Learning how to talk

Nevada’s senior senator, now in the political big time, adjusts to having his every word scrutinized

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, surrounded by aides, departed the Reno News & Review office after an interview. He was in Reno for the Northern Nevada Conference on Aging.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, surrounded by aides, departed the Reno News & Review office after an interview. He was in Reno for the Northern Nevada Conference on Aging.

Photo By David Robert

When U.S. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada was a simple senator, and even after he became the Democratic whip, no one cared much about what he had to say. Now that he is the minority floor leader, though, his words are minutely examined by national media and picked apart by bloggers. Some critics even try to divine his thoughts, Reid said during a July 6 interview at the RN&R office.

“Now, people are even wondering what I’m thinking about,” he said. “And so it’s a lot different that it was before. I mean, who would think that somebody would cover a high school class I was talking to?”

Reid also noted the growing influence—of the Internet, web logs ("blogs") and message boards as a political tool.

The day on which Reid did the interview was an example of the things he said. He started Wednesday, July 6, in Las Vegas with a news conference where he was asked about the possible nomination of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to be a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Reid told the assembled reporters that Gonzales is qualified to sit on the court because he has served as attorney general and is a former judge. But the senator stopped short of saying that meant that Gonzales could win approval from the Senate.

Reid then noted that conservatives were attacking Gonzales to try to prevent his nomination to the court.

Several conservative organizations, uncertain of Gonzales’ stance on abortion and other issues, have mounted aggressive campaigns against him, not even waiting for him to be nominated to the court. Their intent is to try to convince George Bush not to choose the attorney general. Their criticism of Gonzales had been harsh enough that Bush spoke out during his trip to Europe: “All of a sudden, this fellow, who is a good public servant and a really fine person, is under fire. I don’t like it at all.”

In Reid’s Las Vegas comments, the Nevada senator agreed with Bush about the rancorous nature of the criticism of Gonzales: “I think it’s too bad the president has to respond in Denmark about statements from the far right. People here have gone a little too far.”

Then Reid flew north to Reno. While en route, his words went out to the nation via the media. The reaction was waiting for him when he arrived in Reno. The Associated Press had reported that “Reid also chided conservatives for criticizing Gonzales while Bush was overseas.” Other news organizations quickly picked up on that angle. The New York Times, for instance, reported that “Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada … chided conservatives for criticizing Mr. Gonzales while the president was overseas.”

Arriving in Reno, Reid denied saying that anyone has an obligation to withhold criticism of the president while he’s out of the country. Rather, he said, he was expressing disapproval of a public discussion that had already become so rancorous that a president on the other side of the world had been drawn in.

“I didn’t say that,” Reid said. “At a press conference at UNLV I said that it’s too bad the president while he’s in Denmark had to respond to the shrill right wing who are blasting Gonzalez. … I said he was in Denmark, but that’s where he is. I would have said the same thing if he were in Baltimore.”

It was a demonstration of literary critic Hugh Kenner’s view that newspapers are a “low definitional medium” and that it is hazardous to tell journalists anything the meaning of which depends on the placement of a comma.

Meanwhile, Reid’s other comments—that Gonzales is qualified to be on the court—were also being pushed beyond what Reid intended. They were being read as an endorsement of Gonzales. That was not his meaning, Reid said—he had simply meant to say that, on paper, Gonzales has the credentials to be a justice because he has been attorney general for six months and had served on the Texas Supreme Court. Reid aide Jim Manley quickly rushed out a clarification and some entities modified their stories. (The New York Times: “After Reid’s comments became public, Jim Manley, his spokesman, said Reid was not endorsing Gonzales but was saying that his position as attorney general gave him strong legal credentials that made him worthy of consideration.")

But by that time the Internet was already afire. One of the first off the mark was an influential liberal blog, Daily Kos, which posted the Associated Press story and observed, “This is an odd thing for a canny strategist like Reid to say, before the nominee is even made public. Why would he do this?” Kos then invited responses.

If Reid had been incautious in the parsing of his words, the Kos readers made up for it, slicing, dicing, and pureeing his comments—and they were more accurate in analyzing his Las Vegas remarks than the conventional press.

One speculated, “It sounds to me like Reid is calling Bush’s bluff, by in effect saying, if you’re serious about toning down the battle rhetoric, nominate a moderate (or in the case of Gonzales, a perceived moderate). Of course, a moderate will send the Christian right into orbit, which puts Bush in a bind.”

Another pointed out something that mainstream reporters had missed: “Reid’s announcement suggests—but does not in fact say—that the Democrats will go along with Gonzales …” (Emphasis added.)

Another: “Reid has deduced that Gonzales will not be nominated by Bush. So Reid is laying the defensive groundwork for an even more extreme nomination … [by] putting into the public mind that the Dems might actually accept Gonzales—but Bush won’t even nominate him.”

Over at the conservative online forum Free Republic, meanwhile, Reid’s words were subjected to similar analysis from a different viewpoint. At that web page, the campaign against Gonzalez was in full swing and some readers felt Reid’s comments confirmed their view:

“The prosecution rests, your Honour!”

“As if we needed another reason why Gonzales is a bad choice for the Supreme Court.”

“If Crazy Harry wants him, I know I don’t.”

Another looked deeper: “Reid is finessing here. Bush is very loyal to his friends, Gonzalez is among the closest. There will be two, not just one SCOTUS [Supreme Court of the United States] openings this summer, so the Dems will ‘compromise’ and let one be confirmed (Gonzalez) without much of fight. They will then threaten the filibuster on the other if he/she does not pass the abortion litmus test. Result: Roe vs. Wade is preserved, their base is satisfied.”

In that analysis, the reader was unknowingly agreeing with one of the readers back at the liberal Kos, who wrote: “Reid might not fight this nomination at all, but is saving the big guns and going to the wall with the filibuster, to fight who will be the Head of the SCOTUS to replace Rehnquist.”

Reid seemed bemused by this kind of thing.

“One of the things that’s been interesting for me … is that even when I was assistant leader, nobody really cared what I said,” he said. “And certainly when I was just a senator, it was rare that anybody even wrote what I said.”

Reid said some people are even having his interviews on Jon Ralston’s Las Vegas interview program taped and shipped to Washington (packed in ice?).

He said he has seen a sea change in political news coverage since he entered politics, and coverage has suffered as a result.

“I can remember my first involvement with the press was running for the board of trustees at Southern Nevada Memorial Hospital,” he said. “Kind of a politically nothing job … but a job that was important to lots of people that dealt with that hospital. And I can remember people writing substantive stories about what I was trying to do.”

He said by the time he ran for lieutenant governor he already was seeing a decline in serious news coverage of politics, and today the number of news outlets have proliferated. That has increased the need for more and more news, he said, and the quality has suffered.

“I understand that. So I just have to give people less stuff to work on … but I don’t want to turn into a person who doesn’t tell people how I really feel about things. I’m going to continue to try to do that. Open the process up and do a better job of expressing how I feel without turning into a person who just never says anything.”