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Obama, Biden honor Harry Reid as a man ‘who got things done’

President Biden walks by a flag-draped casket
“Let there be no doubt: Harry Reid will be considered one of the greatest Senate majority leaders in history,” President Biden said of the late Democratic lawmaker at Saturday’s memorial service in Las Vegas.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

Former President Obama paid tribute to the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Saturday as a man “who got things done,” as Democratic leaders spoke of Reid’s impact on some of the most important legislation of the 21st century, from healthcare to Wall Street reform.

The turnout at Reid’s Las Vegas memorial service was testament to his legacy: He rose from a childhood of poverty to become an influential congressional leader. President Biden escorted Reid’s widow, Landra Reid, to her seat at the outset of the service before an honor guard carried the flag-draped casket to the well of a hushed auditorium.

Reid, 82, died Dec. 28 at home in Henderson, Nev., 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.

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Speakers credited Reid’s work on strengthening healthcare and on Wall Street reform as well as on the economic recovery from the 2008 recession, all during what is widely considered one of the most consequential congressional sessions of modern times.

Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) — who described Reid to mourners as a “truly honest and original character” — spoke at the invitation-only memorial.

Obama, who credits Reid for his own rise to the White House, delivered the eulogy.

When Reid helped pass the Affordable Care Act at the start of Obama’s first term, “he didn’t do it to burnish his own legacy,” Obama said, explaining that when Reid was a boy, his family was so poor that “he didn’t even know” what healthcare was. When a tooth went bad, his father pulled it himself. A brother let a broken leg heal on its own.

Of Reid’s work in Washington, Obama said: “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.”

“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 with Reid in the Senate for two decades and worked with him for eight years as vice president.

“If Harry said he was going to do something, he did it,” Biden added. “You could bank on it.”

A running and humorous theme throughout the funeral was ‘Harry Reiding’ — Reid’s habit of abruptly ending telephone conversations without saying goodbye.

“I have to tell you, every time I hear a dial tone, I think of Harry,” Biden told mourners.

“I probably got hung up on the most by Harry Reid — two or three times a day, for 12 years,” Pelosi said.

“Sometimes I even called him back and said, ‘Harry, I was singing your praises,’” she said, but Reid would reply, “I don’t want to hear it,” and she’d hear the phone click dead again.

Leif Reid, one of Reid’s five children, explained how this well-known move of his father’s sometimes left the other person — whether a powerful politician or a close family member — chatting away on the phone for several minutes before realizing Reid was no longer on the other end.

He said it was “part of the narrative” of his father’s life, a result of Reid preserving time for his 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,” said his son, whose four siblings also spoke at the service.

Singer-songwriter Carole King and Brandon Flowers, lead singer of the Las Vegas-based rock band the Killers, were to perform at the memorial.

Flowers, a longtime friend and fellow member of Reid’s faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has headlined events including a Lake Tahoe Summit that Reid founded in 1997 to draw attention to the lake’s ecology and the National Clean Energy Summit that Reid helped launch in 2008.

Those flying to Las Vegas for the service arrived at the newly renamed Harry Reid International Airport. It was previously named for Pat McCarran, another former Democratic U.S. senator from Nevada, who once owned the airfield and whose legacy is clouded by racism and antisemitism.

Reid served in Washington for 34 years, leading the Senate through a crippling recession and the Republican takeover of the House after the 2010 midterm election.

Harry Mason Reid hitchhiked 40 miles to attend high school, and was an amateur boxer before being elected to the Nevada state Assembly at 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 of Nevada alongside 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. After he lost vision in one eye in a 2015 exercise accident at home, he announced he would retire at the end of his term, and endorsed former Nevada Atty. Gen. Catherine Cortez Masto to run in the 2016 election in his place.

Cortez Masto became the first woman from Nevada and the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate.

Reid’s body will be flown to Washington to lie in state at the Capitol Rotunda, and another ceremony will be held there on Wednesday.

The host of Saturday’s service, Marcus Faust, said Reid will then be buried at the family plot in Searchlight, Nev.

Associated Press writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.


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