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October 19, 2014

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One wild and crazy guy

WASHINGTON - Who knew Harry Reid was such a hipster?

But there he was, plugging in his iPod for a USA Today reporter. Telling The New York Times about Britney getting her "mojo" back. Making a "Brokeback Mountain" quip. Professing his love for People magazine.

In the two months since Reid entered the spotlight as the new Senate majority leader, he has been revealing a pop-cultural literacy that is surprising even to longtime friends. They knew Reid as a quiet strategist, not someone so fly.

"I really did not know this side of him," said former Nevada Sen. Richard Bryan, who has known Reid and socialized with him for decades but has never heard him mention Britney Spears or the iPod.

Reid's ability to speak the language of the masses is hardly what comes naturally from the lofty halls of the U.S. Senate, a chamber still run mostly by grandfathers. It might be one of the few remaining places in the country where stateliness still trumps trendiness. Just a few months ago, Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska ossified that image with his befuddled story about sending his staff "an Internet," when he meant "e-mail."

Jennifer Duffy, a political strategist who tracks the Senate for the Cook Political Report, muses that Reid might be letting his hair down now that he is in the majority. He can tone down the "pit bull" image he used successfully as minority leader and turn on the charm.

Duffy is intrigued, if a bit skeptical, by this emerging side of the 67-year-old. "That's not really the Harry Reid I'm used to," she said. "But maybe it's something that's been there all the time and we just haven't seen it because he hasn't really had to take it out publicly."

Some people who know Reid say he developed his cultural IQ the way he has learned much else in life: by being a kid from Searchlight who became a student of the world.

He is a hungry reader, downing The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today and a handful of Nevada papers each day. He reads Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and, yes, People. And he devours books - big, hardback history books.

He is a movie fiend, and somehow during the workaholic days that are the norm on Capitol Hill, he and his wife find time to sneak out on evenings and weekends to films. He was recently talking up "Little Miss Sunshine," the indie hit about a dysfunctional family out to win a beauty contest.

Reid got his first iPod before his kids or grandkids got one, and is now on his second. (He was an early convert to his BlackBerry.) He loads up the music himself from iTunes, and busted out Kinky Friedman for the USA Today reporter and the '90s alt-country faves the Cowboy Junkies for a CNN crew on its recent visit to Searchlight.

His musical tastes seem to favor guitar-based genres with discernible lyrics, although his eldest son, Rory Reid, says it also includes "music my teenage daughters like." He has seen the Grateful Dead at least twice, was into The Pogues and just might be the Fruit Bats' most senatorial listener.

"He'll go through these phases. Classical. Then it'll be folk. Then country," said Rory Reid, the chairman of the Clark County Commission. "For one period of time he was Willie Nelson's greatest fan. I remember when he went through his Joan Baez phase."

Sen. Reid also has taken up yoga as part of a workout routine that once included running. He can always talk sports.

Sometimes, his son said, he will call him just to read a poem or play a song.

"He doesn't have a lot of free time, but he's a student of everything, including popular culture."

But pulling out street cred to show a politician's human side can be dicey for elected officials who in many cases are no longer ordinary Joes.

The first President George Bush's surprise at seeing a supermarket scanner branded him not as a common man, but as out of touch. Trying to look hip while windsurfing left Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts appearing more elitist.

By contrast, former President Richard Nixon succeeded by playing off his utter absence of hip - appearing on the 1960s comedy show "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" to deadpan, "Sock it to me."

Reid's staff insists it has nothing to do with what he has been saying to the press. "There's no pop-cultural adviser," Reid spokesman Jon Summers said.

Duffy says she is curious about the flip side of Reid's cultural coin. His world might have a place for pop culture, but will pop culture find a spot for him?

"I guess I'm waiting for there to be a Harry Reid on 'Saturday Night Live,' " she said.

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