It’s been two weeks since the death of former Nevada U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, and I have been recollecting my personal and professional relations with Reid who died at the age of 82 following a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer.
Reid was born in Searchlight in 1939 in a shack with no running water, indoor toilet or telephone to an alcoholic father who was a part-time miner and a mother who was the laundress at a local brothel.
But he managed to claw his way out of Searchlight and poverty, graduating from Utah State University and George Washington University’s law school. He then was appointed city attorney of Henderson, served two terms in the State Assembly and one term as lieutenant governor, and in 1983 embarked on a 34-year career in the nation’s Capital where he served four years in the House of Representatives and 30 in the Senate where he was elected Democratic Minority Leader and, finally, Senate Majority leader to become one of the most powerful Democratic politicians in American history.
Two weeks before his death on Dec. 28, he achieved one of his greatest honors when Las Vegas’ airport was officially renamed Harry Reid International Airport. Since 1948, the airport had carried the name McCarran International Airport in honor of Patrick McCarran, a notorious anti-immigrant and racist who had served as a Nevada U.S. senator from 1933 until his death in 1954. Too ill to attend the renaming ceremony, Reid was represented by his five children and Landra, his wife with whom he had eloped in 1959 when he was a 20-year-old university undergraduate.
Reid’s funeral was held last Saturday in Las Vegas, where eulogies were read by President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama. Today, his body lies in state in the Capitol rotunda, and he will be buried in his family’ plot at the Searchlight cemetery.
I first learned about Reid, who then was the lieutenant governor, in June 1977, a month after I purchased this newspaper, when then-Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, a Democrat, was the guest speaker at the Churchill County High School graduation. Following the ceremony, I interviewed O’Callaghan who told me that before he went into politics, he had been Reid’s boxing and football coach at Basic High School in Henderson. “Reid later became a state assemblyman and I tapped him run for lieutenant governor on a O’Callaghan-Reid ticket. We won, and Harry is doing a great job. Keep an eye on him. He’s smart and knows the major issues facing Nevada. I predict he’ll someday be governor or a U.S. senator,” O’Callaghan said.
When O’Callaghan returned to Carson City, he told Reid, “Go see Henley in Fallon. He’s the new owner of the newspaper there, and I told him you were going places.” In a month or so, Reid came to my office and said he planned to run for Congress in a few years. He kept that promise, serving in the House for two terms and the Senate for five terms before retiring in 2016 following the loss of sight in one eye after an exercise machine he was using threw him to the floor.
Reid and I crossed paths during my 26-year ownership of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard, and he was always a good source of news, whether serious or frivolous. I always delight in writing about Nevada politics, and Reid figured prominently in one of the goofiest stories I’ve ever covered that I call my “Bullfrog Caper” which relates to the highly controversial nuclear waste storage site the federal government wanted to create in Southern Nevada, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, in the late 1980s.
Reid led the battle against the proposed underground site at Yucca Mountain, and the Nevada Legislature, pressured by many Nevadans who feared the nuclear waste might leak out and endanger citizens’ health, joined the war against the feds by creating a new county in the state named “Bullfrog County” that was formed to discourage the site’s construction by enacting impossibly high, multi-million-dollar property and other taxes to be paid by the government. Named for the extinct Bullfrog Mine located not far from the proposed waste facility, Bullfrog County had a population of zero, and the county’s officials were to be appointed by Gov. Dick Bryan, receive a $1 annual salary and headquartered in Carson City. On a whim, I called Reid and asked him if he could help me be named the sheriff of Bullfrog County. Although he had a gruff exterior, Reid had a wonderful, droll sense of humor and replied, “Great idea. I’ll see what I can do.”
Alas, someone else got the job. But my tears didn’t last long. In a few months, the government took Bullfrog County to court, and it was ruled unconstitutional. The county was disbanded and dissolved back into Nye County. Following the court’s action, I received in the mail a beautiful certificate signed by Reid and adorned with official-looking gold seals that named me “Honorary Sheriff of Bullfrog County, Nevada.” By the way, the Nevada nuke site has still not been built.
Reid also enjoyed reading Nevada’s rural newspapers, and he called me about a column I had written from England while on a vacation with my wife, Ludie. Walking through the London suburb of Greenwich, we discovered a road named “Nevada Street.” My column, which recounted our exciting discovery and was accompanied by a photo of Ludie standing alongside a Nevada Street sign, obviously tickled Reid, and he told me, “Good job. I never knew there is a Nevada Street in London. I’m sending copies of your article to some friends and members of Congress. Please let me know if there are any Reid streets in London.” I did some research and learned there were about a half dozen in greater London. Reid told me he’d like to be photographed with a Reid Street sign on his next trip to Great Britain.
On another occasion, Reid had been named chairman of a two-day, mid-April, 1992 Lake Tahoe Presidential Summit to be held at the Hyatt Hotel in Incline Village designed to formulate plans to protect the lake from escalating environmental damage. President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were the featured speakers at the conference opening, and as they were taking their places with Reid at the podium, Reid spied me in the press section and motioned me to come up on stage to meet Clinton and Gore. As Reid introduced me to the men as Honorary Sheriff of Bullfrog County, he explained my title and they laughed. But I said to myself, “Good grief. There are more than 300 people in the hotel ballroom, and if one of them throws a bomb at the podium, I’ll be dead along with a U.S. senator, president and vice president.” Fortunately, no bomber materialized and the four of us lived to see another day.
When the conference adjourned for lunch, I chatted with Gore who said he and his family, when the conference ended, planned to vacation for a week at a “beautiful redwood home on the south shore of Fallen Leaf Lake that I’ve rented from a doctor.” The “doctor,” it turned out, was Mansfield Smith, a family friend and professor of medicine at the UC Davis School of Medicine who, along with his wife, Linda, had hosted us at parties at their lakefront retreat. Two or three months before the Tahoe environmental conference was held, the movie “Bodyguard” starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston, that had been partly filmed at the Smiths’ house, was released to the public. Six years later, the house was featured in yet another motion picture, “City of Angels” that starred Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.