Obama to Reid in 2008: “Harry, What’s John (McCain) Up to? It Sounds Crazy”

By Caitlin Taylor

Apr 27, 2009 11:05am

The paperback edition of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s 2008 book "THE GOOD FIGHT: Hard Lessons From Searchlight to Washington" has a new epilogue that the Democratic leader penned in January, with many behind-the-scenes stories and observations about President Obama. The paperback edition is set to hit bookshelves on May 5.

In 15-page epilogue, titled "The Obama Era," Reid writes that then-Sen. Obama "was in an entirely different class from the start," recalling "specific moments when Barack Obama came into focus as a national leader for the first time."

The Majority Leader recalls Obama as a freshman senator giving "an unusually fine speech" about President Bush’s war policy.

“That speech was phenomenal, Barack,” Reid said.

"And I will never forget his response," Reid writes. "Without the barest hint of braggadocio or conceit, and with what I would describe as deep humility, he said quietly: ‘I have a gift, Harry.’ In the Bible, we are told that all men are given different gifts. And we see it in every field, from art to science, academia to athletics. Some are great; others are gifted. We were all about to learn just what a gift Barack Obama had."

After Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006, Reid writes that his chief of staff Susan McCue and communications staffer Stephanie Cutter came to him and said, "We think you should put Obama out front on the ethics legislation.”

“He’s just a freshman," Reid said dismissively.

“Trust us on this,” the two women said. “He’ll be good, very good.”

Later, in 2007, Reid told Obama that the stars could align for him were he to run for the White House.

“If you want to be president, you can be president now," Reid said.

“I don’t know, Harry," said Obama. “I don’t think so.”

Fast forward to Saturday, November 1, 2008, when "the future came to town" — then-Democratic presidential nominee was in Nevada.

"That morning, Barack Obama touched down in Las Vegas for his twentieth visit to Nevada since his campaign for the presidency had begun, and made his way down to the hillside football field at Coronado High School in Henderson for one of the last rallies before the election. I would have the honor to introduce him in Henderson to 20,000 people that day, and I can say that speaking before Barack Obama is enough to give anyone a nice shot of humility."

Reid recalls talking alone with then-Sen. Obama at his hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.

"The campaign was entering its chaotic final seventy-two hours, the last steps on the improbable journey he’d begun a long twenty months before. We were both too full of the moment to reflect much and fully appreciate the history that was at hand. During the campaign, he and I had spoken frequently, and especially as the economic crisis deepened in the fall, we took to talking almost every day.

"Neither of us likes to talk on the phone much, and so the conversations would usually be as brief as they were regular. Often during the long campaign, Barack would call, but on occasion I would track him down and ask him to return to Washington for a crucial vote. He did not welcome those particular calls, but without fail, he would return for the votes, though it anguished him to let up for a moment in his historic campaign."

Then-Sen. Obama returned, upon request, for a vote on the $700 billion bailout of the financial sector, Reid writes, recalling that after Lehman Brothers collapsed in mid-September Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson came to Congress and told congressional leaders that unless Congress immediately provided significant capital for the credit markets, the US "won’t have an economy on Monday."

On Wednesday, September 24, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., phoned Reid and told him, “Harry, I am suspending my campaign to come back and help negotiate a deal.”  McCain explained that he was also calling upon Obama to suspend his campaign, and together they could convene a meeting at the Bush White House to help come to a deal on a bailout for Wall Street.

Reid didn’t think it was such a great idea, given that negotiations were well underway, with Democratic leaders of the Senate Banking Committee and House Financial Services Committee working with White House and Treasury Department officials.

"They were on the verge of an agreement, and any such McCain stunt would cost us valuable time," writes Reid, also noting that McCain "had no standing to do any such negotiating. He was neither a member of the pertinent committees, nor did he have any particular expertise, nor was he of influence with rebellious Republicans who were openly opposing the plan."

“John, please don’t come," Reid says he told the GOP presidential nominee. "I’ve just issued a statement. I’ll read it to you. ‘This is a critical time for our country. While I appreciate that both candidates have signaled their willingness to help, Congress and the administration have a process in place to reach a solution to this unprecedented financial crisis. I understand that the candidates are putting together a joint statement at Senator Obama’s suggestion. But it would not be helpful at this time to have them come back during these negotiations and risk injecting presidential politics into this process or distract important talks about the future of our nation’s economy. If that changes, we will call upon them. We need leadership; not a campaign photo op."

“That’s how I feel, John," Reid said.

“I hope you’ll reconsider, Harry,” McCain responded.

Almost immediately, Reid writes, he got another call, this time from then-Sen. Obama.

"Harry, what’s John up to?" Obama said. "It sounds crazy."

The White House meeting happened, of course, and Reid writes that the Democrats "entered the Cabinet Room having decided that Barack would do most of the talking on behalf of the Democrats. His presentation—eloquent, thoughtful, and commanding—was devoid of politics, and as he spoke, without notes, expertly dissecting how we had gotten ourselves in the situation, outlining the myriad problems before us and making the case for imperative action, the room was rapt. The senior staff lined the walls of the room, and the chief of staff for a senior Republican senator could be heard to whisper to a colleague: ‘He is good.’

"Obama concluded his remarks. ‘Yesterday, Senator McCain and I issued a joint statement, saying in one voice that this is no time to be playing politics,’ he said. ‘And on the way here, we were on the brink of a deal. Now, there are those who think we should start from scratch. . . . If we are indeed starting over, the consequences could well be severe.”

President Bush turned to McCain who suggested someone else should speak instead, Reid writes. "The longer I am around here, the more I respect seniority.”

"And then, as the meeting that he had called disintegrated into acrimony and disunion, John McCain remained silent," Reid writes. "I don’t think that there was a person in that room, Democrat or Republican—with the possible exception of John McCain—who came away from that meeting thinking that Barack Obama shouldn’t be the next president of the United States."

In their pre-election meeting on the Las Vegas strip, Reid and Obama also discussed the conundrum of what to do about Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who spoke "prominently at the Republican convention, where he thrashed Obama as unfit to be president, even though he had pledged to me that he would not. Joe had fallen far from his days as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, and I was disappointed in him for his actions against the party and its nominee. Barack was upset as well—if anyone had a right to be, it was he—but he is also pragmatic.

"Our dilemma was that we needed to hold Lieberman accountable—many Democratic activist groups were calling for him to be expelled from the caucus altogether—but as badly as he had behaved in the campaign, it was a simple fact that, apart from the war, Joe had a very solid progressive, Democratic record, voting with us more than 85 percent of the time, more than many other Democratic senators. How much sense would it make to banish him?"

Reid said, “I think I’m going to cut Lieberman some slack, Barack. I want to try to keep him in the caucus. We’ll take away his Homeland Security chairmanship, but probably nothing further.”

“That makes sense to me,” said Obama. “I support that.”

On November 6, Reid reports he had a "tense meeting" with Lieberman.

“You can be chair of the Small Business Committee," Reid said.

“I can’t do that, Harry,” Lieberman said.

“Why not?" Reid asked. “What are the Republicans going to give you?”

“They’ll give me nothing,” he said. “But I have to stand for something. I just can’t do it.”

Amidst "calls from the left for Lieberman’s head," Reid recalled former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Democrat who switched parties after years of "a few vocal and unreasonable environmental groups" who "would picket him and heckle him and generally make his life unpleasant…One faction of our party drove a very good Democrat into the wilderness. How could we be so intolerant of differences as to do something like that?"

As Reid wrestled with the decision of what to do about Lieberman, "President-elect Obama stated publicly that he would very much like to see Senator Lieberman continue to caucus with the Democrats. Here, demonstrated, was actual magnanimity, a quality that had been snuffed out in Washington some years before. Obama’s grace did not escape notice out in the country, and it made people think that maybe this Obama fellow really had been serious about ushering in a new kind of politics, a change for the better."

Talking a page of kumbaya from the president-elect’s book, Reid called McCain into his office.

“John," Reid said, "many things were said in this campaign that made me mad. But I’m not looking back. And if I said anything that hurt you, I apologize.”

McCain "thanked me warmly, said that all was forgotten, and that he was ready to get back to work."

- jpt

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