Reid, McCarran Both Creatures of the Senate

On the same day, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., blistered Mitt Romney before the Democratic National Convention and Clark County Commissioners said during a meeting that they aren’t inclined to remove Sen. Pat McCarran’s name from the airport. The two events are more connected than they may appear.

Reid has become something of a point man for President Barack Obama’s re-election. Reid said the campaign didn’t influence his decision to report being told that Romney refused to release his tax returns because he had paid no taxes.  Republicans expressed doubts about that. Now, it’s easy to say that if Reid said the sun rose in the east, Republicans would express doubts. But more to the point, Reid is known for going off-script or saying things that make supposedly smooth political operators cringe.

At the convention, he renewed his argument about why Romney hasn’t released his returns—namely, that there’s nothing to release. He also called Romney a “Tea Party ideologue,” which flies in the face of complaints from the majority of Republicans who didn’t support Romney during his primary run that he isn’t conservative enough for them.

That issue understandably has gotten a lot more attention nationally than Reid’s announcement that he supported changing the name of McCarran International Airport. Reid called McCarran “one of the most anti-Semitic … one of the most anti-black, one of the most prejudiced people ever to serve in the Senate,” which isn’t entirely correct. McCarran may have been one of the most anti-Semitic senators, but he would have had to go a long way to match his colleagues from the South to be as bigoted as they were toward African-Americans.

County Commissioners Tom Collins and Chris Giunchigliani seemed clear in their opposition to changing the name. Their colleagues Lawrence Weekly and Steve Sisolak seemed to line up with them. All four of them, like the other three
commissioners, are Democrats—you know, the party that Reid supposedly controls much the way Stalin ran the Soviet Union.

All of which inspires some comparisons to McCarran. He supposedly ran a machine, and he did indeed destroy the political careers of several of his opponents. But most of his supporters also felt loyalty to him for how he had helped them, sometimes financially in ways that politicians really shouldn’t do, sometimes just out of the goodness of his heart. When something mattered deeply to him, members of his party supported him or paid the penalty—just as he did when he stood up to the state’s power structure early in the 20th century.

Like Reid, McCarran was a man of the Senate. He knew the rules and the methods of operation. That didn’t make him beloved in Nevada because, frankly, that stuff isn’t terribly interesting to the average voter. But it made him effective for his state—as has been the case with Reid, who didn’t get to be majority leader by being a pretty face. McCarran barely won his first term and often struggled to stay in office; politically, Reid has had more lives than a well-endowed cat.

Nor did McCarran always follow the script or the leader. For Reid to get an ovation and deliver a fighting speech at the 2012 convention on behalf of the incumbent president somehow seems less interesting than McCarran at the 1952 convention, when he supported a candidate with no chance of winning, got mad at a fellow Nevada delegate who had gone to law school on McCarran’s patronage but was demonstrating for the eventual nominee, and took a swing at him. Considering Reid’s background as a boxer, convention delegates were wise to behave. McCarran didn’t behave: a Democrat, he backed Republican candidates for president and Senate that year.

So, Reid is more loyal to party and to humanity than McCarran was. But as long as Nevada has a convicted felon’s name on a state park and mobster’s names all over the place, McCarran International Airport shouldn’t really be an issue.