Native representation at Harry Reid's state memorial
And how the senator is helping my kids to learn more about my dad.
WASHINGTON — There were at least five Native Americans paying our respects to Sen. Harry Reid as he lie in state in the center of the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday afternoon (and I’m sure many more, including his past staffers and others in D.C. from Nevada and western tribes).
I hesitate to share the pics in this post, because they’re personal; plus, I loathe when people take photos at regular old funerals — poor taste, and all. On the other hand, this service was being broadcast live on C-SPAN, so it’s a little different. Respectful pictures are okay, I guess.
My main reasons for sharing these memories, in words and photos, are selfish: I want my kids to remember long from now — when they are helping to lead and grow America in their own, unique ways — that they were there at the Capitol Building on a special day, honoring a man who did some very good things, as well as some things that people, especially today’s GOP, disliked. Importantly, too, they were honoring a man who held a deeper meaning to me, which I’ll get to later.
During his 34 years in Congress, he had plenty of opportunities to anger a number of people of all political stripes, but everyone seems to remember his compassion and his one-of-a-kind, generous, Searchlight-rooted spirit. Even combative Sen. Ted Cruz, whom I saw in the rotunda saying a close-eyed prayer for Reid, appeared moved by him.
The former majority leader can be a polarizing figure, obviously; yet, many commentators on MSNBC seemed to shy away from that narrative in covering the ceremony portion of the event in which current Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recalled Reid telling him to buy better shoes — to that end once offering him “a wad” of $400 in cash in a hotel room bathroom. And in which Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi reminisced about Reid gifting her a stuffed American bald eagle that had died as a result of flying into electrical wires. The bird’s name was Sparky, she said, and she later renamed him Harry. That says something.
Just ask Sen. Mitt Romney about polarization. Reid famously insisted that the now-Utah senator didn’t pay taxes for 10 years in a political scuffle that played a role in Romney’s unsuccessful presidential bid in 2012.
“If you are Native American, and you hear that Romney only cares about half of the country, what half do you think you fit in? Do you think you fit in with the Wall Street crowd?” Reid asked me during a 2012 interview, as the Obama vs. Romney campaign was in full swing that fall.
“The Republican Party today is — you know, look at Romney, ‘Whatever you need’—a plastic man,” Reid said. “Just tell him what you need today, and he says, ‘Yep, you can mold me today; I’ll change whatever you need.’”
Later, in 2021, Reid offered this to me about former President Donald Trump after I shared with him that a neighbor of mine had told me, unsolicited, that he felt the country is “going to hell” under the Biden administration: “Trump’s four years of governing tested the strength of our country, but we survived the Trump years. We did it remarkably well. I think by surviving the Trump years, we strengthened our democracy. I’m not worried about the future of our country. I think it’s in good shape.”
Reid added that he thought Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the current Republican vice-chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, would triumph in her next run for Senate this year “in spite of Trump,” no matter his full court press against her, due largely to her support of his two impeachments.
The Alaska Native vote has been strongly behind Murkowski during her past political challenges — and that has made a big difference for her — so we’ll see if that’s the case this time around. (Reid also said he liked and was “impressed” by Sen. Brian Schatz, the current Democratic chair of the same committee, in case any of Schatz’ staffers are reading, feeling jealous.)
So my Native and Italian and Finnish and Indigenous Mexican kids were in the Capitol Rotunda — all of the above as backdrop — a part of history, masked and protected, in the midst of another intense wave of an ongoing, deadly pandemic almost one year to the day after the deadly insurrection at that same building.
My kids were there a half hour before President Joe Biden showed up to again pay his respects to Reid, having already hosted a memorial for the senator in Nevada the weekend before. Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagen had just exited the rotunda when we entered.
My children pointed to Sen. Reid’s hat, carefully placed beside his American flag-draped coffin; they gazed up at that glorious ceiling, and they witnessed, in person, the largely colonial — and controversial — depictions of Native Americans in art throughout the U.S. Capitol Building, including within the rotunda. Secretary of the Interior Department Deb Haaland, a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, is said to be working on those issues.
They humored me in listening to my stories about Reid’s top legacy items: namely, pushing through the Affordable Care Act with the Indian Health Care Improvement Act included in it, beginning a path down filibuster reform that help shepherd us into a new era of partisan divide, and throwing his early support behind the man who would become the first African-American President of the United States.
I told them it was important for me to share this experience with them.
I recalled for them how my own dad had taken me along to meet state political officials when he was a lawyer in the 1980s and early 1990s back in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I remember him introducing me to tribal leaders, too, some of whom he helped hire and advise for my tribe. I remember the eccentricities of most of the folks he introduced me to, like Pat Gagliardi, Jim Blanchard, Carl Levin, and, on the tribal side, Aaron Payment and Bernard Bouschor — both now infamous in tribal circles for various political reasons.
My dad felt it was important to share with me those kinds of experiences. I am thankful that he did before he passed away much too soon, as a result of complications from Type I diabetes, which he had suffered from since his early youth.
Here’s something I haven’t told my kids yet: My dad’s aura sort of reminds me of Harry Reid. Of course, my dad was Catholic, not Mormon, and he was loud, not soft spoken. But like Reid, my dad was never afraid of a fight, for standing up for what he believed was right. He always fought for the underdog, however unpopular. My dad could be brisk with his colleagues, although I don’t know that he hung up on as many people as folks are now saying that Reid was famous for. When my dad would get home after a long day of work, he was the kind of caring, loving man that Reid’s children have described about their father. And then he’d often have to return to his office later in the evening to prepare for new legal battles the next day.
I have a soft spot for Harry Reid. Maybe that’s why I wanted my kids to attend his service. Maybe that’s why I’m oversharing.
And maybe they’ll have a soft spot for me one day.
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