Growing up a Democratic activist in conservative Idaho shaped Bruce Reed’s life in national politics, much of it spent in the White House and on the campaign trail.
“Out here I learned that you can’t take anybody’s vote for granted. You have to earn it,” Reed told a roomful of Idaho lawyers and judges Thursday in Coeur d’Alene.
Addressing the Idaho State Bar’s annual meeting, the 53-year-old Lake City native and chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden reflected on his childhood, early days in politics and nearly three decades of working in Washington, D.C.
“The truth is, almost everything that I know about the way I see the world comes from what I learned growing up here,” he said.
The son of former Idaho state Sen. May Lou Reed and environmental attorney Scott Reed, he served as President Bill Clinton’s domestic policy adviser, worked closely with Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, and often is described as a centrist Democrat, party reformer and champion of bipartisanship.
In his second executive branch stint, he directed President Barack Obama’s deficit commission before Biden tapped him to be his chief of staff in early 2011.
“When I worked at the White House the first time, 20 years ago, I was so young that people would make fun of me,” Reed said. “Now the young staffers say, ‘Wow, you were here in ’90s? That is so ‘West Wing.’ ”
He also joked about how he and Biden differ. “He’s a constitutional scholar and foreign policy expert. I’m a (Law School Admission Test) dropout and the Sarah Palin of chiefs of staff,” he told the audience. “I spent my youth in Idaho, I know nothing about foreign policy, I can’t even see Russia from my house.”
At the start of this year, Reed was the chief architect of the administration’s gun-control proposals – widely detested in rural states like Idaho – that came in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre and other mass shootings.
On Thursday, he played down politics and spoke fondly and with profuse self-deprecation of his formative years in North Idaho, where he cut his teeth on political activism and was well acquainted with defeat, including his work on 16 consecutive losing campaigns.
“Frank Church served four successful terms in the Senate before I took a year off from college and helped him get beat,” Reed quipped.
“My own mother put off running for office for 20 years waiting for me to leave the state, then won six elections in a row without my help,” he added.
He recalled how he was influenced by his parents’ values.
“Our home was always a campaign headquarters for something: environment, mental health, public schools,” he said. “Our basement was like an underground railroad for progressive leaders from around the West. It’s still a little bit that way.”
The young Reed made posters and stuffed envelopes for his mother’s causes and helped get out the vote for local Democrats. “There were Democratic voters to target in those days,” he said, drawing laughs.
His father, credited with helping save Tubbs Hill from development, once told him that “the only way to break new ground is to take cases worth losing, so he’s always done that.”
It wasn’t until he graduated from Princeton University and Oxford University, went to work writing speeches for then-Sen. Al Gore, and became attached to Bill Clinton’s run for president that Reed was able to enjoy success in politics.
“I had a front-row seat in re-electing two Democratic presidents, which is an exceptionally rare privilege in American history,” he said. “But I wouldn’t trade anything for all the losing campaigns and seemingly lost causes that this place gave me. Idaho was the best political education anybody could ever ask for.”