Making a Hecht of a comparison to Harry Reid

Harry Reid might not appreciate being compared to Chic Hecht, but it may keep the senator in a job that some Nevadans want to take away from him. Let me explain …

On the same day the tea party gathered in Searchlight, that burg’s most famous son spent part of the day opening a new shooting park with National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre. Then he went to the Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, where speakers hailed the passage of health-care reform and Al Gore spoke with the kind of fervor that nearly made him president.

All of that may seem incongruous. It isn’t, and that helps explain the incongruities in being a U.S. senator and why writing the political obituary of Reid or any other incumbent—especially a Democratic incumbent—this year is risky business. And it’s all because of something Gore said.

In addition to explaining why Republicans seem to oppose the sun and everything under it, Gore was praising Reid for, among other things, killing Yucca Mountain. The former vice president attacked the notion that science supports a waste dump and recalled when some Nevadans thought a nuclear-waste dump wasn’t such a bad idea. He remembered one of them calling it a “nuclear suppository,” which would hurt.

Longtime Nevadans laughed knowingly. Gore was referring to Hecht, who tended to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, didn’t strike many as that tough or awe-inspiring, didn’t stand out physically or oratorically, and was written off on a regular basis.

Hecht was a Republican, but that description might sound familiar. In 1982, Hecht jumped into the Republican Senate primary on the last day. Even if he won, he faced an uphill fight against four-term Democratic Sen. Howard Cannon. But not only did Hecht win the primary, he beat Cannon by 6,000 votes out of about 235,000 cast.

On reaching the Senate, Hecht did little to distinguish himself. That’s no knock on him. Granted, times have changed and the 24/7 news cycle means just about anybody can get on camera, but first-term senators rarely attracted attention or had much chance to gain power. Hecht simply went about his business.

But when Hecht opened his mouth, trouble often followed. He wasn’t the best speaker—he had a speech impediment—and “nuclear suppository” was only his most famous gaffe. At one point, he managed to come across as endorsing apartheid in South Africa. He had trouble distinguishing between overt and covert operations—and he had been in military intelligence and served on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Those kinds of errors did nothing for Hecht’s reputation and chances of re-election. Indeed, he lost in 1988 to Richard Bryan, who gave up the governor’s mansion to run for the Senate. Hecht became ambassador to the Bahamas and eventually returned to Las Vegas, where he died in 2006 at the age of 77.

The appropriate comparison might seem to be between Reid and Cannon—two very senior Democrats from Nevada who knew the Senate and how to accumulate power in it, and did so to Nevada’s advantage. Both Mormons, neither ever seemed to endear himself to voters.

But consider Hecht. He won in 1982 because almost no one thought he could—just as so many are writing off Reid. While the media all but ignored Hecht, Reid is in the news—but in the case of the biggest newspaper in Nevada’s biggest city, it’s mostly to say what he has done wrong and to bury news about what he does right, so the effect may not be that dissimilar. Hecht faced a candidate weakened by a divisive primary, as Reid may, and benefited from a lot of outside help, as Reid will.

Once in office, Hecht seemed an easy mark, and he lost to one of the most popular politicians in Nevada history. As governor, Bryan was re-elected in 1986 with 71 percent of the vote. In 1988, he received 51 percent of the vote for senator, beating Hecht by just 4 percent after virtually every analyst had predicted Hecht would disappear without leaving a laundry mark. Hecht came back by doing what he had done six years before—working hard and not worrying about his reputation.

George W. Bush once described himself as “misunderestimated.” It described Hecht, and also describes Reid.

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