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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Senator Harry Reid: The Good Fight

“Ours is a time of great political disaffection, and I understand it, because so far in this new century, we have failed the people of this country. We’ve got a lot of damage to repair. There are no magic bullets. Future generations will look back on this period as a very dark one if we fail. But heaven help us if we don’t try.”
Harry Reid, The Good Fight: Hard Lessons From Searchlight To Washington.

No kidding.

I didn’t know much about Harry Reid’s background before I read his memoir other than that he came from a small town, had boxed in his youth and served on the Nevada gaming commission before going into politics. I assumed I wouldn’t be reading the usual up-by-his-Sperry top-siders from Andover to Yale that usually characterizes political biography in this country but I have to say that this wasn’t what I expected either:

I come from a mining town.

But by the time I came along – December 2, 1939 – the leading industry in my hometown of Searchlight, Nevada, was no longer mining, it was prostitution. I don’t exaggerate. There was a local law that said you could not have a house of prostitution or a place that served alcohol within so many feet of a school. Once, when it was determined that one of the clubs was in violation of this law, they moved the school.

As a boy, I learned to swim at a whorehouse. Nobody in town had ever seen such a fancy inground tiled pool in their lives as the pool at the El Rey. Or any pool at all, for that matter. At least nobody that we knew. The El Ray was the main bordello when I was growing up in Searchlight. Every Thursday afternoon, the whoremonger in town, a kindly bear of a man by the name of Willie Martello, would ask the girls who worked the El Rey to clear out, and he’d invite the children in town, usually no more than a dozen or so at a time, to swim in his pool. And we would live the life of Riley for a couple of hours, splashing in the azure blue of that whorehouse pool. This was a rare luxury in a hard town. When I was coming up, there were several other brothels in Searchlight – the Crystal Club, Searchlight Casino, Sandy’s – thirteen in all, and no churches to be found.

In my home, we had no religion. None, zero. And when I say none, I don’t mean 10 percent religious, I mean none. It wasn’t that my parents were atheists or something, it was that religion just wasn’t part of our lives. But Franklin Roosevelt was. In our little home, my mother had a navy-blue embroidered pillowcase with a little fringe on it, and she put it up on the wall. On it, in bright yellow stitching it read, "We can. We will. We must. – Franklin Delano Roosevelt." And that was my religion.

That’s just not your average political biography in our culture of idealized small town life of white picket fences and Fourth of July picnics. It’s a really rough story, with parents who drink too much, acute poverty, spousal abuse and finally suicide. It’s a childhood out of Jack London. Or maybe Dickens’ London. You can’t help but be somewhat horrified. And inspired. How does someone crawl out of that beginning to become one of the most powerful people in the country? This is a truly self-made man.

As it turns out, this matter-of-fact recitation of grit and self-reliance is a quintessentially American story. He hitch-hiked to high school across the desert because he desperately wanted to improve his lot in life. He worked his way through George Washington Law School, with a young family, as a police officer. He became a defense lawyer in Nevada, which meant he defended some very colorful characters and then he famously took on the mob as head of the Nevada Gaming Commission during the Casino era. When you see him speak, it’s really hard to believe that this soft spoken fellow is the guy who did all that.

The Good Fight turns out to be a breezy read and I frankly didn’t expect it to be. It’s structured in an interesting way, juxtaposing the recent congressional fights during the Bush Administration with the life story, which I would guess was done as a way of illustrating the "fighter" in both instances. I’m not sure that really works, since Reid patiently explains throughout just how much compromise, hand-holding and outright horse trading is required of a Senate leader. The fighting we see is nearly all of the sheerly defensive type since the Bush Republicans adopted an unprecedented form of Senatorial brinksmanship to serve the ambitions of the likes of Bill Frist and Karl Rove.

Those of us who’ve followed the Senate battles of the last few years will find some of what Senator Reid reports to be surprising. (For instance, that Joe Lieberman had to be convinced repeatedly to stay with the Gang of Fourteen.) His view of the Senate is that of a person who holds the rules and traditions to be somewhat sacrosanct (which might be surprising coming from libertarian Nevada, but when considered in light of his upbringing makes much more sense.) He believes strongly in the necessity of a branch of government that balances out the powers of the large states with the small — a Madisonian concern about the tyranny of the majority.

His fight against the Republicans employing the nuclear option was based upon preserving the integrity of the Senate. The fact that they were threatening it in order to place radical, right wing judges on the court seems to have been less of an incentive. Senator Reid was concerned about preserving our system for the long run. Of course, as John Maynard Keynes said (and George W. Bush famously mangled) "in the long run, we’ll all be dead." The legacy of the Bush appointments are going to affect all of us for the rest of our lives. Senator Reid succeeded in preserving the filibuster for the next generations. (Considering that the Republicans of this Congress have now used it more frequently and capriciously than any minority in history, one can’t help but wonder if he might have a few second thoughts.)

The book is written in that flat laconic way of hardscrabble westerners, no frills, just the facts ma’am. It has, at times, the feeling of a soliloquy or a voice-over in one of those quiet western cinematic tone poems, like Tender Mercies. He doesn’t bare his soul or let us into his inner life, but then he doesn’t have to. His life story stands as a testament to the American dream and that’s something that speaks for itself.

I am honored to welcome Senator Harry Reid of Searchlight, Nevada to today’s FDL Book Salon.

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