Self-inflicted sucker punch takes Reid off his message

Hard Rock Harry Reid turned into the Beltway Bleeder last week, and he managed to stagger himself with self-inflicted punches. Reid likes to talk about his youthful pugilistic experience, and anyone who has followed the Senate minority leader's career knows he's not afraid to mix it up in the political ring.

But his actions following the news that he watched a championship fight in 2004 from ringside without paying for his seat made me wonder whether the senator from Searchlight was slouching toward Palookaville.

Reid, a boxing fan and advocate for Nevada-style regulation, received a Nevada Athletic Commission credential while the Senate was considering federal fight legislation. Like many elected officials before him, he didn't pay for the pass, which gave him access to a seat that would have cost a less-juiced fellow $1,400. Arizona Sen. John McCain sat within jabbing distance. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who paid for his seat, was within shouting range.

The event came and went with little media attention until last week, when The Associated Press raised the issue of the ethics of the fight freebie. Included in the article was the continuing embarrassment of Reid's peripheral association with the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, a mostly Republican debacle that now makes its way into profiles of the Democratic senator.

Because the free seat didn't come directly from a promoter or a casino, and instead passed through a state agency, Reid wasn't in real danger of violating any of Congress' ethics guidelines. In politics, the concept of plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face ethics doesn't exist. In other words, it was no scandal.

But it was Reid's reaction to the press inquiry that caused his own nose to bleed -- and grow.

Shortly after the story broke, he said, "I came to work for the state of Nevada and to watch the fight."

Work for Nevada?

Yeah, I thought I saw Reid leave his seat between rounds to huddle with the judges and referee -- just to make sure everything was on the up-and-up.

Reid could have just admitted he's a fight fan and sitting ringside for a nationally televised bout was a great way to see and be seen, but maybe that would have been too candid.

Work for Nevada?

This is what my dear, departed Irish grandmother used to call unadulterated malarkey. It's the kind of soft-core sleight-of-hand senators tell each other and smile. And it works in Washington.

But here in Nevada, crap is still crap.

In Las Vegas, almost everyone knows what a comp looks like. The fact it passed through the boxing commission might take the sting out of an ethics probe, but it doesn't change the truth. And it didn't help to have current and former members of the athletic commission attempt to cover for Reid.

Reporters juxtaposed Reid's remarks with the fact Sen. McCain -- after the fact, mind you -- cut a check for his ticket. If Ali had footwork that fast he'd still be champ.

McCain may be the first guy who ever paid face value for a ringside seat, which is normally reserved for casino high rollers, celebrities, and friends of the promoter and resort owner. But that's politics.

By week's end, Reid was contrite, saying he didn't violate any ethics rules but would pay for his seats in the future.

"I inflicted my own sucker punch, but that's the way it is," he said.

The harmful aspect of this story was illustrated Friday when Reid paid a visit to the Review-Journal, where he cogently highlighted one important national issue after another. From the war in Iraq and anti-terrorism funding to the record deficit and the nation's befuddled energy policy, Reid showed just how astute and effective a communicator he can be.

He also took time to lament the fact that most of the daily business in Washington will be bogged down in inane debate over such partisan pap as gay marriage, flag burning and the estate tax.

That's the real danger of the boxing freebie story. For several days his own actions and rhetorical rope-a-dope took him off an important message.

Call me just another heckler in the political cheap seats, but I'll give the Beltway Bleeder advice he obviously isn't getting from his cornermen:

If you keep your chin down, Senator, you'll be forced to keep your mouth shut.

• John L. Smith's column appears by permission of the Las Vegas Review Journal. E-mail him at or call 383-0295.


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