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Harry Reid, Yasser Arafat, magic dust: Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt has 1,000 stories to tell

SHARE Harry Reid, Yasser Arafat, magic dust: Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt has 1,000 stories to tell
President Bill Clinton gestures toward Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, and PLO leader Yasser Arafat shaking hands in the East Room of the White House after the Mideast accord signing on Sept. 28, 1995.

President Bill Clinton gestures toward Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, and PLO leader Yasser Arafat shaking hands in the East Room of the White House after the Mideast accord signing on Sept. 28, 1995.

Doug Mills, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Former Democratic Nevada Sen. Harry Reid played an unexpected role in Mike Leavitt securing a White House Cabinet post due to an encounter with the former GOP Utah governor's father decades earlier.

Leavitt was facing tough questions in a Senate confirmation hearing on his nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency when Reid, who was not a member of the committee, walked into the room and asked to be recognized.

Reid related that as a student at what is now Southern Utah University, he bought health insurance from Dixie Leavitt, a former state legislator and Mike Leavitt's father. Reid later moved away. His wife became pregnant and when they went to the hospital, there was no coverage.

"I'm thinking to myself, this is not going to be good," Leavitt recalls.

Reid went on to tell the committee that he called Dixie Leavitt and told him he bought the policy because he thought his wife might get pregnant. Dixie Leavitt asked him if he believed the policy had maternity coverage when he bought it. When Reid said he did, Dixie Leavitt told him to send the bills to him.

"I don't know much about Mr. Leavitt, but if he's anything like his father, he's good enough for me," Reid told the panel.

The other senators' questions pretty much stopped after that.

"Of course the lesson from that is how can you know that 50 or 60 years later, an act of honesty and an act of integrity would in fact bless the lives of someone a generation, two generations or three generations later," Leavitt said.

Leavitt shared that story and others at a BYU Management Society luncheon where he was the keynote speaker last week.

Leavitt, 67, told the group that he sat down with a notepad one Sunday evening to see if he could jot down a list of stories from his life as part of writing his personal history. He filled up the notepad without too much trouble and decided to go for 100 stories, and after reaching that fairly quickly, he set his sights on 1,000 stories.

"I'm not talking about big dramatic things. I'm talking about simply things that I remember that were somehow important to me as a I grew up, he said.

Leavitt said he didn't write the entire story but just a line such as, "Then Harry Reid walked into the hearing."

Elected to three terms as Utah governor, and in addition to leading the EPA, Leavitt served as Health and Human Services secretary in the George W. Bush administration. He currently heads a health care consulting firm and is chairman of the Count My Vote initiative.

At the luncheon, he passed out a list of 30 stories — he called it the "story jukebox" — and asked the audience to randomly call out the ones they wanted to hear. Some were touching, some were humorous and some were embarrassing.

Here are a few of the stories Leavitt told:

No surprises: Tradition held that as a new Cabinet member, Leavitt was to say the prayer at his first meeting. He said he received a call from the Cabinet manager telling him the prayer was to be no more than two minutes long. The phone rang again two minutes later with same person on the line reminding him there were some non-Christians on the Cabinet.

"Literally, about two minutes later I got a third call. 'Mr. Secretary, would you mind sending over some talking points on your prayer?' I said, "No, I'm not giving you talking points. … That's not the way I pray," Leavitt told the Cabinet manager.

Leavitt said one his greatest treasures is a book in which Bush had printed all the prayers given at Cabinet meetings

"It's such an interesting thing to read because you can see in the prayers of those offered by multiple denominations across many different traditions prayers for the country and for the nation. On more than one occasion, I can recall President Bush saying, 'I can feel your prayers,’" Leavitt said.

Weathering embarrassing moments: Leavitt was asked to introduce Idaho Sen. Larry Craig at a televised Republican governors' conference. Not wanting to recite the usual bio, Leavitt had his staff find some offbeat stories about Craig. One was about pigs and another was about a goat.

"In trying to make a transition between the story about the pigs and the goat, I just said, 'And speaking of animals,' and I looked at my paper to read the first line of the story and it was, 'Sen. Craig married his wife … '" Leavitt said.

The laughter, he said, went back and forth like the wave at a football game.

"It was a bad moment," Leavitt said.

Later that night, he said then-Gov. George W. Bush told him not to feel too bad because at least he didn't throw up on the prime minister of Japan as his father, former President George H.W. Bush, had done at a dinner in 1992.

Sir, your 3-year-old just drove a highway patrol car into a flower bed at the mansion: Leavitt said his "precocious" 3-year-old son, Weston, loved cars. He managed to get into a Utah Highway Patrol car with the keys in the ignition, start the car and put it into drive.

"I will tell you that's not the only like experience we had," Leavitt said.

Pocketful of magic dust: At recent a Western Governors' Association conference, Leavitt was asked what he missed most about not being in office. He said he realized it wasn't the favorable parking place, but the intimate relationship with people of the state. As a "public object" who others wanted to be around, Leavitt said he found he had an opportunity to lift people.

"It was almost as though you could minister to them in a very secular way," he said. "That you may say something to a 12-year-old and they would remember it. That could you go to someone's bedside and present them with a flag and they would remember it."

As governor, he said, he could encourage and reprove.

"I used to think it was like you would every day load up your pocket with dust and put it on people and they would feel dignified by the fact that you had done it," Leavitt said.

At the BYU Management Society luncheon, one member asked Leavitt to choose a story he would like to share.

Citing the pending summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Leavitt related how he came to have a seat at the signing of a peace agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel.

Leavitt and his wife, Jackie, traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Bill Clinton only to learn when they arrived at the hotel that the meeting the next day had been canceled.

The White House told him there had been secret negotiations between PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and that they were in Washington to sign a peace agreement. Because their meeting with Clinton had been canceled, the White House invited Leavitt and his wife to attend.

"They sat us right at the end of the peace treaty table," he said.

Leavitt said there was anxiety that the accord might not happen and whether Arafat and Rabin would shake hands. Tension mounted as hundreds of journalists and cameras awaited their arrival. About 40 minutes passed before Arafat, Rabin and Clinton walked in.

The two leaders signed the agreement and stepped back from the table.

"No one knew if they would shake hands. Then Bill Clinton put his arms out and brought them together, and they shook hands," Leavitt said.

Clinton then took the podium and called the accord a "brave gamble."

"The words 'a brave gamble' have been meaningful to me since that time," Leavitt said. He said he realized the upcoming meeting between the U.S. and North Korea is a brave gamble.

"There are lot of things that could go wrong here," he said. "But to me, it's the right thing for us to try."

Correction: An earlier version misspelled Yasser Arafat's first name as Yassir.