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Presidents: Be like Harry Reid, speak the truth and never give up

Updated January 8, 2022 - 6:59 pm

In the latest tranche of MasterClass instructors, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was selected to talk about resilience.

But the late former Nevada Sen. Harry Reid could have just as easily taught that one.

Except that Reid would never sit still and talk to a camera — about himself no less! — for that long.

It was former President Barack Obama who said in his eulogy Saturday that Reid would never have wanted to sit through the 2½ hours of tributes from family, political and faith leaders, and even the sitting president.

He got that right. Reid was never one for long events, and he was almost always modest when talking about himself.

But Reid’s master class on resilience would have been graduate level. Most know the story by now: Born in a two-room shack in a tiny speck of a town that sported whorehouses but no church. Hitchhiking to high school. Amateur boxing. Paying for a law degree in part by working as a Capitol cop. Entering politics, but losing two tough races in a row.

Still, Reid kept getting up.

“Hardship had forged a steel in Harry,” Obama said in his eulogy. “A fighting spirit that explained his success in the boxing ring, despite being significantly undersized.”

Obama recalled that Reid once shared the secret of his success in the ring: “I could take a punch, and I never gave up,” Obama quoted Reid as saying.

“That same dogged determination marked Harry Reid’s political career,” Obama said. True enough. He took many punches over the years, from opponents, from journalists and from fellow members of Congress, but Reid never gave up. He was committed to his ideals and principles, and to showing that he could do what others said he could not.

“And let’s face it. He enjoyed every minute of proving doubters wrong again and again and again,” Obama said.

Reid’s grit and determination — proven over and over in legislative battles from preventing Social Security overhauls proposed by then-President George W. Bush to legislation to help the country recover from the Great Recession to the passage of the Affordable Care Act — gave his word a special meaning, President Joe Biden said.

“If Harry said he was going to do something, he did it,” Biden said. “No matter what happened, he gave you his word and he kept it. You could bank on it.”

“The thing about Harry: He never gave up. He never gave up,” Biden said. “He never gave up on anybody.”

Both Obama and Biden said Reid rejected political theories and rigid ideologies in favor of compromises, even when the deals he produced weren’t necessarily pretty. That’s because for Reid, power and influence was never the end goal.

“For Harry, the full point of holding office, the whole point of wielding power, was to actually get things done on behalf of those who he represented,” Obama said. “During his time as leader, that is exactly what he did.”

Unmentioned at Saturday’s service was a key name, one Reid himself repeatedly credited for his success: former teacher and Nevada Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, who died in 2004. It was O’Callaghan who taught Reid how to take those punches, who served as governor when Reid was his lieutenant, and who resurrected Reid’s career after those terrible twin losses with an appointment to the state’s Gaming Control Board. Reid was a mentor to many, but O’Callaghan was his mentor, and Reid paid that kindness forward a hundredfold.

Biden encouraged the crowd to follow in Reid’s footsteps.

“May this be his legacy: To call on each of us to be our best. Speak truth from the heart. Take up the remaining rounds of Harry Reid’s good fight.”

And, like Reid, never give up, no matter how hard the punches, how big the setbacks, or how impossible the chore.

M. Russell Ballard, the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said Reid’s resilience had a purpose. Speaking to students once at Brigham Young University, Reid said pursuing a lucrative career isn’t wrong (Reid himself worked as a lawyer in Nevada before running for office, after all). “But never forget the call of the Book of Mormon prophet King Benjamin,” Ballard recalled Reid telling students. “When you are in the service of your fellow beings, you are only in the service of your God.’ My dear friend Harry lived what he taught.”

Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.

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