There are two constants about Harry Reid that have stuck with him since he was a tough young man, taught to box by a manager named Spike: Never be a quitter and never look back.
So when the Senate Democratic Leader surprised the political world late last week, announcing he would hang up his political gloves at the end of his fifth term, he made clear that it wasn’t his health or fear of electoral defeat that led him to step aside. And he sure didn’t offer any regrets about the many political scrapes and tussles he started – and survived – during his lengthy and illustrious career.
That toughness was on display in an exclusive television interview with CNN chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash, when the man who was Senate majority leader for the last eight years said he and his wife, Landra, considered quitting politics seven years ago but decided to stay to spite a newspaper that was pushing for him to leave.
“Frankly, one newspaper here in Nevada kept beating up on me and I said, ‘I’m not going to let the bastards beat me,’ and so I decided to run a last time,” Reid said.
But now Reid, 75 years old, would be 83 by the end of sixth term. He made clear he wants to leave before he gets too old.
“Since 1992, I haven’t had a clearer path to re-election,” Reid said, explaining he would have faced only “second-tier” candidates in the 2016 race. But he said he “wanted to be remembered for my first 34 years, not my last six,” so he made the difficult decision around Christmas to retire after three decades in the chamber.
The recent horrifying exercise accident that left him battered and bruised – and possibly blind in one eye – contributed to his decision but not for the most obvious reason.
“The one good part about the accident is for the first time in our married life I was forced to do nothing. The first three weeks I couldn’t do anything except feel sorry for myself. But I got over that,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that I could take care of my caucus and so I did some pondering. I’m sure it had some bearing on my not running but it wasn’t the decision-maker.”
Reid defended his decision to bypass Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, and endorse Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York to replace him as Democratic leader.
“Schumer has been as loyal to me, as good to me as anybody could be,” Reid said. “Once Schumer gets involved in something it’s hard to get rid of him. He’s a brilliant man. He loves the press. He’s very strategic and he’s been good to me and I felt it was an opportunity for him. He’ll do a good job.”
Reid, who rose from a Dickens-like impoverished childhood to become one of the most powerful politicians in America, acknowledged he’s not a typical smooth politician out of central casting. He makes up for it, he said, with hard work and dedication to his constituents –namely the people in Nevada he represents and the Senate Democrats he leads.
“I recognized a long time ago that there are people who can speak better than I can. There are people a lot better looking than I am. There are people smarter than I am. But there’s nobody who can work harder than I work,” he said.
Reid doesn’t care what people think of him
Reid – meek in appearance – is so soft-spoken he can be nearly inaudible when he talks. Throughout his life, those traits led many people to underestimate him. From classmates in high school when he ran – and won – races for student body president to muscle-bound boxers who were not impressed with his slim build.
“I think I overestimated them. They underestimated me and I did OK,” he said while admitting it’s a good metaphor for a political career.
In fact, Reid said he was inspired to make controversial changes to filibuster rules in the Senate after Durbin reported to him Republicans were “mocking” him, thinking he’d never have the courage to actually change Senate rules that had been in place for decades.
“Once they said that, I said to myself, that’s something you shouldn’t have said because don’t put me up against a wall because I have nothing to do but fight,” he said. “So I went to my caucus, and I got plenty of votes to change rules and so glad we did.”
Reid took on other powerful people in recent years, notably presidential candidate Mitt Romney – who he accused inaccurately of not paying taxes – and the billionaire Koch brothers who he blasts at every chance he gets for their heavy spending for Republican campaigns.
“The Koch brothers,” Reid said. “No one would help me, they were afraid they’d go after them. So I did it on my own. That’s what I felt I had to do.”
He also said he had no regrets about what he said about Romney. When asked if his methods were reminiscent of McCarthyism, he responded, “They can call it whatever they want. Romney didn’t win did he?”
Reid said Obama credits him with being the first to suggest he run for president.
“I called him into my office and told him he should take a look at it. He was stunned because I was first to suggest it to him,” Reid said, “When he was re-elected I got a call saying as soon as he gets off the stand, he wants to talk to you. One of most moving phone calls ever received, he said you’re the reason I’m here.”
“I care about Obama, he changed the world,” Reid said.
Reid on the 2016 field
As for the potential 2016 presidential candidates, Reid had mostly kind words for people on both sides of the aisle.
On Hillary Clinton: “I think they country is ready for a woman.”
On Sen Rand Paul, R-Kentucky: “I like that guy. He is so nice.”
On Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida: Reid said he likes that Rubio has family connections in Las Vegas but declined to say if he’d make a good president.
On Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas: “Ted Cruz and I disagree on virtually everything. But on a personal basis, he’s been very nice to me. I don’t think he stands much of a chance, but I admire his tenacity for thinking he does.”
On Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina: “I like him very, very much. We’ve worked on stuff together. Whenever I – this will really hurt him, but I’ll do it anyway. Whenever I need to know what’s going on with Republicans – call Lindsey.”
On former Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush: “I think he doesn’t know who he is. Out of all candidates we’ve mentioned, I hope he loses.”
Proud of pork
Reid spoke proudly of driving around Nevada and seeing all the pork-barrel spending projects he’s steered to the state. In particular, he’s pleased with a $1 billion dollar project at McCarren International Airport in Las Vegas, funded through the economic stimulus bill he helped pass in the Senate early in Obama’s first term.
“It created thousands of jobs and helped when we needed it,” he said. “It’s hard to drive any place in Nevada without seeing renewable energy projects. That’s really good, I had something to do with that.”
Aides point to the revitalization of older parts of downtown Las Vegas where Reid’s influence in the Senate helped direct money to the city hard hit by the 2008 economic crisis.
When Reid announced his retirement Friday, he got a call from former astronaut and Democratic senator from Ohio, John Glenn.
“I love John Glenn. I think he’s 95. But he called me and said, ‘Why did you do that damnit?’ What I said is, ‘John, if I knew that I would end up like you, I wouldn’t have retired. But not many people wind up like you.’”
CNN’s Dana Bash and Adam Levy contributed to this report.