and that we can learn to bridge differences in background, race, and region," Obama said, adding that Reid was one of the first people to encourage him to run for president.

Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, pictured in 2011.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, pictured in 2011.

From Searchlight, Nev., to Washington, D.C.

Reid was born in 1939 in Searchlight – "a town with more than a dozen brothels and no church," as described by Schumer.

Reid's childhood home lacked running water, and Searchlight lacked a high school; Reid would stay with relatives 40 miles away in Henderson in order to attend school. At 19 years old, he eloped with his wife Landra.

Reid graduated from Utah State University then attended law school at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he had his first job on Capitol Hill as a police officer with the U.S. Capitol Police.

He returned to Nevada, where he soon began his political career. Reid served in the Nevada Assembly, as lieutenant governor and as chairman of the state's gaming commission before turning to Congress. After four years as a representative, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986.

Over three decades in the Senate, Reid developed a reputation as a savvy tactician with an unrivaled ability to turn out votes. He served as Senate Majority leader from 2007 until 2015. In that time, he shepherded landmark Democratic legislation including the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul bill, the massive 2009 stimulus package and the Obama presidency's most signature piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act.

"The deals Harry made to get that law done didn't always look pretty — they got votes. Whenever I would object to a change he wanted to make, whether because of some policy concerns or worries about the optics, Harry would tell me, with some exasperation in his voice, 'Mr. President, you know a lot more than I do about health care policy, OK, but I know the Senate,' " Obama said.

Reid declined to run for reelection in 2016, and his final term came to an end in January 2017. The next year, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Reid died at home on Dec. 28 at 82 years old. His body will lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda on Jan. 12.

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.