“Sadly, Harry Reid has again revealed himself to be an idiot . . .” the tweet began. Nothing too unusual there -- Twitter can be as opprobrious as the rest of the Web, if more succinct. But this little stink bomb was lobbed by one of Reid’s colleagues, David Vitter of Louisiana. Even in this day and age, that’s not how U.S. senators typically address one another.
Then again, there’s nothing typical about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat whose default rhetorical position is a knee to the other guy’s groin.
“The hardest job in politics may be Harry Reid’s press secretary,” says Jon Ralston, a Las Vegas-based reporter with an encyclopedic knowledge of modern Nevada politics. “He has had a lot of them since I started covering him in 1986. My enduring image is of his staff, their BlackBerrys at the ready, almost trying not to cringe in fear as he begins an interview.”
Ralston’s view is that despite his lofty position and long political career, Reid doesn’t understand the media, which he views as more of a nuisance than a necessary cog in the machinery of democracy. He does few press conferences for a person in his position and possesses a temperament that makes it hard for him to stay on script when he does.
The result is often the “Reidisms” that are so familiar to Nevada reporters and the senator’s Washington adversaries alike. “Sometimes it is committing a ‘Kinsley gaffe’ -- telling a truth no other pol would,” Ralston says. “But often, it is just saying something that didn't need to be said or shouldn’t have been said.”
Voters in this country often tell pollsters that they want Democrats and Republicans in the nation’s capital to get along -- or at least work together. That can’t be an easy task in such an ideologically polarized environment. But it also doesn’t help to have a Senate Democratic leader who routinely disparages the Republican Party, calls people names, injects racial caricatures into the discourse, and concocts fanciful theories about his opponents’ actions and beliefs.
One of Reid’s predecessors as majority leader, Mississippi Republican Trent Lott, once described the Senate as “an island of tranquility” among the organized chaos of the nation’s capital. That was only 15 years ago, but it seems longer, as the compendium of Harry’s “Reidisms” attests:
-- “I’ve never seen such amateurish leadership,” Nov. 9, 2003, lashing out at Senate Republicans led by Bill Frist.
-- “I’m not a big Alan Greenspan fan. I think he’s one of the biggest political hacks we have in Washington.” -- March 3, 2005, in a CNN interview.
-- “The man’s father is a wonderful human being. I think this guy is a loser.” -- May 6, 2005, discussing George W. Bush to students at Nevada’s Del Sol High School, as Air Force One landed in Latvia for a five-day trip.
-- “I think that he has been an embarrassment to the Supreme Court. I think that his opinions are poorly written. I just don't think that he's done a good job as a Supreme Court justice.” -- December 2004 description of Clarence Thomas on “Meet the Press.”
-- “Everyone within the sound of my voice should understand, if that comes to be, it can go to 16th and Pennsylvania Avenue because that is what President Bush -- he is the man who is pulling the strings on the 49 puppets he has here in the Senate.” -- Dec. 4, 2007, on the Senate floor.
-- “You know, Joe, I can't stand John McCain.” -- Aug. 21, 2008, quoting himself, speaking to Joe Lieberman.
-- Barack Obama is a “'light-skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” -- sometime in 2008, quoted in “Game Change.”
-- “I hope you go out of business.” -- Aug. 26, 2009, to Las Vegas Review-Journal advertising director Bob Brown.
-- “When this country belatedly recognized the wrongs of slavery, there were those who dug in their heels and said, 'Slow down. It's too early, things aren’t bad enough.' " -- Dec. 7, 2009, comparing Republican opponents of Obamacare to Southern racists.
-- “I don’t know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican, okay. Do I need to say more?” -- Aug.10, 2010, to a predominately Latino audience while campaigning for re-election.
-- “He not only couldn’t be confirmed as a Cabinet secretary, he couldn’t be confirmed as a dog catcher, because a dog catcher -- you’re at least going to want to look at his income tax returns.” -- July 12, 2012, leveling an odd analogy while blasting Mitt Romney over his refusal to make public more than a couple of years’ worth of tax returns.
-- “His poor father must be so embarrassed about his son.” -- July 31, 2012 interview with The Huffington Post in which Reid claimed he had a secret source who told him that Romney paid no taxes. (The reference was to George Romney, who is deceased.)
-- “I don’t understand his brain, so you should ask him, okay?” -- Nov. 29, 2012, responding to House Speaker John Boehner’s assertion that the fiscal cliff ball was in the Senate’s court.
-- “John Boehner seems to care more about keeping his speakership than keeping the nation on firm financial footing.” -- Dec. 27, 2012, during a Senate floor discussion of the fiscal cliff.
-- “The House of Representatives is . . . being operated by a dictatorship of the speaker.” -- Dec. 27, in same soliloquy.
Reid, seemingly surprised, responded, “What are you talking about?”
Boehner merely repeated himself. “Go f--- yourself!”
Americans often wonder why Washington is so dysfunctional. There’s blame to go around, but Harry Reid deserves his fair share. As she prepared to leave office last year, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine said simply, “The Senate doesn’t work.” One of the reasons for that is the casual incivility that has replaced congressional courtesy. One of Reid’s fellow Democrats, Maryland Sen. Benjamin Cardin, explained part of the problem in five words last year: “Civility, cooperation must be priorities.” It was a succinct observation that civility and compromise are interrelated. It’s probably too much to ask powerful senators to remember their mothers’ admonition that “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything . . .” Or perhaps not.
Nevada’s first senator was a gruff wheeler and dealer named William Morris Stewart. In the preface to his memoirs he thanked his mother for providing him “the only preparation I had for the battle of life.” Stewart added, “If I had always kept in view the rules of conduct which she prescribed, I would have made few mistakes.” Words to live, by Mr. Majority Leader.