'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Sen. Harry Reid ('The New West and the Politics of the Environment')

Harry Reid
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"I don't miss it," Harry Reid says of the United States Congress, where he represented the state of Nevada for four years in the House and 30 years in the Senate, as we record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's Awards Chatter podcast. "I watch what goes on. I try not to interfere with Sen. [Chuck] Schumer [Reid's successor as the leader of Senate Democrats] at all — I don't want him thinking I'm looking over his shoulder. That was then and this is now. So I don't dream of being back there."

Sen. Reid, after suffering a gruesome injury while exercising on New Year’s Day 2015, retired from Congress in 2017 and returned full-time to his beloved home state, only to be diagnosed in 2018 with pancreatic cancer. His prognosis was bleak until he began taking an investigational drug as part of a compassionate-care program. Now, he insists, he's feeling fine: "I've gotten really good treatment, I feel pretty good about myself and I'm looking forward to a future of longevity."

In retirement, Reid has continued to closely monitor American politics and preside over the fabled Reid political machine which has helped to turn Nevada solidly blue, while also enjoying more time with his wife of 60 years, Lydia; their five children; and their 19 grandchildren. And now, at age 80, he is the subject of a new documentary, The New West and the Politics of the Environment, which is airing as part of PBS's Earth Focus series on PBS SoCal and KCET, about how he accumulated and then spent political capital in the service of Nevada's environment, resulting in a state that is the envy of environmentalists across America.

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You can listen to the episode here. The article continues below.

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Reid, as anyone who even occassionally follows politics knows, was born in Searchlight, a wasteland of a small town — no grass, trees or bodies of water — where his father was a miner and his mother took in wash from one of the town's 13 brothels. Both were alcoholics. As a boy with little to do in town, he explored beyond it, eventually happening upon Piute Springs, a lush desert oasis. "That is where I became an environmentalist," he recalls.

Reid hitchhiked 40 miles each week to attend high school in Henderson, where he was a standout athlete (playing both football and baseball) and became popular enough to win student body elections (treasurer as a junior, president as a senior). Most importantly, though, that was where he met Mike O'Callaghan, a Korean War veteran 10 years his senior who "was a terrific teacher and the only real mentor I ever had," Reid explains. "He took care of me from then on."

O'Callaghan, who was charismatic and well-connected in ways that Reid was not, and would soon enter local politics, believed in the potential of Reid to rise above his station and achieve great things. He rallied local businessmen to pay for Reid to attend college, and then procured for him a patronage job as a Capitol Hill police officer to help Reid afford to attend George Washington University Law School. After graduating, Reid returned to Nevada, passed the Bar exam and spent a few years as a lawyer, on a hospital board and as an assembly member before, at just 30, running to become Nevada's lieutenant governor on the same ballot on which O'Callaghan was a candidate for the top post. They both won.

After four years in that post, Reid learned that one of Nevada's U.S. senators was retiring and decided to run to replace him. He lost by just a few hundred votes — the only Democrat to lose a seat previously held by a Democrat in that first post-Watergate election — and then, just six months later, ran for and badly lost a race for Las Vegas mayor. "Everyone thought I was dead and gone, politically," Reid acknowledges. But O'Callaghan came to the rescue again, appointing Reid to chair the Nevada Gaming Commission.

From 1977 through 1981, Reid, at great risk to himself and his family — his wife once found a car bomb planted in the family station wagon — took on Las Vegas' most corrupt operators and rebuilt his public profile. And then, in 1982, when population growth led to Nevada receiving an additional congressional seat, he ran for it and won. Four years later, he mounted a run for the Senate seat which was being vacated by the man who had throttled him a dozen years earlier, and won again. And he never lost again.

Upon being elected to the Senate, Reid was seated on the Appropriations and Environment & Public Works committees, and quickly went to work locking down deliverables for his constituents. "I remember Newsweek used to come out every year with the people who were the biggest 'pork-ers' in Congress," he notes, "and I was always glad I was in the top ten." But he also relinquished considerable goodwill by taking on business interests to protect Nevada's natural beauty and resources. As the new PBS documentary reports, he would later learn that more than half of the legislation he authored during his 30 years in the Senate pertained to the environment — national parks, land swaps, water wars, renewable energy, safety from nuclear waste, etc. Today, an unequaled 87% of Nevada is federally-owned land.

An amateur boxer who didn't mind getting bruised in a fight, Reid was an obvious candidate to join the leadership of the Senate Democrats. He served as co-chair of the Democratic Policy Committee from 1995 through 1999; then whip  from 1999 through 2005 (famously converting Sen. Jim Jeffords from Republican to independent caucusing with the Democrats in 2001, which gave Democrats control of the Senate and "changed the country"); and then, after the upset of Sen. Tom Daschle in 2004, party leader, in the minority from 2005 through 2007, then in the majority from 2007 through 2015, and then again in the minority from 2015 through 2017.

"I spent my life on the Senate floor," Reid says, and indeed he was famous for relishing life at the center of what was once considered "the world's greatest deliberative body." (He retired as the longest-serving U.S. Senator in Nevada's 156-year history and, along with Alben W. Barkley and Mike Mansfield, one of only three U.S. senators to serve at least eight years as Senate Majority Leader.) But, as he would be the first to acknowledge, the Senate changed during Reid's tenture, and not for the better. Indeed, particularly during the eight years of the presidency of Barack Obama — who, as a new U.S. senator, Reid encouraged to run for president — partisanship and obstructionism on the Senate floor reached unprecedented levels.

Given the rancor, it is remarkable how much Obama, Reid and Nancy Pelosi were able to accomplish — Obamacare, Dodd-Frank and an $800 billion stimulus plan to help save the economy in the midst of the Great Recession, to name just a few landmark achievements. But Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, openly stated that their top priority was to make Obama a one-term president, and then, when that failed, to stop him from enacting his agenda, which drove Reid to take a drastic and still controversial step on Nov. 21, 2013: eliminating the filibuster, or requirement of at least 60 votes, for approval of federal and most judicial appointments — also described as "the nuclear option."

"Here he was, a very popular president, and they filibustered everything, including the Secretary of Defense, who, by the way, was a Republican, Chuck Hagel from Nebraska," Reid explains. "They filibustered that! We had six, seven vacancies on the D.C. Circuit Court, the second most important court in the country, and they wouldn't allow me to put anybody on there. The National Labor Relations Board — we couldn't get a quorum there. They were just stopping everything that this popular president wanted to try to do. So I changed the rules, and I'm glad I did." He adds of Obama, who remains a close friend, "He has a legacy now that will be written about for generations to come."

As Reid was departing Washington, Donald Trump was arriving, having shocked the world by defeating former Sen. Hillary Clinton. "[James] Comey was the cause of our losing," Reid says, referring to the former FBI director who reopened an investigation into Clinton's email server — only to clear her — just days before the 2016 election. As a result of what McConnell referred to as "the Reid rule" regarding the filibuster, Trump was able to win approval of virtually all of his Cabinet and judicial appointments — and then McConnell took things a step further by eliminating the filibuster for appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, as well, in order to win confirmation for Neil Gorsuch. If Reid had not partially eliminated the filibuster during the Obama era, would McConnell still have eliminated it during the Trump era? "If anybody believes differently," Reid says, "I will sell you two Brooklyn Bridges."

As Trump's term in office winds to an end and the 2020 election continues to unfold, Senate Republicans are trying to ram through a confirmation of Trump's Supreme Court appointee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, even though McConnell and others had insisted, back in 2016, that Obama's appointee, Judge Merrick Garland, would not even get a confirmation hearing in an election year.

Reid has watched these events unfold with disgust. "I think the Republican Senators have lost their souls," he says. "What has happened with the present cast of Republican Senators is they are afraid of Trump, and so whatever he does is okay by them, and that's why we have the mess that we have in Washington." He adds, "Trump has been a disaster for our country, and I don't blame that all on him. I blame it on Republican House and Senate members who are gutless." He says of McConnell, "Mitch is cold and indifferent and that doesn't surprise me at all."

Another "big disappointment," he says, is the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman. "While [Sen. John McCain, who died in 2018] was alive, one of the outstanding Republican senators was Lindsey Graham, but with John having passed away, Lindsey's lost his soul. I'm glad he has a tough race in South Carolina. He may lose that race — he's behind now, and I hope he loses." Reid adds, "He started playing golf with Donald Trump and he became his pal." (The one Republican senator with whom Reid does remain in contact is Sen. Richard Shelby.)

And then, of course, there is COVID. "If we'd have had a decent president, sending masks and [setting] other standards that people would follow, thousands and thousands of people would not be dead," Reid says. "And people believe the guy — that's the sad part about it. And he's not out of the woods yet [with his own COVID battle]. I hope he has a 100% recovery."

Reid is excited to vote for Joe Biden, who had already spent years in the U.S. Senate when Reid was elected to join it. "I have such admiration for him," Reid says, "'cause he's had the trials of life and has overcome them." As for what can be achieved post-Trump? "Once we're rid of him, I think the country's going to move back to a more moderate, bipartisan body. And I think it's going to work out just fine. I think that Trump's going to lose, I think that Pelosi's going to build on her majority in the House and we're going to take the Senate."

He elaborates, "Biden's a dealmaker, ok? He's done very well with that. I think he has to see if the Republicans are willing to do anything together — I wouldn't give them much time, a month or so. If not, then I think he has to move in and get rid of the filibuster [altogether, meaning any/all Senate legislation could pass with 51 votes]. If we got rid of the filibuster, we could do something on climate change, we could do something on infrastructure development and we could do some things on creation of jobs."