Guy Farmer: Sen. Harry Reid, hero or villain?

Guy Farmer

Guy Farmer

Depending upon who you talk to, the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who passed away from pancreatic cancer Dec. 28 at age 82, was either a true blue hero who fought for Nevada and kept highly toxic nuclear waste out of our state, or he was a devious, unprincipled liar who was the root of all evil in the Silver State and the U.S. Senate.
Young "Pinky" Reid came to Carson City as a Clark County assemblyman shortly after I left to join the Foreign Service in 1967. At that time Reid was a moderate, pragmatic Democrat following in the footsteps of Govs. Grant Sawyer and Mike O'Callaghan, his political mentor. A few years later Reid became O'Callaghan's 32-year-old lieutenant governor before being named chairman of the powerful Nevada Gaming Commission, which I worked for in the 1960s.
Nevada Independent Editor Jon Ralston, who covered Reid's political career for 35 years, wrote that the late senator "was more complicated than we know," and I agree. Ralston accurately described Reid as "a poor kid from Nowhere, USA who escaped from his hardscrabble beginnings to become the state's youngest-ever lieutenant governor," and later, a national political power broker with hordes of influential friends and angry enemies.
"Reid never stopped moving forward," Ralston wrote, "always making deals, cajoling those he could with his strategic brilliance (and) running over those he couldn't without grace or remorse, never looking back." Ralston added it would be a mistake to caricature the pugnacious Reid as "a former boxer who wasn't afraid to land a low blow (and/or) a ruthless tactician who would do anything to win." Well maybe, but that caricature partially describes the Reid I knew for more than 50 years.
Reid and I had mutual friends in Nevada and Washington and shortly after I returned to Carson in 1996 he invited my son Guy and me to lunch in Reno with him and his son Rory, who later ran for governor, and lost. It was a pleasant encounter and we discussed politics and the people we had known in our respective careers. I asked him about the political scene in Washington and he wanted to know what I had learned so far during my Foreign Service career. He was particularly interested in my experience as the American Mission spokesman during the 1983 multinational invasion of the small, strife-torn Caribbean island of Grenada, where two Communist factions clashed in a violent power struggle.
Two years later he sent me a signed copy of his autobiography, "Searchlight, the (Mining) Camp that Didn't Fail." By then, however, I was writing mostly conservative Appeal columns, which he didn't like, and I liked him even less as he championed President Obama's very liberal policies in the Senate. Nevertheless, I enjoyed his book, which chronicled his rags to riches story and his lifelong devotion to his home state. As Mike O'Callaghan wrote in his forward to Reid's book, "The lessons he (Reid) learned in Searchlight – lessons about handling adversity, confronting a harsh and extreme environment, and facing challenges with courage and principle – provide the foundation for his life's work."
Those lessons worked because Reid, almost single-handedly, stopped the federal government and the deep-pockets nuclear energy industry from turning our state into the nation's nuclear waste dump. He was like that Dutch kid standing there with his finger in a dike that held back more than 80,000 tons of highly toxic nuclear waste. In my opinion, that was his singular achievement in a long and controversial political career.
Sen. Harry Reid was our man in Washington. Hero or villain? Both.
Guy W. Farmer is the Appeal's senior political columnist.


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