LAS VEGAS (AP) — Two American presidents joined other Democratic leaders from around the country Saturday in commemorating former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who rose from childhood poverty and deprivation in Nevada to become one of the nation's most powerful elected officials.
The turnout at Reid's Las Vegas memorial service testified to Reid's impact on some of the most consequential legislation of the 21st century. President Joe Biden escorted Reid's widow, Landra Reid, to her seat at the outset of services, before an honor guard bore a flag-draped casket to the well of a hushed auditorium.
Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who described Reid to mourners Saturday as a “truly honest and original character," were speaking during an invitation-only memorial for the longtime Senate leader. Former President Barack Obama, who credits Reid for his rise to the White House, was delivering the eulogy. Vice President Kamala Harris also attended.
Reid died Dec. 28 at home in Henderson, Nevada, at 82 of complications from pancreatic cancer
Biden served for two decades with Reid in the Senate and worked with him for eight years when Biden was vice president. Biden believed Reid “one of the greatest leaders in Senate history,” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday.
Schumer on Saturday mentioned the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington and the bravery shown by Capitol Police officers, harkening back to Reid’s days as a Capitol police officer during his studies at George Washington University.
“In so many ways, Harry was a guardian and steward of the Senate, literally and figuratively,” Schumer said.
Reid’s son, Leif, recalled his father’s well-known habit of abruptly hanging up on telephone conversations without saying goodbye, sometimes leaving the other person — whether powerful politicians or close family — chatting away for several minutes before they realized he was no longer there.
Leif Reid said it was “part of the narrative” of his father’s life, and tried to explain that the gesture was more about Reid preserving time for family.
“When he hung up on you, maybe so quickly, it isn’t as much about him being brusque as it is about him being devoted to my mom,” Leif Reid said.
Obama, in a letter to Reid before his death, recalled their close relationship, their different backgrounds and Reid’s climb from an impoverished former gold mining town in the Mojave Desert to leadership in Congress.
“Not bad for a skinny, poor kid from Searchlight,” Obama wrote. “I wouldn’t have been president had it not been for your encouragement and support, and I wouldn’t have got most of what I got done without your skill and determination.”
Reid served for 34 years in Washington and led the Senate through a crippling recession and the Republican takeover of the House after the 2010 elections.
He muscled Obama’s signature health care act through the Senate; blocked plans for a national nuclear waste repository in the Nevada desert; authored a 1986 bill that created Great Basin National Park; and was credited with helping casino company MGM Mirage get financial backing to complete a multibillion-dollar project on the Strip during the Great Recession.
Harry Mason Reid hitchhiked 40 miles (64 kilometers) to high school and was an amateur boxer before he was elected to the Nevada state Assembly at age 28. He had graduated from Utah State University and worked nights as a U.S. Capitol police officer while attending George Washington University Law School in Washington.
In 1970, at age 30, he was elected state lieutenant governor with Democratic Gov. Mike O’Callaghan. Reid was elected to the House in 1982 and the Senate in 1986.
He built a political machine in Nevada that for years helped Democrats win key elections. When he retired in 2016 after an exercise accident at home left him blind in one eye, he picked former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto to replace him.
Cortez Masto became the first woman from Nevada and the first Latina ever elected to the U.S. Senate.
“Most of all, you’ve been a good friend,” Obama told Reid in his letter. “As different as we are, I think we both saw something of ourselves in each other — a couple of outsiders who had defied the odds and knew how to take a punch and cared about the little guy.”
Singer-songwriter and environmentalist Carole King and Brandon Flowers, lead singer of the Las Vegas-based rock band The Killers, were performing during the memorial.
Flowers, a longtime friend, shares the Reids' Latter-day Saints faith and has been a headliner at events including a Lake Tahoe Summit that Harry Reid founded in 1997 to draw attention to the ecology of the lake, and the National Clean Energy Summit that Reid helped launch in 2008 in Las Vegas.
Those flying to Las Vegas will arrive at the newly renamed Harry Reid International Airport. It was previously named for Pat McCarran, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Nevada who once owned the airfield and whose legacy is clouded by racism and anti-Semitism.
Associated Press writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.