Democratic leaders, including two American presidents, gathered from around the country Saturday to commemorate 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 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 are scheduled to speak during an invitation-only memorial for the longtime Senate leader, Former President Barack Obama, who credits Reid for his rise to the White House, is scheduled to deliver the eulogy. Vice President Kamala Harris also will attend.
Reid died December 28 at home in Henderson, Nevada, at 82 of complications from pancreatic cancer.
“The president believes that Harry Reid is one of the greatest leaders in Senate history,” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday. “So he is traveling to pay his respects to a man who had a profound impact on this nation.”
Biden served for two decades with Reid in the Senate and worked with him for eight years when Biden was vice president.
Along with Obama, Elder M. Russell Ballard, a senior apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will speak at the 2,000-seat concert hall about Reid’s 60 years in the Mormon faith.
“These are not only some of the most consequential leaders of our time — they are also some of Harry’s best friends,” Reid’s wife of 62 years, Landra Reid, said in a statement announcing plans for the Smith Center for the Performing Arts event. “Harry loved every minute of his decades working with these leaders and the incredible things they accomplished together.”
Reid’s daughter and four sons also are scheduled to speak.
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 64 kilometers (40 miles) 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.”