As Goes Reid, So Goes America (Maybe, Unfortunately)

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Wichita, KS

Some excellent reporting, and thinking, on display in Nicholas Lemann’s long profile of the Reid-Angle showdown in the latest New Yorker. Lemann has some sharp and funny things to say about Sharron Angle, but mostly his piece is a close and, it must be said, often uncomplimentary study of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Lemann’s admiration for Reid’s politics is undeniable, but Lemann himself also can’t deny just how thoroughly Reid embodies a particularly simple and unsophisticated–even, shall we say, rather vulgar–old-school redistributive liberal politics. He lays out story after story of Reid’s famously, even notoriously, hard-scrabble upbringing and personality–raised by a couple of borderline-abusive drunks in an isolated Nevada mining town, hunting for rabbits to meat on the table, starting fistfights with other kids, his father, and his future father-in-law–as well as the roots of his often resentful toughness and thoroughness–the law school dean who told him to give up and drop out, his rough confrontations with gaming officials at the start of his political career–and the conclusion is inescapable: to a degree, Reid exemplifies the outlook of a certain set of poor, rural, pseudo-populist, contemptuous-of-easy-wealth, lacking-in-sensitivity (and how!), unapologetic boot-strap climbers that helped give us FDR and the New Deal (as well as, in Louisiana, Huey “Every Man a King” Long). Lemann sums up:

[Reid] took personal umbrage at George W. Bush. “I have made no secret of my antipathy toward the second President Bush…an ideologue who has done incalculable damage to the government, reputation, and moral standing of the United States of America”….Late in his Presidency, Bush summoned Reid to the White House and tried to appease him. “I never went to Kennebunkport as a kid,” Reid recalls. “I never went anywhere. And I’ve got no blue blood in my veins, just some desert sand. So as he and I sat there in the Oval Office, I said little in return.”

Other than a few close relationships, like the ones with his wife, Landra, and with Mike O’Callaghan, what most reliably draws warmth from Reid’s tempered-steel heart is New Deal liberalism. He likes to say that his parents’ religion was Franklin D. Roosevelt; practically the only good thing that ever happened in the life of his father was joining a union. “The American government is the greatest force for good in the history of mankind”; Social Security is “the greatest social program since the fishes and loaves.” Sig Rogich, a Nevada adman who worked in George H. W. Bush’s White House, and who, like most establishment Republicans in Nevada, is backing Reid over Sharron Angle, told me that during many evenings at his house he and Reid have relaxed to old Woody Guthrie songs on the CD player—“poignant songs about society and the poor.”

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