Harry Reid's Memoir: A Political Book That Packs a Punch

A word to the next president, whether you're Republican or Democrat, man or woman, black or white: Make sure you've made every effort to get Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in your corner.

President Bush didn't do that, and he's paying a big price for it, as the flinty Nevada Democrat and former amateur boxer demonstrates in his remarkable new memoir, The Good Fight: Hard Lessons from Searchlight to Washington.

Almost any chapter of the slim volume, which inexplicably has no index -- a cardinal sin in a town where people first check the index to see if they're mentioned -- will explain why Reid has emerged as one of the most powerful people in the nation's Capital since becoming majority leader two years ago. And above all, why the next president doesn't want him as an enemy.

For example, here is what Reid, who as head of the Nevada Gaming Commission once carried a gun and started his car by remote control for fear that the Mafia might kill him for trying to clean up Las Vegas gambling casinos, writes about Bush: "Alone among the [four] presidents I have served with, George W. Bush will rank among the worst presidents -- if not the worst -- in the history of our country. He has been bad for America and for the world. And he will leave severe, long-term damage in his wake."

Reid goes on to excoriate Bush, and Vice President Dick Cheney, for misleading the country about going to war in Iraq, for eroding America's moral standing by sanctioning torture and spying on its own people, and for devising "a theory of executive power that is so thoroughly unconstitutional and so un-American that it may take years after Bush and Cheney are finally gone to fully expunge its effects from our national affairs."

The book is replete with other harsh judgments of Bush, whom Reid publicly accused of lying to him on two occasions, once when he approved a huge nuclear waste facility at Nevada's Yucca Mountain after promising Reid during the 2000 campaign that he opposed it, and again when Reid says Bush misled him by claiming it was then-Majority Leader Bill Frist's idea to invoke the so-called nuclear option by changing the Senate rules to allow a simple majority to invoke a filibuster.

"Once again, the President had lied to me and I told him so," Reid writes. "I still meet with him. He still invites down when he has to. I'm sure he's not happy about what I said, but I'm not happy about him misleading me either."

In one particularly revealing anecdote, Reid recalls a conversation with then-Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas), who praised the first President Bush as a quality person. But he added, "Watch out for his wife: she's a bitch."

"I have never had anything against Mrs. Bush, but guided by Bentsen's crude advice, I've always said that our forty-third President is more his mother than his dad," Reid writes. "I believe that the current President is an ideologue who has done incalculable damage to the government, reputation and moral standing of the United States of America."

There's no question Reid knows how to hold a grudge. Case in point: He tells of delivering the 2005 commencement address at George Washington University Law School, where he won a law degree in 1964 while working the evening shift for three years under a Nevada congressman's patronage as a Capitol policeman. He never forgot that the school had refused him financial aid when he told the dean he was working fulltime, his wife was pregnant with their second child, his car had broken down and they couldn't make ends meet. The dean coldly suggested he wasn't cut out to be a lawyer and should quit.

"It is true that I had been upset for four decades, and in that time could not be stirred to answer an invitation or a piece of fundraising mail from anyone at the university," Reid writes. "The source of my scorn was simple: Success in my life, given my background, was unlikely enough without being kicked by Dean Potts when I was down. How, if he was trying to clear me out like a weed among the orchids, then he picked the wrong guy."

But Reid decided he'd held his grudge long enough and it was time to "apologize to the entire faculty, administration, and all of the law students for my pettiness," which he did, telling his audience, "It's not how I've tried to live my life."

The lesson for Reid was clear, and it tells a great deal about his style of leadership.
"... It actually felt good to bury the hatchet at GWU," he writes. "They were very gracious in receiving me. ... In any case, I had neither the time nor energy to hold on to past resentments. I guess that forty years was enough. In 2005, there were far too many battles to fight, on far too many fronts."

Reid, who labored tirelessly as whip under Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, decided he would be a different kind of leader, who "wanted to empower the ranking members on the various committees, give them more autonomy, and place trust in them. I also wanted to establish a bigger and broader leadership group to better harvest the talent and take advantage of the diversity of the Democratic caucus. ... I resolved to cast a wider leadership net."

Reid's criticism of Daschle is couched in the mildest of terms, unlike his denunciation of political adversaries like Frist, whom he claims was clearly over his head in the job, as well as Republican colleagues like Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), "Who is always with us when we don't need him."

There's much more in this fascinating book, especially about Reid's humble origins in the tiny mining town of Searchlight, Nev., and his early career as a Las Vegas lawyer who battled the gambling industry's Mafia interests. But anyone looking for Reid to declare which Democratic presidential candidate he supports will be disappointed, just as the next president will be sorely disappointed if he or she underestimates Reid.

Reid's hardscrabble life story and his uncompromising attitude toward those whom he believes have abused the power of high office remind me of another President named Harry. He was from a different state. His name was Truman. From Missouri. Which leads me to wonder if the wrong Democrat is running for president this year.