WASHINGTON -- Harry Reid isn't known for hyperbole. The soft-spoken Senate majority leader tends to wield his power behind the scenes, and when he does speak at his weekly press briefing, reporters lean in and bend their ears to make out the words.
But if Reid is lied to, all that changes. It may sound dissonant to the public to say that honesty is the mostly highly valued quality in Washington. But while members of Congress may lie to their constituents with regularity, lying to one another is considered an unforgiveable sin.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, the Nevada Democrat savaged Bill Magwood, a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, when asked if he thought the Democrat had a chance to become NRC chairman.
"You know, when you're in this government, this business of politics, the only thing that you have is your word," said Reid, seated in his Capitol office. "I can be as partisan as I have to be, but I always try to be nice. I try never to say bad things about people. Bill Magwood is one of the" -- Reid paused, deciding which adjective to reach for, before picking them all -- "most unethical, prevaricating" -- he paused again, this time for 10 full seconds -- "incompetent people I've ever dealt with. The man sat in that chair -- right there -- and lied to me. I've never, ever in my life had anyone do that. Never."
Magwood didn't respond to a request for comment left with his assistant.
Reid is a vociferous opponent of storing nuclear waste in Nevada's Yucca Mountain. By backing Obama early in his campaign for president, he persuaded the candidate to promise to block the project. A former staffer of Reid's was named chairman, and Reid said he was assured by Pete Rouse, a senior White House official, that Magwood would also oppose Yucca. Instead, according to Reid and confirmed by sources familiar with the internal dynamics of the NRC, Magwood worked against the effort to shut down Yucca.
"That man I will never, ever forget what a treacherous, miserable liar he is. I met with him because Pete Rouse asked me to meet with him. I said, 'Is he OK on Yucca Mountain?' Pete said, 'Yeah.' So I went through some detail with him as to how important this was to me. 'Senator, I know this industry like the back of my hand. You don't have to worry about me,' [Magwood said]. And the conversation was much deeper than that."
Late in 2011, HuffPost reported that Magwood was working with Republicans and the nuclear industry to oust then-NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko, just as he had done to his boss Terry Lash at the Department of Energy in the 1990s.
"What I eventually found was that he had been deceptive and disloyal," Lash said of his then-number two, when told what Reid said. "I'm surprised at the strength of it, but it's certainly consistent with what I've seen."
Reid and Lash have company in their critique of Magwood. In the earlier story about Magwood and the industry, multiple people who've worked closely with him questioned his integrity, but none did so on the record like Reid and Lash:
Magwood built a reputation at the Department of Energy as a sharp-elbowed operator. "He was a consummate inside player, a bureaucratic power player of the first order," recalled a former Department of Energy colleague, who, like many others interviewed for this story, requested anonymity because his current work has him interacting regularly with industry clients.
But that level of ambition is hard to contain over a long period of time in a relatively small industry. Every source to whom HuffPost spoke for this story referred to other players, whether friends or foes, by their first names. Magwood never understood it's a small world. "He always struck me as a guy who thought he was playing in a bigger political pond than he was. I mean, there are about 50 people here in town who care about nuclear energy. So it seemed like a lot of politics for no good reason," said one Democratic lobbyist who worked in the Senate while Magwood served in the Department of Energy.
Reid's public rebuke makes it nearly impossible for Magwood to attain the chairmanship. Even if Reid leaves the Senate, it would be difficult for Magwood to overcome such a judgment having been rendered.
In June, Magwood's internal wrangling against Jaczko culminated in the chairman's resignation. Magwood was immediately floated as a replacement chairman, but the Obama administration, aware of Reid's opinion of Magwood, passed him over. The term of the new chair, Allison Macfarlane, ends in 2013.
Reid said that Magwood's behind-the-scenes maneuvering was unforgivable. "He's a first-class rat. He lied to Rouse, he lied to me, and he had a plan. He is a tool of the nuclear industry. A tool," Reid said. "Magwood was a shit-stirrer. He did everything he could do to embarrass Greg Jaczko." Reid has donated $10,000 to help Jaczko pay the considerable legal bills he racked up defending against Magwood's allegations.
Jaczko was "the first chair that has never been part of the nuclear industry," Reid said, explaining the intense opposition. "That commission was a tool to the nuclear industry. Greg Jaczko, this young guy, he of course worked for me. He was against Yucca Mountain. But they knew that going in."
Reid can tolerate ideological or political disagreement, he said, as long as his opponent is honest. He cited GOP Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, a former aide for Larry Craig (R-Idaho). "I have no problem with her, she told us who she is. I mean, you know, [Calif. Sen. Barbara] Boxer is upset at her because Boxer thinks she didn't level with her, but I have no problem with her, cause we knew what she was going in there: she was a tool of the industry. That's most everybody that's gone in there, so she had a qualification that fit into the past recipients of going to that agency."
Reid said that he wasn't looking to eviscerate Magwood and would have kept his concerns private if he hadn't been asked. "I have told Pete Rouse what I think, but no one publicly has ever asked me. I didn't feel it was appropriate to bring it up. You brought it up, and I do not have words to describe how little I think of this person. And as long as I have this job, he will never be chairman of anything that takes Senate confirmation."
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this article, Larry Craig's political affiliation and state were listed incorrectly.
Lee Atwater: Smear Pioneer
Negative campaigning has become more effective since 1828, though at times no less brutal. Many attribute this growing efficiency to the legacy of Republican strategist Lee Atwater. The former RNC chairman may have been best known as a driving force behind political ads such as the iconic <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Io9KMSSEZ0Y" target="_hplink">Willie Horton commercial</a> against Michael Dukakis in 1988, but his past involvement in smear campaigns is much deeper. Slate <a href="http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2008/09/mr_wedge_issue.html" target="_hplink">reports</a> on Atwater's earlier career: <blockquote>In 1973, the 22-year-old protégé of South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond began his consulting career by publicizing the fact that Tom Turnipseed, a candidate for the state Senate, had undergone shock therapy as a young man: "They hooked him up to jumper cables" became the catchphrase that sunk Turnipseed's candidacy. Five years later, Atwater helped to defeat Max Heller, a Holocaust survivor running for U.S. Congress, by secretly enlisting a third candidate to enter the race and stir up anti-Semitic sentiment. Atwater finagled his way into a minor post in the Reagan administration, but it was as the director of George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign (and mastermind of the Willie Horton TV ads) that he found his true Machiavellian voice.</blockquote>
The Wrong Jim Brady
The potential perils of attack politics were on full display in 1996 when then-GOP Senate candidate Al Salvi attempted to knock down a high-profile endorsement given to his opponent, then-Rep. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), by former Ronald Reagan Press Secretary Jim Brady. Brady "used to sell" machine guns, Salvi alleged, a strong claim considering Brady's position as strong advocate for gun control and victim of a gunshot wound to the head during a failed assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981. Salvi was wrong. "Turns out that was a different Jim Brady," a blushing Salvi was later <a href="http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1996-11-02/news/9611020079_1_o-malley-event-gun-control-assault-weapons" target="_hplink">forced to admit</a>. "I apologize." Salvi ended up losing to Durbin.
Attacking A Triple-Amputee For Lack Of Courage
In 2002, Saxby Chambliss, then a Georgia GOP congressman mounting a bid for U.S. Senate, released a controversial ad <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A58371-2004Sep28.html" target="_hplink">falsely accusing</a> then-Sen. Max Cleland (D), a triple-amputee Vietnam War veteran, of voting against the nation's national security interest. It placed Cleland next to images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and suggested that the senator lacked "courage." Chambliss, who didn't serve in Vietnam because of a bad knee, drew widespread condemnation from Republican military veterans in the Senate such as Arizona Sen. John McCain and Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel. In a 2008 interview, Chambliss, who had eventually gone on to defeat Cleland six years earlier, <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2008/11/13/32286/chambliss-cleland-truthful/" target="_hplink">stood by his ad</a> as "truthful in every way."
Jean Schmidt Blasts 'Cowards'
Long before Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) uttered <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/29/jean-schmidt-reacts-health-care-ruling_n_1638335.html" target="_hplink">shrieks of joy</a> because of false reports that the Supreme Court had ruled against Obamacare, she outraged colleagues on the House floor by suggesting that Vietnam veteran Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.), was a "coward." In 2005, Schmidt addressed her colleagues in a House speech, <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2005/11/18/2603/schmidt-shame/" target="_hplink">relaying a message</a> from a Marine who she said had urged her to support an extension of the Iraq War. "He asked me to send Congress a message: Stay the course," she said. "He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message, that cowards cut and run, Marines never do. Danny and the rest of America and the world want the assurance from this body -- that we will see this through." She later returned to the House floor to have her remarks stricken from the record and to apologize to Murtha.
RNC's Harold Ford Hit
In 2006, the Republican National Committee set off bickering within and between political parties when it decided to air an ad in a Senate race between then-Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) and GOP candidate Bob Corker. The ad was chock-full of stereotypes and thinly-veiled racist undertones -- Ford is black. It drew widespread condemnation from both Democrats and Republicans, including Corker himself. Amid the flareup, RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman <a href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15403071/ns/politics/t/tennessee-ad-ignites-internal-gop-squabbling/" target="_hplink">said he found nothing wrong</a> with the ad, but attempted to blame the content on a third party group. Corker eventually won the election.
Palin's 'Palling Around With Terrorists'
In the heat of the 2008 presidential election, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin lofted a now-infamous charge, drawing immediate criticism from opponents who saw it as an attempt to brand then-candidate Barack Obama as un-American. Some even alleged that it was a racially charged character attack seeking to subtly link the supposed terrorist ties to prevalent right-wing conspiracy theories about Obama's so-called Muslim roots. The Associated Press <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/10/05/ap-palins-ayers-attack-ra_n_132008.html" target="_hplink">reports</a> on her comments: <blockquote>"Our opponent ... is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country," Palin told a group of donors in Englewood, Colo. A deliberate attempt to smear Obama, McCain's ticket-mate echoed the line at three separate events Saturday. "This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America," she said. "We see America as a force of good in this world. We see an America of exceptionalism."</blockquote>
'There Is No God'
In 2008, a floundering Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) released an ad attempting to accuse her opponent, Democrat Kay Hagan, of having mysterious ties to a group called Godless Americans. The entire ad struck many observers as a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/10/29/dole-ad-fabricates-audio_n_138874.html" target="_hplink">desperate attempt</a> to regain momentum, but the brunt of the controversy came in the last few seconds, when a faceless voice rings out, yelling "there is no God." Many saw it as an attempt to paint the quote as Hagan's. It wasn't. In fact, Hagan was a Sunday School teacher who served as an elder at her Presbyterian church.
Vintage Michele Bachmann
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) had a somewhat rapid ascent to her current status as darling of conservatives and the Tea Party faithful. It was accelerated in part by appearances such as this one in 2008, during which she called into question the "pro-America" views of the Obamas and various members of Congress. HuffPost's Sam Stein <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/10/17/gop-rep-channels-mccarthy_n_135735.html" target="_hplink">reported</a> at the time: <blockquote>In a television appearance that outraged Democrats are already describing as Joseph McCarthy politics, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann claimed on Friday that Barack Obama and his wife Michelle held anti-American views and couldn't be trusted in the White House. She even called for the major newspapers of the country to investigate other members of Congress to "find out if they are pro-America or anti-America." Appearing on MSNBC's Hardball, Bachmann went well off the reservation when it comes to leveling political charges against the Democratic nominee. "If we look at the collection of friends that Barack Obama has had in his life," she said, "it calls into question what Barack Obama's true beliefs and values and thoughts are. His attitudes, values, and beliefs with Jeremiah Wright on his view of the United States...is negative; Bill Ayers, his negative view of the United States. We have seen one friend after another call into question his judgment -- but also, what it is that Barack Obama really believes?"</blockquote>
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) embodied a newly emerging brand of hyper-partisanship in 2009 when he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/09/09/gop-rep-wilson-yells-out_n_281480.html" target="_hplink">interrupted</a> President Barack Obama's major speech on his health care reform package. "You lie!" Wilson yelled over Obama, who was explaining that the legislation would not mandate coverage for undocumented immigrants. Wilson's outburst drew disapproval from both sides of the aisle.
During the heat of the health care debate in 2010, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) added to the growing partisan discord when he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/22/randy-neugebauer-revealed_n_508525.html" target="_hplink">shouted "baby killer"</a> at Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) while he was delivering a speech on the House floor. Stupak, an anti-abortion Democrat, had been under heavy fire from Republicans after crafting a deal with the White House in return for his and other Democrats' "yes" vote on the health care reform bill. The White House held up their end of the bargain with an executive order affirming that no taxpayer money would go to fund abortions.
North Carolina GOP congressional candidate Renne Ellmers <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/23/renee-ellmers-gop-congres_n_735585.html" target="_hplink">raised some eyebrows</a> and gave her race national attention when she released an attack ad attempting to link her Democratic challenger to the controversial Park51 Islamic center. The ad was criticized for its apparent interchangeable use of the words "terrorists" and "Muslims," as well as the fact that Ellmers' opponent, incumbent Rep. Bob Etheridge (D) hadn't even weighed in on the issue yet. Ellmers didn't appear to do herself any favors in her <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/27/renee-ellmers-north-carol_n_740199.html" target="_hplink">attempts to explain the ad</a> during a contentious interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, but she ended up winning in November after a late surge of momentum.
Alan Grayson's 'Taliban Dan'
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) managed to give his opponent, Republican Dan Webster, a boost after he released an attack ad seeking to label Webster as "Taliban Dan." The spot featured selectively edited quotes from a 2009 Christian seminar that <a href="http://www.politifact.com/florida/article/2010/sep/28/fact-checking-alan-graysons-taliban-dan-webster-ad/" target="_hplink">misrepresented Webster's words</a> to suggest that he believed wives should submit to their husbands. Grayson had repeatedly enraged his Republican opponents with biting and at times over-the-top allegations. Comments such as his notorious charge that their health care plan was for Americans to "die quickly" had made him a top target for the GOP. He would lose his election to Webster.
Scott Brown Pictures Stripped Elizabeth Warren
Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) did himself no favors in the fall of 2011, when he returned a volley concerning his past nude modeling for <em>Cosmopolitan</em> magazine, a career choice that his Democratic opponent Elizabeth Warren had earlier jabbed at. HuffPost's Ryan Grim <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/06/scott-brown-elizabeth-warren-senate_n_998048.html" target="_hplink">reported</a>: <blockquote>"Have you officially responded to Elizabeth Warren's comment about how she didn't take her clothes off?" the host asked Brown Wednesday. "Thank God!" Brown said, laughing. The host got a kick out it, too. "That's what I said! I said, 'Look, can you blame a good-looking guy for wanting to, you know..."</blockquote> His opponents quickly <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2011/oct/06/news/la-pn-scott-brown-thank-god-20111006" target="_hplink">hit back</a>, claiming that the comments were sexist and "the kind of thing you would expect to hear in a frat house, not a race for U.S. Senate."
'Debbie Spend It Now'
Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) couldn't have picked a bigger stage to launch a now-notoriously insensitive ad against his Democratic opponent, incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow. In the middle of the Super Bowl, Hoekstra's campaign <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/06/pete-hoekstra-ad-china_n_1256791.html" target="_hplink">rolled out the spot</a>, which featured an Asian-American actress using stereotypically broken English to accuse Stabenow -- or "Spend-It-Now" -- of supporting U.S. government spending habits that benefitted the Chinese economy. The backlash was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/06/pete-hoekstra-ad-china-michigan_n_1256912.html" target="_hplink">bipartisan</a> and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/22/pete-hoekstra-polls-china-ad_n_1294221.html" target="_hplink">widespread</a>.
Though only a freshman, Tea Party favorite Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) has already staked his political fame on inflammatory and controversial statements. His most well-known claim is now perhaps his contention that as many as 80 House Democrats are members of the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/11/allen-west-democrats-communist-party_n_1417279.html" target="_hplink">Communist Party</a>. His spokesperson later claimed that he was referring to members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Of course, that's just one of a catalogue of Allen West-isms. Click through the slideshow <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/19/allen-west-communists_n_1437517.html" target="_hplink">here</a> for a larger sampling.
'True Hero' Battle
Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) began digging himself a hole in July when he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/03/joe-walsh-tammy-duckworth_n_1646793.html" target="_hplink">suggested</a> that his Democratic opponent, triple-amputee Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth, was not a "true hero" because she spoke too frequently about her military service. In the followup, Walsh kept digging deeper on the Duckworth line, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/05/joe-walsh-tammy-duckworth_n_1650805.html" target="_hplink">claiming</a> that "all she does" is "talk about her service," instead of focusing on other issues. He <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/05/joe-walsh-ashleigh-banfield_n_1652236.html" target="_hplink">took a similar angle</a> in a subsequent interview, in which he managed to utter his interviewer's name more than 90 times.