Former President Barack Obama commemorated the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Saturday as a man “who got things done,” as Democratic leaders gathered from around the country to recall Reid—often laughingly—as a man whose impatience for pleasantries was part of a drive to improve the lives of ordinary Americans.
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, despite coming from a childhood of poverty and deprivation in Nevada. 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.
Reid died December 28 at home in Henderson, Nevada, at 82 of complications from pancreatic cancer.
“Let there be no doubt. Harry Reid will be considered one of the greatest Senate majority leaders in history,” Biden said, as leaders credited Reid’s work on strengthening health care and on Wall Street reform and economic recovery in the wake of the 2008 recession.
Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who described Reid to mourners as a “truly honest and original character,” spoke during an invitation-only memorial. Former President Barack Obama, who credits Reid for his rise to the White House, delivered the eulogy.
Obama said that when Reid helped pass the Affordable Care Act, “he didn’t do it to burnish his own legacy,” recalling how, as a boy, Reid’s family was so poor that Reid himself pulled out one of his father’s teeth.
“He did it for the people back home and families like his, who needed somebody looking out for them, when nobody else did. Harry got things done,” Obama said.
“The thing about Harry, he never gave up. He never gave up. He never gave up on anybody who cared about him,” said Biden, who served for two decades with Reid in the Senate and worked with him for eight years when Biden was vice president.
“If Harry said he was going to do something, he did it,” Biden added. “You could bank on it.”
Reid’s son, Leif, was one of a series of speakers who 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.
“I probably got hung up on the most by Harry Reid, two or three times a day, for 12 years”—Pelosi told mourners.
“Sometimes I even called him back and said Harry, ‘I was singing your praises,’” Pelosi said. To which Reid replied: “I don’t want to hear it,” she said, before she’d hear the phone click dead.
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.
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 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.
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.