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Sen. Harry Reid recounts mob’s death threats

Years ago as the head of the Nevada Gaming Commission, Sen. Harry Reid faced countless threats as he tried to clean up Las Vegas. He shares one particularly terrifying moment in this excerpt from his memoir, "The Good Fight."
/ Source: TODAY books

Years ago as the head of the Nevada Gaming Commission, Sen. Harry Reid faced countless threats as he tried to clean up Las Vegas. He shares one particularly terrifying moment in this excerpt from his memoir, "The Good Fight."

With gangsters, investigations, extortions, smear campaigns, and constant death threats, there was never a time for me to catch my breath during the commission years, let alone relax. During the years of the late 1970s, Las Vegas had come to the dreaded realization that organized crime had remained very active there—indeed, outrageously active—and we took on the mob and helped rid Las Vegas of the influence of organized crime. There hadn’t been much at stake, just the future of fabulous, famous Las Vegas and the economy of an entire state. At the same time, I’d learned that there were those who would stop at nothing to try to compromise a man’s morals, or ruin his reputation, or even try to kill him. Or kill his family. What my wife and children endured during my time on the Gaming Commission has stayed with me through all these years and through all the places I’ve lived since. Whenever I hear people talk about how rough-and tumble things can get in Washington, I remind myself of these years in Las Vegas. I will never forget them. Nor will my family.

My term was coming to an end. To my surprise, Governor Bob List had asked me to stay on as chairman to finish my four-year term. I was surprised by the offer, but flattered. Bob List was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. He and I had often been on opposite sides, and we have remained political opposites, but personal friends. His request took political courage and showed class. Appointees in Nevada almost always share the party affiliation of those who appoint them. I was honored that governors from two different parties had shown confidence in my service, but when the term ended, I was looking forward to a return to normal life with Landra and the kids.

But when you’ve made enemies, normal life can be hard to come by. We had two cars, one of them an Oldsmobile station wagon, which was good with five kids. I usually drove the other car to the office. It was late one afternoon that Landra called. She rarely called me at work, and this call was immediately something very different. Her voice was taut. “Whatever you do,” she said, “don’t start the car.”

“Why?” I asked.

She had taken the station wagon to drive our son to a scout meeting. Our daughter, Lana, had been complaining for a few days that the station wagon was not running right, but she was a teenager, what did she know? In any case, we hadn’t yet gotten around to taking it in for a check-up.

On the way home, Landra noticed that the engine was starting to lurch, then misfire. She didn’t think too much of it, but then as she pulled into the driveway, she was suddenly struck by the memory of a dinner conversation from a few weeks before.

We were at a restaurant with George Swartz and his wife when he told us that he had recently noticed that his car was running strangely. He pulled into his driveway, shut off the engine, and went to check under the hood. It was there that he saw a coaxial cable at the battery, which had been wound back to the gas tank and rigged with a spark plug. A crudely constructed bomb—one spark in the fuel tank and the car explodes into a deadly inferno. But George was lucky. Whoever rigged his car hadn’t grounded the wire properly, and the bomb failed to detonate. The police didn’t know what to make of it, and neither did the Swartzes. It could have been someone just trying to scare them. It could have been anybody.

Back in our driveway, Landra remembered what George had told us. She turned off the engine and lifted the hood. A wire had been wound from the spark plug and then trailed off to somewhere out of sight. Then she opened the gas tank. The same wire. She ran straight into the house and called me. Don’t start your car!

I don’t think I can describe fully how terrifying the next few minutes were. My son was at a scout meeting. Was he safe? Where was Lana? I didn’t even want to consider the fact that she had been behind the wheel of that car for days. The police were sent to gather our children and escort them home safely, and the bomb squad arrived to examine the station wagon. Apparently, the gas tank hadn’t detonated because the tip of the spark plug had broken off, but it didn’t matter. I came home that night to a family that had been living in terror for years, and it seemed now like it might be a permanent condition.

I will never forget the sight of Key, our youngest son, staring out onto the driveway from the bay window in the dining room. He just stood there, mesmerized by the flashing lights and all the craziness. And afraid. He wasn’t yet six years old, but kids take everything in, and they understand.

Excerpted from "The Good Fight" by Sen. Harry Reid. Copyright (c) 2008. Reprinted with permission from Berkley.