Reid's memoir reveals a lawmaker forged by the bouts of life

An aura of rock-ribbed pugnacity pervades the pages of Harry Reid's memoir, "The Good Fight: Hard Lessons From Searchlight to Washington."

But after reading the book a couple of times, I get the sense there's a fight preparation going on just beneath the surface of the compelling story of the scrawny kid from Searchlight who became a giant in the U.S. Senate.

The book succeeds on two levels: first as a compelling memoir and second as a work of political inoculation. The writing is deft and spare and at times painfully revealing, and Reid made the right decision when he selected Esquire executive editor Mark Warren as his co-author.

Writing a book is about making choices, and "The Good Fight" glimmers with memorable anecdotes and scenes as stark as a Searchlight summer. While most political biographies are so full of hot air and self-importance that they produce measurable greenhouse gases, at times Reid's story feels like it was run through the typewriter of Erskine Caldwell.

Reid has long reminded reporters of his early years as a boxer, but his fighting spirit wasn't developed at a local Boys Club. It was born of hunger in Searchlight, where his father was a hard-drinking miner and his mother helped put food on the table by tending to a local brothel's laundry. No matter what level of success he'd eventually achieve, and even his critics must admit his rise to the top of American politics is truly remarkable, Reid's character wasn't shaped by the Ivy League, but as the son of a calloused, irascible drunk who eventually committed suicide. And the hunger of the sons of hard-drinking men is rarely sated.

But Reid's story, as I measure it, is more than an at times heart-wrenching memoir. It's also an antidote to whatever venom his political detractors have planned for him.

If a man's strength is best measured by the size and tenacity of his enemies, Reid has picked up some powerful foes on his way to becoming Senate majority leader.

If those enemies planned to take a shot at him with a critical biography - I'm betting they do - they'll have to work hard to counter the straight-talk literary style and depictions of the extremely colorful characters and events described in "The Good Fight."

For however much Reid has been pining to tell his life story, it was wise of him to get it in print before someone from the other side did.

It's better for Reid to explain his longtime friendship with controversial lawyer Jay Brown than leave it to his enemies. It's better to have Reid describe the limitless loyalty of former boxer Gary Bates than allow an outsider to paint the picture. It's better for Reid to tell the stories of Jack Gordon and Frank Rosenthal. And it's far better for Reid to state the facts about his "Cleanface" episode than leave it to those who would like to embarrass him.

When a Kansas City mob insider at the Tropicana was captured on an FBI wiretap referring to Reid as "Mr. Cleanface," it set off years of controversy and investigation. At the time, Reid headed the Nevada Gaming Commission.

After a number of embarrassing headlines, the issue was resolved, and Reid survived.

Reid writes, "Working on a full-time basis, the Cleanface investigators spent more than one thousand man-hours over five months reviewing every vote I cast as commissioner and interviewing my colleagues, clients, and friends to prepare a 77-page report for the Gaming Control Board chairman, Richard Bunker, who had replaced (Phil) Hannifin. An outside accounting firm submitted all files related to my corporate and personal financial matters. Every rock they saw, they picked up and turned it over, twice. In February 1980, Bunker held an hour-long press conference to announce that the investigation had completely cleared me of any wrongdoing. But the ordeal had taken its toll. Terrible claims had been released by federal agents without a shred of substantiating evidence that created, in Bunker's mind, 'an aura of distrust.' To me, the whole period was the worst time in my life."

It might have been the bloodiest bout of Harry Reid's incredible career, but as we learn from "The Good Fight," the Senator from Searchlight can take a punch and come back swinging.

• John L. Smith's column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal's Opinion page. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.


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