Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid grew up in a past-its-prime Nevada gold-mining town that had 13 brothels and not a single church. His family used the Sears catalog as toilet paper. He worked as a Capitol police officer to put himself through George Washington University Law School, where a dean once remarked, "Maybe the law is not for you. Why don't you just quit?" Reid became a trial lawyer, held office in Nevada, and led its gaming commission. He entered the U.S. House of Representatives in 1983 and the Senate in 1987. Twenty years later, he became Senate majority leader. A former boxer, the 68-year-old lawmaker recalls surpassing expectations in a new book, The Good Fight: Hard Lessons from Searchlight to Washington. Excerpts:
A recurrent theme of your book is triumph over adversity. What are the two or three things that made a difference in your life?
I had some wonderful teachers along the way. As I look back, I didn't have all the pizazz at home that other kids had— Pizazz?
Support. You use whatever word you need. I had a teacher in elementary school—one teacher taught all eight grades—Mrs. Pickard, she was wonderful. She was a perfect old-maid schoolteacher. Her hair was pulled back, she had glasses, but she taught me that it was good to read. I never went anyplace. I was a teenager before I made 50 miles to Needles, Calif. But because of my wanting to read, I traveled everyplace—to the Northwest, to the Yukon, to Alaska [by reading] Jack London, Call of the Wild and White Fang. I had other mentors in high school: Mr. Walker, Mr. O'Callaghan, Mrs. Robinson. I'm sure in their mind, you know, this kid, even though he may look a little strange, the way he's dressed and stuff, I think he's got some ability here.
And then I was very fortunate as a 15-year-old boy to meet a 14-year-old-girl, and we've been together ever since. We've been married 49 years. That's been real important to me to have such a support. There were times when I slowed down or, frankly, maybe wanted to take another path, and she always redirected me.
Finally, I grew up in Searchlight, no religion, period. The closest thing we came in my house to religion was Franklin Roosevelt. As I became an adult, I gained some spirituality [when he and his wife became Mormons].
You are frank about your father and namesake: a hard scrabble gold miner, a binge drinker, an occasional wife beater, who took his own life. How did you escape the demons he apparently could not?
That's a difficult question. I have a couple of brothers over the years who drank too much. My brother Dale, a wonderful man, he basically drank himself to death at 47. I guess he didn't escape some of those demons. My little brother, he's had some alcohol problems over the years, but he's doing pretty well now. So, just good fortune, I guess. That lifestyle was an example that I didn't want to follow. You say in your book, history may judge Bush the worst president ever. His aides, however, say that history will judge him more positively. Who's right?
Don't they wish. I've made miscalculations in my life, but that isn't one of them. If I were a betting man—which I'm not—I'd bet huge amounts of money that I'm clearly right. The president's approval rating is low, 29 percent, but Congress's is even lower, 18 percent. To what degree are you worried about that, and how do federal lawmakers turn that around?
I'm as concerned as most of the American people about the things that we have been unable to do. We haven't done anything credible to lessen the price of a gallon of gasoline. I don't blame the American people for being disappointed with the president, and whenever you have low numbers for the president, Congress always has low numbers. But we've worked under a tremendous burden. The Republicans have broken all filibuster records [to stop legislation]. We still have been able to do some good things: the most sweeping ethics and lobbying reform in the history of the country, raised C.A.F.E. [fuel economy] standards, passed a higher-education bill, which lowered interest rates on student loans. But we could have done a lot more if we had just a little cooperation from Republicans.