Las Vegas (CNN)Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was remembered by a host of top Democratic politicians at his memorial service in Las Vegas on Saturday, with President Joe Biden hailing the Nevada Democrat as someone who “would always have your back” and former President Barack Obama recalling him as a fighter “who did not give up.”
Reid, the scrappy former Democratic Senate leader who spearheaded epic legislative battles throughout three decades in Congress, died in December at age 82 following a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer.
His service honored his love of family, with all five of the late senator’s children speaking; his love of Nevada, the state he helped put on the political map during his decades in office; and the central role he played in ushering in some of the most significant pieces of legislation of the last two decades.
Obama cast Reid as the consummate pragmatist, someone willing to work “with folks he didn’t agree with or particularly like” in order to get things done. At a time when “so often compromise is portrayed as weakness, Harry had a different view,” Obama said, recalling how the former Democratic leader “did not believe in highfalutin theories or rigid ideologies” and “met people where they were, not where he wanted them to be.“
“You wanted Harry in the foxhole with you. His willingness to fight by my side, to stick with me even when things weren’t going our way… his willingness to be there and fight would last throughout my presidency. It is a debt to him that I could never fully repay,” Obama said.
The words from Obama served as a timely message to Democrats in Congress, with progressive and moderate lawmakers quarreling over Biden’s agenda and dividing the party.
Throughout the service, those closest to Reid paid tribute to his unlikely life. A child born into abject poverty in a tiny speck of a town called Searchlight, he went on to become the most powerful politician in Nevada history, helping to turn the Western state into a Democratic stronghold that last backed a Republican president in 2004. The upbringing defined Reid’s career, turning him into a champion of the impoverished working-class families like he grew up with in the Nevada desert.
Biden remembered Reid as someone whose “toughness was distinctly Nevadan” and whose “story was unmistakably American.”
“It was all Searchlight — no spotlight,” Biden said, adding later, “Harry Reid will be considered one of the greatest Senate majority leaders in history. … For Harry, it wasn’t about power; it was about the sake of power. It was about the power to be able to use power to do right by people. That’s why you wanted Harry in your corner.”
The memorial service unfolded on a picture-perfect day in the Las Vegas valley, with Reid’s flag-draped coffin carried in by an honor guard under a cloudless blue morning sky. His 19 grandchildren served as honorary pallbearers.
“People know his story. He lived the American Dream, you could say — from Searchlight to Washington,” his son Leif Reid said. “From my time as a young boy, it even then seemed fictional. But the reality was that he was a man who simply chose to do his best every day, to do his duty, to take care of his stewardship.”
A giant electronic billboard towering over the Las Vegas Strip paid honor to Reid with the message: “Nevada Born. Nevada Leader.”
Reid, a practicing Mormon who neither drank nor gambled, was a pioneer of the city that transformed during his time in office. A fierce partisan, for sure, but Reid also had close relationships with other city elders, including the late casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, one of the biggest Republican contributors in American politics.
Representatives from Adelson’s office were on hand for the Saturday service, along with local GOP officials and Republican senators including Richard Shelby of Alabama, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Susan Collins of Maine.
Hand-drawn signs thanking Reid were hanging on a fence outside the funeral, which also was heckled by more than a dozen protestors carrying Trump banners.
In addition to Biden and Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer spoke at the memorial service, recalling both comical and poignant stories about their former colleague.
Pelosi recalled how she told Reid that she wanted to host a large dinner when he was retiring. Reid responded, “Save the money, feed the poor,” Pelosi recalled.
Pelosi also recalled how she never heard Reid speak ill of any of his Senate colleagues. Speaking after Pelosi, Obama jokingly corrected the Speaker.
“I heard Nancy Pelosi say she never heard Harry say anything bad about any of his colleagues. I don’t know about that Nancy — but he would work with them! I love Nancy, but I,” Obama said, trailing with a laugh.
Ahead of the memorial, Reid’s wife Landra Gould said she and her family were “honored to have such a distinguished group paying tribute to Harry’s life and accomplishments. … These are not only some of the most consequential leaders of our time — they are also some of Harry’s best friends.”
Brandon Flowers, the lead singer of the Las Vegas-founded band The Killers and a frequent fixture at big campaign events for Reid over the years, performed the poignant “Be Still” and the Nevada state song, “Home Means Nevada.” The legendary songwriter and musician Carole King also performed.
Reid was remembered on Saturday as a product of Nevada and as a man whose political career grew with the state he called home. When Nevada went from one congressional district to two after the 1980 census, Reid ran for a newly created congressional district around Las Vegas in 1982 and won the general election. He was reelected in 1984. He then successfully ran for Nevada’s open Senate seat in 1986.
He rose through the leadership ranks there, serving as the chamber’s Democratic whip from 1999 to 2005. From 2005 through his retirement in 2017, he served as his party’s leader in the Senate, through Democrats’ time in both the minority and the majority.
Obama eulogizing Reid was a full circle moment for the duo. Reid, then as the Democratic leader in the Senate, urged then-Sen. Obama to run for president long before he was seen as a presidential contender. After Obama won, Reid became his greatest ally in the Senate, helping to shepherd key pieces of legislation through the legislative body.
“Without Harry we would not have passed the Recovery Act. … Without Harry we wouldn’t have saved people’s jobs. … Without Harry we would not have passed Wall Street reform. … Without Harry, there would be no Affordable Care Act,” Obama said, adding that Reid “got things done.”