A look at the life and legacy of Senate titan and Democratic firebrand Harry Reid

Former Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada died Tuesday, at the age of 82, after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Reid went from humble beginnings in a small town to become one of the longest-serving Senate majority leaders in American history. Lisa Desjardins looks back at this life and legacy.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, former Democratic Senator Harry Reid of Nevada died yesterday at the age of 82 after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

    Reid went from humble small-town beginnings to become one of the longest-serving Senate majority leaders in American history.

    Lisa Desjardins has more on his story.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    From poverty to a titan of the U.S. Senate, Harry Reid's story is marked by the extraordinary odds he surpassed to lead the highest chamber in American politics.

  • Fmr. Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV):

    I didn't make it because of my good looks. I didn't make it because I'm a genius. I made it because I worked hard.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Harry Mason Reid was born in 1939 in the battered mining town of Searchlight, Nevada, where prostitution was a major industry.

    His home had no indoor plumbing, and the town no stoplight or high school. Reid traveled more than 40 miles to Henderson to graduate. There, he channeled his competitive, at times combative, energy into boxing, a passion and approach he carried through life.

  • Fmr. Sen. Harry Reid:

    Everyone knows how much I admire people who get into the ring, whether it's a boxing ring or a political ring.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    His resume was unusual. Reid's first Hill job was as a U.S. Capitol Police officer, work that put him through law school. He rose to become a city attorney, a lieutenant governor, and then Nevada's gaming commissioner.

    In the Reagan era, Reid won as a Democrat running for Congress and then the Senate. Known as a no-nonsense negotiator with rough edges and a soft touch, Reid became the top Senate Democrat in 2005 and railed against then-President George W. Bush.

  • Fmr. Sen. Harry Reid:

    We are the difference between the president getting everything he wants and getting what we think is important to the American people.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Bush felt the blows, and, in 2006, Reid oversaw a seismic shift. Hard-fought wins in places like Montana and Virginia gave Democrats the majority. His impact was just starting.

    Barack Obama, Former President of the United States: Change has come to America.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Reid personally urged then-junior Senator Barack Obama to run for president and was among the first to endorse him. But even with the White House and Congress in hand, Democrats still could not overcome a filibuster in the U.S. Senate, until Reid helped convince Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter to switch parties and give Democrats 60 Senate votes.

  • Man:

    The yeas are 60, the nays are 39.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Exactly what they needed for the sweeping Affordable Care Act a few months later.

  • Fmr. Sen. Harry Reid:

    We look forward to finally bring quality health care to the American people that they deserved since the first days of Harry Truman.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    All this as a new Republican leader had risen, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell.

    Reid spoke to "NewsHour" about their battles in 2013.

  • Fmr. Sen. Harry Reid:

    We have never been enemies, hated each other. It's just been a little difficult to work together, and I think things will get better.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The two leaders wielded Senate rules like sabers. And, in 2013, Reid pulled the trigger on the so-called nuclear option, removing the filibuster for most nominees, a move that cut sharp divides, but which Reid defended as important for governance.

  • Fmr. Sen. Harry Reid:

    It's time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In 2015, Reid suffered severe injuries while exercising. He retired in 2017, closing the book on one of the longest leadership tenures in Senate history.

  • Fmr. Sen. Harry Reid:

    The joy I have gotten with the work that I have done for the people of the state of Nevada has been just as fulfilling as if I had played center field at Yankee Stadium.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The Democratic firebrand settled in Henderson for his final years with his high school sweetheart and wife of 62 years, Landra. Reid battled pancreatic cancer for years. He was 82 years old.

    For more on the life and legacy of Harry Reid, we're joined by his friend Guy Cecil, a Democratic strategist and chairman of the political action committee Priorities USA. He worked with Reid during his time as executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

    Guy, one thing I guy, one thing I know about Harry Reid is, he was a viewer of this program. So I want to send my condolences to his family, but also to you for the loss of your friend.

    I want to ask right off the top about his legacy. Former President Obama revealed what he wrote Harry Reid in his last letter to him today.

    And he wrote — quote — "I wouldn't have been president had it not been for your encouragement and support."

    What is Reid's political legacy?

  • Guy Cecil, Chairman, Priorities USA:

    Well, I think Senator Reid had a chance to work with two history-making leaders, the first Black president of the United States and the first woman speaker of the House.

    And a lot of times, his legacy gets overshadowed. The reality is that Senator Reid, as President Obama correctly stated, helped pass Wall Street reform and the stimulus bill and the Affordable Care Act. He was the reason why the repeal of don't ask/don't tell wasn't delayed and was, in fact, overturned.

    And a lot of it is, of course, wrapped up in legislation. But for those of us that knew Senator Reid, a lot of his legacy is in the people that he worked with and that worked for him and that feel spelled every day to live up to a standard that he set for us, which was to take the work seriously, but not always to take ourselves so seriously.

    And, so for a lot of us, it's not just a loss for the country, but the loss of a really good friend and mentor.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Part of that when a leader might not take themselves so seriously, and I know this is true of Reid, is, he didn't mince words. He didn't always have a filter.

    I know he referred to president-elect Trump, for example, as a sexual predator who lost the popular vote. A lot of Democrats liked him saying that. But, sometimes, his words worked against him, for example, when he was praising politically former — the candidate Barack Obama as someone with light skin who didn't have a Negro accent.

    What do you see as sort of the strengths and weaknesses that Reid had in his style as a leader?

  • Guy Cecil:

    Well, I think it is the same thing that then-candidate Obama recognized, which was that, despite misspeaking, he knew the heart of Harry Reid.

    The best thing about Harry Reid was sometimes the thing that drove the people that worked for him a little bit crazy. He was the same behind the podium of a debate as he was in the Oval Office of the White House, as he was in private meetings or with friends and family.

    He was authentically himself. And he wore his shortcomings on his sleeve, in the same way that many politicians only want to present sort of one dimension of themselves. And I think that is why, despite a misspeak or two, or simply just saying what exactly was on his mind, people loved Harry Reid when they knew him and when they worked for him and when he represented him, as the people of Nevada reelected him several times.

    And so I think, for — like most of us, the thing that sometimes president challenges are the things that make us uniquely us. And it's why so many of us loved working for him.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    He's such a fascinating character, I think, in our political history, Mormon, pro-gun rights, sometimes pro-life in some ways, also could be on the liberal side of some issues.

    But I like how you describe him as authentically himself. Who was that? What was he like personally?

  • Guy Cecil:

    Well, I — Senator Reid and I, despite one of us coming from a small mining town in Nevada and the other of us coming from Miami Florida, had a lot in common.

    Our faith was both very important us to. Senator Reid was someone who took his faith seriously, but didn't wear it on his sleeve for lots of people to see. We both dealt with suicides in our family. And despite the fact that he is correctly and occasionally identified as being tough and a fighter and brusque, he also was someone that cared about people.

    I had the fortune of having him give a toast at my wedding. And for those that know Senator Reid, they know he didn't attend a lot of events, political or social. He did his work in D.C., and then he went home to his wife. He was just an innately decent person that cared about the people that he worked with and that wanted the very best for him, and is someone that I'm going to miss a lot.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Guy Cecil with Priorities USA, thank you so much for remembering Harry Reid with us.

  • Guy Cecil:

    Thanks for giving me the chance.

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