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'The guy from Searchlight': Former Senate leader Harry Reid is dead at 82

Then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada smiles as he speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 27, 2016.
Paul Sancya
Then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada smiles as he speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 27, 2016.

Updated December 29, 2021 at 9:24 PM ET

Former Sen. Harry Reid has left the ring.

The Nevada Democrat, a onetime amateur boxer who brought a pugilist approach to politics, died Tuesday afternoon after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer, his wife said in a statement. He was 82.

"We are so proud of the legacy he leaves behind both on the national stage and [in] his beloved Nevada," Landra Reid said in the statement. They'd been married for 62 years.

President Biden called Reid one of history's "all-time great" Senate majority leaders. "And for Harry, it wasn't about power for power's sake. It was about the power to do right for the people," Biden said.

The current Senate leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, said of Reid in a statement:

"He was tough-as-nails strong, but caring and compassionate, and always went out of his way quietly to help people who needed help. He was a boxer who came from humble origins, but he never forgot where he came from and used those boxing instincts to fearlessly fight those who were hurting the poor and the middle class."

Schumer added of Reid: "He's gone but he will walk by the sides of many of us in the Senate every single day."

Reid, who had a series of health issues in recent years, opted not to run for reelection in 2016. He served in Congress for 34 years, first in the House and later for three decades in the Senate, where he rose to become one of the longest-serving party leaders in the chamber's history.

Then-President Barack Obama meets with Senate Democratic leadership, including Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., in the Oval Office on Oct. 12, 2013.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
Getty Images
Then-President Barack Obama meets with Senate Democratic leadership, including Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., in the Oval Office on Oct. 12, 2013.

Former President Barack Obama on Tuesday night shared a note he had sent to Reid: "You were a great leader in the Senate, and early on you were more generous to me than I had any right to expect. 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. Most of all, you've been a good friend."

Finding his roots

Born into poverty in the tiny Nevada town of Searchlight, where the two industries were mining and prostitution, Reid transformed his shame over his hardscrabble roots into the central narrative of his political career.

"I was ashamed, embarrassed about Searchlight. When I went to college, was in high school, law school, I just didn't want to talk about Searchlight," Reid recalled in his 2016 farewell address to the Senate.

One night he attended a speech at the University of Nevada in Reno by Roots author Alex Haley that changed his worldview.

He recalled, "[Haley] said, 'Be proud of who are you are. You can't escape who you are.' And I walked out of that event that night a different person, a new man. From that day forward, I was from Searchlight. When I got out of law school, I bought little pieces of property. So I had contacts there. My parents lived there, so I became Harry Reid, the guy from Searchlight."

His longtime combatant, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, nodded at Reid's roots in a statement marking his death.

"The runway that brought Harry to the upper chamber was nothing short of amazing," McConnell wrote. "His life's journey began in a house that lacked running water. It took him all the way from amateur boxing and a stint with the U.S. Capitol Police to eventually becoming one of the most senior leaders whom that force protected. You could hardly invent a more quintessentially American story, and it took Harry's legendary toughness, bluntness, and tenacity to make it happen."

Soft-spoken and with an unusually strong knack for saying the wrong thing, Reid's rise in politics was never attributed to his social skills. He so loathed the Washington social scene that he bragged about how few dinners he managed to attend.

"During my 34 years in Congress, I had approximately 135 or 136 of these [invitations]," he recalled. "I've attended one of them. For me, that was enough."

Reid was known for ending phone calls by simply hanging up without proper goodbyes. No one was immune to it.

"I gotta admit, in the years to come, every time I hear a dial tone, I'll think of Harry," Biden once joked.

A changed senator

Reid entered Congress a very different senator than he left it. He was originally a centrist Democrat who campaigned in favor of gun rights and opposed abortion, citing his Mormon faith. In the early decades of his career, he was a Western-style Democrat who cultivated cross-aisle relationships at a time when the Senate prided itself on its clubby atmosphere.

His rise in the political ranks coincided with a rise in the nation's partisan politics — and Reid became a central figure in the story of Washington polarization. He took over the minority leader post when then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., was defeated for reelection in 2004. It was a historic upset against a party leader that stunned Democrats and soured relations in the Senate.

A master Senate tactician with a take-no-prisoners approach to politics, Reid centralized power in the leader's office and focused his efforts on blocking President George W. Bush's agenda wherever possible. Democrats blocked Bush's judicial nominations in an escalation of the long-running judicial wars. He also worked to successfully derail Bush's effort to partially privatize the Social Security system.

Sen. Harry Reid is escorted to the podium by wife Landra before speaking during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 27, 2016.
Carolyn Kaster / AP
Sen. Harry Reid is escorted to the podium by wife Landra before speaking during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 27, 2016.

Obama's historic 2008 victory ushered in a new era in which Democrats initially enjoyed supermajorities in Congress and used them to enact sweeping legislation, including the landmark 2010 Affordable Care Act. Reid later called it "the most important thing we've done for the country and the world."

It came with a political price. Democrats lost control of the House and lost seats in the Senate in the 2010 midterms, marking the beginning of the Tea Party era in Washington in which conservative Republicans worked to block Obama at every turn. As the Republican Party turned further right, Reid turned further left. He abandoned his previously socially moderate stances and announced support for gay marriage and gun control legislation. He became an ardent defender of abortion rights and access when Republicans intensified their efforts to dismantle Planned Parenthood.

Going nuclear

Senate Republicans also obstructed in turn, blocking many of Obama's presidential nominations and further edging the chamber into partisan warfare. Reid chose to break the deadlock over nominations by invoking the "nuclear option" in 2013. He forced through a rules change that would lower the threshold for approval from 60 to 51 for every presidential nominee except the Supreme Court.

"The Senate is a living thing, and to survive it must change as it has over the history of this great country," Reid argued in defense of his decision.

Republicans objected furiously and warned of unintended consequences.

"I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle: You'll regret this, and you'll regret this sooner than you may think," McConnell, R-Ky., warned.

McConnell was right. Republicans won control of the Senate in 2015 and further weakened the filibuster rule in 2017 to apply to Supreme Court nominees in order to overcome Democratic objections to Neil Gorsuch. The Reid precedent was all they needed.

Although some Senate Democrats would come to later regret their votes in favor of the 2013 nuclear option, Reid never did.

"I doubt any of us envisioned Donald J. Trump's becoming the first president to take office under the new rules. But what was fair for President Obama is fair for President Trump," Reid wrote in in a New York Times editorial at the end of his Senate career.

In an interview in late 2018 with The New York Times he again defended the move.

"We had over 100 judges that we couldn't get approved, so I had no choice. Either Obama's presidency would be a joke or Obama's presidency would be one of fruition," Reid said.

Reid never concerned himself with popular opinion. The only person he ever really seemed to worry about was his wife, Landra. High school sweethearts who married at 19, Reid was openly devoted to her.

"She has been the being of my existence, in my personal life and my public life," he once said. "She's my first love. It will never end."

Reid was considering retirement as his 2016 reelection approached, but a January 2015 accident at home sealed the decision. Reid fell while exercising, resulting in multiple bodily injuries that left him physically weakened and blind in one eye. Reid said the accident was not the only reason, but conceded that he wanted "to be able to go out at the top of my game."

He quickly orchestrated a succession plan that made clear that his deputy, Schumer, would succeed him as leader. Democrats elected Schumer unanimously, just as Reid had planned.

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Corrected: December 28, 2021 at 10:00 PM MST
An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the 2004 election as a midterm election.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.