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Harry Reid wouldn’t ‘let the bastards beat me’

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03:32 - Source: CNN
Sen. Harry Reid opens up about retirement decision
Las Vegas CNN —  

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.

READ: Harry Reid’s complicated legacy

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’s successor

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.”