STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he still has one flattened out knuckle from a fist fight when he was a kid. In a new book called "The Good Fight," Reid says he's been combative all his life. Yet the Senate's top Democrat is in a job that requires getting along.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): What we do here in Washington, much of it is based upon personal relationships.
INSKEEP: One of those relationships is with President Bush, a man that Reid does not pretend to like. In his book, he is openly critical of the president, right down to the way the president runs meetings at the White House, which Reid says are nothing more than political theater.
Sen. REID: He does the same thing at every meeting. He tells you what he wants to hear, he goes around the table - Madam Speaker what would like to say? Senator Reid - I mean, it's just - that's it and it's over with.
INSKEEP: I want to talk more about President Bush. But before I do, I want to ask about Washington generally and Congress as well. Is that kind of meeting, in a way, symptomatic of Congress right now? People talk past each other. They don't talk to each other. They give empty speeches to an empty Senate chamber -maybe somebody's watching on C-SPAN - and then another empty speech comes on.
Sen. REID: No, I don't believe that. I think this is a Bush phenomenon. This book that I wrote talks about the uniqueness of President Bush. There's a difference between President Bush, Sr. and President Bush, Jr. The first President Bush was someone who was well prepared for the job. He was a uniter, not a divider. And we have this man come to town, who pronounces in Orwellian speech that he wants to be a uniter, not a divider. He meant just the opposite, because we've been seven-plus years he hasn't tried to unite anything for anybody.
INSKEEP: Do you feel differently about the Republicans that you have to deal with everyday in the Senate?
Sen. REID: Oh, much so. I have prided myself in my political career of being somebody who is a peacemaker.
INSKEEP: You write with some frustration about Republicans who might be seen as moderate on some issues. But you say that they're only with you when you don't need them.
Sen. REID: Yeah. What I talk about in the book is that the Republicans in the Senate today do not represent Republicans throughout the country. The Republican Senate is composed of people who are really very, very, very, very conservative - some would say very right wing.
There are a few moderates - Olympia Snowe is one. Arlen Specter, I say in the book, he votes with us whenever we don't need him. When it's a throw-away vote, he'll vote with us. But when it means something, he never votes with us.
INSKEEP: You make the same complaint about Richard Lugar of Indiana, a very respected foreign policy person. But you say that he's, quote, "As obedient as ever when it comes to the war on Iraq."
Sen. REID: Oh, very much so. I mean, he gives a big speech for the committee that we've got to change course in Iraq. It's just wrong what's going on there. We have a vote, within a week later he votes with the Republicans. I mean, we were stunned that he would do this.
INSKEEP: When you see someone like Senator Lugar in the hall, do you speak to him the way that you write about him?
Sen. REID: Oh, of course. I have great respect for Senator…
INSKEEP: But, I mean, do you say, Senator Lugar, it looks like you were obedient as ever? I mean, how do you communicate that in a way that maintains a relationship?
Sen. REID: Well, I've said things, of course, that have gotten a little heated. For example, I said they're just like a bunch of puppets. And that was -somebody came and gave a speech, how could a majority leader say that? That's what I thought they were, so that's what I said.
INSKEEP: Because you've written a lot here about growing up in a small town, an extremely small, failing town - a mining town - Searchlight, Nevada, I want to ask how that experience has informed your political philosophy.
Sen. REID: When I was growing up in Searchlight, I didn't realize that most of the people there were people who had no place else to go. There was no work.
INSKEEP: The gold was out of the ground, for the most part.
Sen. REID: Gold was out of the ground, with rare exception. At the time, I didn't know things were difficult. But as I look back, they were pretty hard for me and a lot of other people in Searchlight.
What I've learned is that we should try to make it easier for the Harry Reids of the world, not have as many hoops for them to jump through.
INSKEEP: What kind of health care did your family have?
Sen. REID: Well, I talked about in my book about my father pulling some of his teeth with a pair of pliers.
INSKEEP: Because he couldn't afford a dentist?
Sen. REID: That's right. And I talked about my brother breaking his leg, laying there writhing in pain, and that went on for days. So…
INSKEEP: He never went to a doctor? He…
Sen. REID: Oh, no, no. He just laid in the bed. You couldn't touch the bed, I can remember that, because it moved the bed and it hurt so bad. My mother had no teeth.
So health care is something that I'm very concerned about. And recognizing that 50 million people have no health insurance today doesn't make me feel good about it.
INSKEEP: Why do you think it is small towns like that in recent elections have voted very heavily Republican?
Sen. REID: I said after John Kerry lost - like, you know, in my first press conference - I said I think one reason that he lost is he didn't campaign in rural America. And I believe that. We, in past years as Democrats, have tried to win elections in big cities. And we were fairly successful doing that for a long, long time. Can't do that anymore.
INSKEEP: Well, do you think someone like John Kerry had showed up in rural Nevada, he would've won?
Sen. REID: Absolutely picked up enough votes to win. Absolutely.
INSKEEP: You think that his philosophy would've matched with the philosophy of people in small towns?
Sen. REID: No question. No question about it.
INSKEEP: I don't want to be the thousandth person to ask you if you're going to support Clinton or Obama. What I do want to know is, as a superdelegate and party leader, how do you intend to make up your mind?
Sen. REID: First of all, I'm going to be very patient. The primaries are not over with yet. And I think that shortly after the primaries are ended, there will be people like me making a decision.
INSKEEP: Do you think that superdelegates should go the way that the majority or the largest number of delegates have gone, for example?
Sen. REID: I think superdelegates have the opportunity, the ability and the right to vote for whoever they want, and I think that's what they should do.
INSKEEP: Could you imagine being in a situation yourself where you decide that what's best for the country is supporting the candidate who is behind?
Sen. REID: Behind is in the mind of the beholder, as President Clinton called me over the weekend explaining all the reasons why he felt that Senator Clinton was somebody who was going to be able to be ahead at the end of the primaries.
INSKEEP: That's the way President Clinton sees it. Is that the way you see it as well?
Sen. REID: Well, I'm not siding with anybody.
INSKEEP: Although, let me just lay this out. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was on our air saying she was uncommitted in such a way that people interpreted her as supporting Barack Obama. I can imagine people listening to what you just said and interpreting that as you back Hillary Clinton, even though your situation calls for you to officially remain neutral.
Sen. REID: Well, I guess someone can interpret that if they had a bizarre way of thinking, but at this stage, I've been very noncommittal. The only thing I guess they could get an indication of that is that President Clinton called me. Well, everybody should understand Barack Obama's called me a few times, too.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: Senator Harry Reid, thanks very much.
Sen. REID: You bet.
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INSKEEP: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's new book is called "The Good Fight: Hard Lessons from Searchlight to Washington." And you can read an excerpt at npr.org.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.