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Commentary: ‘Hold for the Majority Leader, please’

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I had been Publisher of the Elko Daily Free Press for less than six months when my office phone rang on the afternoon of Monday, April 11, 2011. I barely had time to say “hello” before a voice interjected, “hold for the Majority Leader, please.”

And so, I held for the Majority Leader.

Now, for those of you who never voted for Harry Reid – and that is most of you – I suspect you may be leery of yet another “tribute to Harry” nearly two weeks after his death. Good news; this is not that. I never met Harry Reid, didn’t know Harry Reid, and except for that 15-minute call nearly eleven years ago, his passing on December 28 would have been completely obscured by the death of John Madden that same day.

So, after holding for the Majority Leader, Reid quickly got to the point. He wanted to talk about the importance of the Cowboy Poetry Festival – not only for those of us who lived or worked in Elko – but for everyone in the State of Nevada.

Or perhaps he really wanted to talk about proposed drastic funding cuts for both the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

As it turns out, he wanted to talk about both; about how these two federal “endowments” were responsible for the existence and the continuation of our very own Cowboy Poetry Festival. He wanted to make sure that we in Elko understood the connection, and he wanted us to know he could care less about the national harpooning he was enduring for using the Cowboy Poetry Festival as proof of the need the country has for federal funding for the arts.

And what fun the national media was having at his – and our – expense. A month earlier, speaking from the floor of the Senate, Reid had said “The National Endowment of the Humanities is the reason we have in northern Nevada every year a cowboy poetry festival.” The reaction had been brutal, with those opposed to arts funding saying “if the taxpayer-subsidized cowpoke poetry festival is the best example the Senate Majority Leader can find to illuminate the devastation that GOP cuts would bring to bear, we may be getting somewhere.”

But of course, using the Cowboy Poetry Festival may well not have been the best example. But it was his example; it was our example. And Reid was absolutely right in stating that we would not have our Cowboy Poetry Festival without the NEA, because they provided two seed grants to the Western Folklife Center in 1985 that got the ball rolling.

He likely saved NEA and NEH funding in 2011 and again in 2015 by encouraging his fellow Senators to consider the local and regional arts events in 49 other states that would not exist if not for ongoing arts funding.

As I said at the outset, most of us were not huge Harry Reid fans. His politics rubbed many the wrong way, and with the exception of 2004, he never got more than 30 percent of the Elko County vote in his four other Senate victories.

But on April 11, 2011 Reid wanted me to know that he cared about Elko and the Cowboy Poetry Festival we hold so dear. He wanted readers of the Free Press to know as well, but likely due to an extreme case of “busy-ness”, I never took the time to share the story of his call.

Until now. Perhaps in this, the second consecutive January that we’ve not had an in-person Cowboy Poetry Festival, we can more fully appreciate the reason we have one at all, and admit – even if somewhat grudgingly – that Harry Reid cared about us and our annual Cowboy Poetry gathering.

John Pfeifer was Publisher of the Elko Daily Free Press from 2010-2013. Following a 30+ year career in the newspaper industry, Pfeifer is Development Specialist for The Women’s Center in Carbondale, Illinois: an organization that provides support and services to survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

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