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October 26, 2014

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Why this photo of Obama means so much to Harry Reid

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Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama bends over so the son of a White House staff member can feel his hair during a visit to the Oval Office on May 8, 2009.

In the entrance of his Capitol Hill office, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid placed a framed photo, angled so visitors can’t miss it.

It shows a 5-year-old boy standing next to President Barack Obama, reaching out to touch his hair.

“I want to know if my hair is just like yours,” the boy, who is black, told Obama.

“So, what do you think?” Obama asked.

“Yes, it does feel the same,” the boy said.

The 2009 photo, taken just months after Obama assumed office, captured the nation’s wonder with its first black president. Even powerful politicians took note.

“When I got up in the morning and I saw that photo in the newspapers, I was just so moved that I called the president — you know, I don’t call him very much — and I said, ‘Boy, that picture. That said it all,’ ” Reid recalled. “And I said, ‘I want you to get me a copy of that.’ ”

Reid didn’t get just any copy. His is signed by the president: “To Harry — This is the change you helped make happen!”

The president’s handwritten message underscores Reid’s behind-the-scenes work during the 2008 campaign. But he is modest when asked about the role he played to get Obama elected over Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

“It was nice of the president to say that,” he said with a shy smile. “That was a very important picture for me.”

The president’s message also smoothes over private comments Reid made during the campaign about Obama having a real chance at winning because he is “light-skinned” and talks “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Reid apologized for the comments when they came to light in 2010.

Five years after the photo was taken, Reid said the image hasn’t lost its impact. The 74-year-old said it reminds him of how much race relations have improved.

“That is a story that is just so remarkable how our world has changed,” Reid said. “I’ve seen it change and felt it change.”

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