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Reid: No group is harder on me than fellow Mormons

First Published      Last Updated Jan 21 2017 09:06 pm

Harry Reid didn't begin life as a Mormon, and some fellow Latter-day Saints today still don't believe the outspoken liberal could be one of them.

Yet the just-retired five-term senator from Nevada became that body's Democratic leader and the highest-ranking elected Mormon in the nation's history.

The scrappy 77-year-old, who fought his way to the top of the political heap from a tiny prostitute-ridden Nevada town, is used to slings and arrows from every side. Still, the blows from pew sitters in his own faith sometimes find a more tender mark.

From the day in 1960, when Reid and his wife, Landra, joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, until now, the couple have been fully involved, temple-going members. Both have served in various church positions and have watched all five of their children marry in an LDS temple.

It all started in Searchlight, with 13 brothels but fewer than 2,000 residents and no church or worship services.

"I had no religion," Reid recalls. "Zero."

His birthplace also had no secondary education so, as a high school sophomore, Reid moved to Henderson, Nev., where he met his future bride, who was the only child of Orthodox Jewish parents.

Reid's friend persuaded the newcomer to take early-morning LDS seminary, where the instructor also taught Spanish in the school and was the local Mormon bishop. He soon became Reid's mentor and friend, the former senator explains, "a wonderful, wonderful man."

Landra's parents were against their daughter's beau, so a few years later, they eloped — and that helpful seminary teacher/LDS bishop performed the wedding in a Mormon chapel.

The couple moved to Utah State University for Reid to complete his undergraduate education and Landra ("who always did better in school than I did") worked to support him.

There, they met a couple of local (not full-time) Mormon missionaries and ended up — without any dramatic mystical experience — joining the Utah-based faith.

"The two missionaries were very, very nice to us," Reid says. "They were such good men, tried so hard to make us happy, so we did it. It was good for us."

On Friday night, more than 50 years later, Reid received the Distinguished Public Service Award from the J. Reuben Clark Law Society, a professional association of Mormon attorneys, law students, judges and law professors with more than 20,000 members in 200 chapters in the U.S., Canada and other countries.

The honor sent a clear signal that no matter how many Latter-day Saints disagree with his politics, the faith's higher-ups embrace him as one of their own.

The following interview about the intersection of his faith and politics took place just days before Friday's ceremony. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Did you always have a Book of Mormon [the signature scripture of the LDS Church] in your Senate office?

Yep. Always.

Did you ever give one to fellow Congress members?

A couple of years ago, I decided to give one to [Larry Pressler of South Dakota] a Republican senator whom I had served with for 18 years. He was no longer in the U.S. Senate and his politics were different from mine, but we were friends.

Listen to his background: Rhodes scholar, Harvard Law School graduate, Vietnam combat vet who served two different tours of duty, Foreign Service officer, and who overcame a terrible stutter as a kid.

Anyway, without belaboring the point, I just said, "Larry, here's the Book of Mormon. Read it. It may be good for you." He joined the church [in 2015]. He was 74 years old.

I'm not very pushy on my religion. I let other people do what they think is appropriate. But, at times, I felt it was the right thing to do, and it worked out well for Larry. He and I and our wives and some friends went through the Washington [LDS] Temple a month or two ago.

Did your Mormon beliefs ever conflict with your position with the Nevada Gaming Commission in Las Vegas?

Before that, I had been the lieutenant governor and the governor [Mike O'Callaghan, who served from 1971 to 1979] was my high school teacher and mentor. I was such a powerful lieutenant governor because Governor O'Callaghan trusted me. I was in on every meeting. I never asked for anything, so he trusted me. So, in 1974, he said if I would run for lieutenant governor with him and we won, he would resign and I could become governor. But I didn't want to do that, so I ran for the Senate instead. I lost by 524 votes. The governor then appointed me to the Nevada Gaming Commission. I went to my Mormon bishop and told him about the appointment. "I'll tell you what," he said. "If you don't want to take it, tell the governor, I'll take it." That settled that.

Do you remember having to wrestle with any particular ethical dilemma?

No conflicts at all. Originally, if you worked in the gaming business, you could not be a [Mormon church] member in good standing, couldn't get a [temple] recommend, but that changed on or about that time. Now you can do whatever you want — just don't gamble, and I don't gamble. I was very strict with my five children on this point. I had very few rules: no carnival rides, no motorcycles and no gambling.

Have you always been a Democrat?

My mom and dad had not much of a home, but I can remember so clearly my mom had a royal blue pillowcase with gold fringe. On it was written, "We can. We will. We must. Franklin Delano Roosevelt."

My parents were Depression children. They believed in Roosevelt so I was always a Democrat. I have said many times the reason I'm a Democrat is because I'm a Mormon. Those who have criticized me over the years because of my political positions are wrong and I'm right.

How did you convey to your children both your Mormonism and your politics even though most of their peers were probably Republican?

Example is everything. Every one of them — with no exception, and all their spouses — is very progressive. That's the way it is with the Reid entourage. Five children and 19 grandchildren. My son Josh was president of BYU's Young Democrats when he was there.

How were you treated in your various Nevada wards [congregations]? Did you feel criticized for your politics at church?

I've had a lot of opposition in my 50 years in politics, but no group has been more difficult and hard on me than [LDS] church members — sending letters to my bishop saying I shouldn't get a recommend. There came a time in Las Vegas where the church encouraged kids not to go trick or treating for Halloween for fear of violence or crime but to go trunk or treating. One member of the church had in his trunk a picture of Harry Reid and the devil. My children and grandchildren saw them. It was not funny. I've tried to teach my children by example that's not who we are. Even though some people choose to put their politics above the church, that doesn't mean we are going to.

Did it get any better or worse after you went to Washington?

No better — probably worse, because by then I was better known and more of a national figure.

What about members of your D.C. ward?

The ward we're in now, the Chevy Chase ward [in Maryland] now probably has more Democrats than Republicans. It's a wonderful ward — so much diversity, so many people speaking with accents, so many people of color, highly educated.

How did you get along with Mormon Republicans in the government? Was it true that you were once [LDS] home-teaching companions with Randal Quarles, undersecretary of the treasury under George W. Bush?

Yes, absolutely true. I was also in the high priest group leadership with [Republican pollster] Richard Wirthlin. Bob Bennett [the late GOP senator from Utah) was such a great guy. He always stood up for me.

Have you had any faith dilemmas during your time in Democratic leadership, wondering if maybe you didn't fit in this Mormon church?

No. No.

When I first was in D.C., I attended an elders quorum meeting where some really bad stuff was said about blacks. I was so upset I wrote a letter to church headquarters. I got a letter back from [Mormon apostle] Hugh B. Brown, who said the leaders "were terribly disturbed that any priesthood holder would say such things. I have watched [church] President [David O.] McKay pray publicly and privately trying to work through this difficult issue. We have a large congregation or two in Africa [whose participants] do not have the priesthood but are living the gospel better than anyone in the world." I was in politics and always had big support from African-Americans. It was a difficult issue for me. When [church] President [Spencer W.] Kimball announced the revelation on blacks in 1978 [opening the priesthood to all worthy males], I was so happy. Even today, I can't explain how happy I was.

How do you handle it when fellow Mormons say nasty things about you, like that you should not be allowed to speak at an LDS fireside or in an LDS chapel?

I understand the teachings of the church pretty well. That is their problem, not mine.

Why do you think Latter-day Saints are so overwhelmingly conservative and Republican?

It goes back to some past leaders of the church like Ezra Taft Benson [an LDS apostle who served as secretary of agriculture in the Eisenhower administration and was supportive of the ultraconservative John Birch Society]. Also, the abortion issue has been extremely difficult for members to accept. The sad part about that is if church members really understand standards of the church, leaders are totally opposed to abortion except if the life or health of the mother is threatened. That's what it says. [It's a moderate position] but it has been exaggerated by many church members.

Have you ever been chastised by church leaders for your politics?

Nothing even close, not even any intimation or suggestion. Zero. I have not had any meetings with church leaders who were discouraging of me. I'm no fool; I understand they might not be happy with some of my positions. Senator Bob Bennett, for example, was a huge supporter of [2012 Republican presidential nominee and fellow Mormon] Mitt Romney. I wasn't, but that didn't affect our friendship. That's the way it is.

What is your favorite passage of scripture?

Doctrine & Covenants Section 122 means a lot to me, especially the setting. [Mormon founder] Joseph Smith is in Liberty Jail [in Missouri] and had been there a long time. He's complaining, "Why are you letting these people do this to me?" He's told "because it's good for you."

Any plans to serve a Mormon mission now that you're retired?

I don't think my health would permit. I blinded myself two years ago and had an accident and my depth perception and stability are not what I would like. I will follow the lead of the church hierarchy — they work hard every day; that's why they live so long — and get a job. That way, the church will profit because I'll pay my tithing.

pstack@sltrib.com

Twitter: @religiongal.com




 

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