Former President Barack Obama commemorated late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Saturday as a man “who got things done,” as Democratic leaders gathered to recall Reid — often laughingly — as a man whose impatience for pleasantries was part of a drive to improve the lives of ordinary Americans.
The turnout at Reid's Las Vegas memorial service testified to his impact on some of the most important legislation of the 21st century, despite coming from a childhood of poverty and deprivation in Nevada. President Joe Biden escorted Reid's widow, Landra Reid, to her seat at the outset of services, before an honor guard bore the flag-draped casket to the well of a hushed auditorium.
Reid died Dec. 28 at home in Henderson, Nevada, at 82 of complications from pancreatic cancer.
“Let there be no doubt. Harry Reid will be considered one of the greatest Senate majority leaders in history," Biden said. Speakers credited Reid's work on strengthening health care and on Wall Street reform and economic recovery in the wake of the 2008 recession, as part of what is considered one of the most consequential congressional sessions of modern times.
Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who described Reid to mourners as a “truly honest and original character," spoke during an invitation-only memorial.
Obama, who credits Reid for his rise to the White House, delivered the eulogy.
When Reid helped pass the Affordable Care Act at the start of Obama's first term, “he didn’t do it to burnish his own legacy,” Obama said. When Reid was a boy, Obama explained, Reid’s family was so poor that “he didn't even know” what health care was. When a tooth went bad, his father pulled it himself. A brother let a broken leg heal on its own.
In Reid's work in Washington, “he did it for the people back home and families like his, who needed somebody looking out for them, when nobody else did. Harry got things done," Obama said.
“The thing about Harry, He never gave up. He never gave up. He never gave up on anybody who cared about him," said Biden, who served for two decades with Reid in the Senate and worked with him for eight years when Biden was vice president.
“If Harry said he was going to do something, he did it," Biden added. “You could bank on it.”
A running and humorous theme throughout the funeral was ‘Harry Reiding’ — Reid's habit of abruptly ending telephone conversations without saying goodbye.
“I have to tell you, every time I hear a dial tone, I think of Harry,” Biden told mourners.
Reid’s son Leif sought to explain his father's well-known habit, a move that sometimes left the other person — whether powerful politicians or close family — chatting away for several minutes before realizing he was no longer there.
“I probably got hung up on the most by Harry Reid, two or three times a day, for 12 years," Pelosi said.
“Sometimes I even called him back and said Harry, ’I was singing your praises,” Pelosi said. To which Reid replied: “I don’t want to hear it,” she said, before she’d hear the phone click dead again.
Leif Reid said that was “part of the narrative” of his father’s life, and a gesture about Reid preserving time for family.
“When he hung up on you, maybe so quickly, it isn’t as much about him being brusque as it is about him being devoted to my mom,” Leif Reid said. All four of his siblings also spoke at the memorial service.
Reid served for 34 years in Washington and led the Senate through a crippling recession and the Republican takeover of the House after the 2010 elections.
Harry Mason Reid hitchhiked 40 miles (64 kilometers) to high school and was an amateur boxer before he was elected to the Nevada state Assembly at 28. He had graduated from Utah State University and worked nights as a U.S. Capitol police officer while attending George Washington University Law School in Washington.
In 1970, at age 30, he was elected state lieutenant governor with Democratic Gov. Mike O’Callaghan. Reid was elected to the House in 1982 and the Senate in 1986.
He built a political machine in Nevada that for years helped Democrats win key elections. When he retired in 2016 after an exercise accident at home left him blind in one eye, he picked former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto to replace him.
Cortez Masto became the first woman from Nevada and the first Latina ever elected to the U.S. Senate.
Reid’s body will be flown to Washington to lie in state at the Capitol rotunda, and another ceremony will be held there on Wednesday.
The host of Saturday's Las Vegas services, Marcus Faust, said Reid’s casket will return to Nevada for burial at the family plot in Searchlight.
This story has been corrected to say that Obama talked of Reid’s father pulling a bad tooth of his own, rather than Reid pulling his father’s tooth.