WASHINGTON ― Retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) bade farewell Thursday, citing the words of George Orwell, Leonard Cohen and the Pope to caution America against falling under the sway of plutocrats.
Reid grew up poor in Searchlight, Nevada. He recalled in his goodbye address how he and his brother found fun in pelting their tin outhouse with rocks while their mother, Inez, was inside. He remembered how his mother lost her teeth because she had been hit with a ball, and how, when he was old enough, he worked pumping gas to buy her a new set.
In a speech that ran well over an hour as he recalled his 34 years in Congress, Reid never mentioned the name of the billionaire president-elect, as he did so often in the weeks and months leading up to the election.
Instead, Reid’s criticism of a man who is stocking his cabinet with billionaires, and who has routinely offended women, incessantly lambasted the media and praised Russia, was more implicit.
Take the money.
“Something has to be done about the outrageous amount of money from sources that are dark, unknown, now involved in our federal elections,” Reid said, in a reference to the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that allowed unchecked spending on elections.
“If this doesn’t change, and we don’t do something about this vast money coming into our elections, in a couple more election cycles, we’re going to be just like Russia,” he said. “We’re going to have a plutocracy ― a few rich guys telling our leader what to do.”
Reid said he saw hope on that front, citing Cohen’s 1992 song “Anthem.”
“He says it all, and I quote: ‘There’s a crack, a crack in everything, there’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in,’” Reid said.
“The cracks are, the American people don’t like it. They don’t like this money, they don’t like the partisanship,” he went on. “The American people are complaining big-time about the excessive use of money and objecting to the partisanship. That’s the crack. That’s how the light’s going to get in.”
For the second time in his last week on Capitol Hill, and in another unspoken nod to Donald Trump, Reid argued that it will be especially important for the media to help spread light, and in particular to stand up in a new environment that Reid sees as being especially hostile to a free press.
“We’re entering a new Gilded Age. It has never been more important to be able to distinguish between what’s real and what is fake,” Reid said. “We have lawmakers pushing for tax cuts for billionaires and calling it populism. We have
media outlets pushing conspiracy theories disguised as news. Separating real from fake has never been more important.”
Reid cited Pope Francis, whom Trump has disparaged, to make that point.
“He said yesterday, and this is a quote, ‘The media that focuses on scandals and spread fake news to smear politicians risk becoming like people who have a morbid fascination with excrement,’” Reid said.
The outgoing senator expressed admiration for the press, then counseled them with the words of Orwell.
“Freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose,” Reid said, quoting the 1984 author. “So press, criticize and oppose. Please do that.”
Reid, who arrived in the Senate in 1987 after serving two terms in the House, found only one woman in the upper chamber at the time ― Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.).
Throughout his speech, he pointed to the importance of women in making the world a better place.
He singled out the horror of female genital mutilation, and talked about how his mother gave him the strength and support he needed as a boy while his father worked in the mines and experienced suicidal depression.
In the Senate, he said, more women would make it better. “I’m very happy now that we have 17 Democratic women and we have four Republican women. And I want to just say, make the record very clear, the Senate is a better place because of women being here,” Reid said. “The only problem we have now, there aren’t enough of them.”
But farewell addresses are personal affairs, and for Reid, that meant talking about his wife, Landra. He had to pause here and take a breath before he could continue.