PROVO — U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 "the worst foreign policy blunder in our country's history" during a speech Tuesday at Brigham Young University.
A substantial portion of the 4,091 students, faculty, staff and visitors at the Marriott Center for the University Forum applauded Reid's statement. An equal number then applauded when he gave equal time to the other side: "Some say this war of choice was our only reasonable alternative."
The senator from Nevada's wide-ranging, well-received talk covered his rise from an impoverished childhood and the constant questions about his membership in the Democrat Party and in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"It is not uncommon for members of the church to ask how I can be a Mormon and a Democrat," he said. "Some of you have wondered, too, huh?"
Reid said the Republican majority among church members is simply cyclical. "Democrats have not always been in the minority, and I believe we won't be for too long."
Reid believes his faith informs his politics. "I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it," he said.
He discussed his faith, bearing testimony of his belief in Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, the Book of Mormon and the prophethood of both church founder Joseph Smith and LDS Church president Gordon B. Hinckley.
He also described his and his family's faithfulness, noting that all five of his children attended BYU and married in LDS temples. The three boys served LDS missions.
"Prayer has always been an important part of my adult life," he said.
Abortion is a major reason many LDS turn to Republican circles, but Reid called himself is proof someone can be pro-life and a Democrat, and said he has been so through 25 years in Congress.
Calling his position as leader of Senate Democrats "the world's best job," he declined to take sides in the Democratic presidential primary.
What about fellow Mormon Mitt Romney, who is running for the Republican nomination?
"I hope that Mitt Romney's presidential bid is determined by his political stands, and not his religion," Reid said, drawing applause from the majority of the audience.
Reid spent the first half of his 40-minute speech describing his journey from an underprivileged, non-religious childhood in tiny Searchlight, Nev., to his position as the highest-ranking Mormon in American government.
Reid and his wife Landra joined the LDS Church while students at Utah State University. The Reids now have 16 grandchildren.
Reid said his hero is Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
"Social security is the most successful social program in the history of the world," he said. "Roosevelt tackled the greatest economic crisis we ever had with the three Rs: relief, recovery and reform. And let's not forget, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the commander-in-chief of the greatest military ever assembled at a time of great crisis in the world."
Reid credited unions with creating the 40-hour work week, decent wages for workers and safe working conditions. He called global warming an environmental emergency.
At the end of his speech, Reid earned a standing ovation from a small percentage of the crowd and grateful applause from the rest.
"I was impressed with him," said Stacie Borneman, a 22-year-old political science major from Farmington who said she is a Republican. "I thought he did a good job expressing his feelings and our responsibility to serve in our communities."
There were no organized protests of Reid's visit and no protest signs. One person did walk out between the end of Reid's speech and the traditional closing prayer and called out that students should not be deceived by Reid.
"It's good to hear differing opinions and to be respectful even if you don't agree politically," Borneman said, "and he gave both sides of the issues he raised."
Reid encouraged students to give public service and told them the American dream is alive.
His father was a hard-rock miner. To make ends meet, his mother took in laundry from the town's 13 brothels.
"I learned in America, it doesn't matter the education of your parents, what their religion is or isn't, their social status — we had none — the color of their skin or their economic status.
"I am an example of this. If I made it, anyone can."