Inside The Beltway
The Ironies And Enigma Of Paul Laxalt
by Michael Green
When someone dies at the age of 96 after years of failing health, it isn’t necessarily a surprise. But somehow, it seemed impossible to think of Paul Laxalt not being a presence in Washington and in Nevada. But you don’t have to be in the history dodge to realize that his presence will always loom large.
The obituaries in The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as assorted coverage locally, told plenty of details about his life. We need not do all of that here. But it’s interesting to consider his impact, and some of the ways in which his impact was both ironic and enigmatic—ironic in that what he intended wasn’t necessarily what happened, and enigmatic in that his overall importance is obvious but can’t be known for reasons that he was happy to be responsible for.
Let’s start with why Paul Laxalt’s name belongs in the history book where a lot of other people will remain anonymous and deserve to be. At the state level, Laxalt did a great deal to make the Republican Party into a going concern. Nationally, the period from 1932 to 1980 was largely of Democratic dominance: Republicans controlled the White House for 16 of the 48 years, and Congress for only four of those years. Nevada wasn’t much different: Republicans served as governor for 16 of those years, and held U.S. Senate seats for 18 years—and then, only one of the seats.
Laxalt helped change that, by winning and by building. Just about every prominent Republican in Nevada in the last 40 years or so has, at some point, tied herself or himself to Laxalt, if she or he wasn’t already (Governor Brian Sandoval interned in his office, and Laxalt was the not entirely invisible hand involved in his old friend and ally Chic Hecht’s 1982 upset of Senator Howard Cannon, for example). Democrats now have been on the outside of the governor’s mansion looking in for 20 years, and what Laxalt did in the decades before had something to do with that.
Nationally, he was a vastly underrated figure. Ronald Reagan certainly was the heart and soul of what was called the “Reagan Revolution,” which reversed the previous trend: since 1980, Democrats have occupied the White House for 16 years, and a couple of their elections relied on factors that hadn’t affected them before (Ross Perot’s involvement in 1992, and the Great Recession in 2008), and Republicans have controlled Congress or one house of it for much of the period.
We don’t know exactly how important Laxalt was to that success because he declined to talk about it—offered many opportunities to write a “kiss and tell” or “insider” book, he wrote an autobiography with limited publication and, for those of us who wanted to know, an infuriating lack of inside baseball. He resolved not to cash in on his ties to Reagan in that way, and nobly stuck with it. He did play a role in ejecting Ferdinand Marcos from the Philippines and in leading the fight against the Panama Canal treaty, and both of those events obviously were important, but he wasn’t a legislative dynamo or renowned Senate orator, and didn’t pretend to be.
But we do know that Laxalt chaired Reagan’s three presidential campaigns and the Republican Party. While he was careful not to be “operational” chair of the party, he gave that duty to a friend and ally, Frank Fahrenkopf. And his advice to and work for Reagan politically—everything from avoiding sticking too closely to notes to how to prepare for the second presidential debate in 1984 after the disastrous first debate—had major effects. He was known as the “First Friend,” he was named a member of the Republican Senate leadership after Reagan’s election in an unprecedented move that acknowledged his closeness to him, and he was the preference of both Reagans to be the running-mate in 1980. If all of that doesn’t suggest incredible significance, nothing does.
Then there is his story. He was the son of a Basque sheepherder and boardinghouse operator who becomes one of the nation’s most powerful people. He was the oldest brother in a family of incredible achievers, including a brother who became the greatest writer born in Nevada (unless you count that Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain while in Nevada, which would make Robert second, but no less great), and they did it without a father always being present since he was in the hills, and therefore some of the parental responsibility fell on Paul.
All of this makes Paul Laxalt a nationally significant figure, one of two Nevada politicians still in need of a major biography that will help explain the entire country in their time—and the other one lost to Laxalt in one Senate race, defeated his hand-picked successor in another one, and in spite of all that, they became good friends. Yes, Harry Reid.
And thus some of the ironies.
Laxalt was a father of the modern conservative movement, starting with his rise in Nevada as titans like Reagan and Barry Goldwater were at the forefront. If this movement has stood for anything, it certainly has stood against government—the problem, as Reagan put it, not the solution.
Yet when Laxalt won the governorship in 1966, it helped him in his campaign that he defended a federal agency. His opponent, two-term governor Grant Sawyer, had a corrosive relationship with the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover. He was one of the few politicians to be publicly critical of the agency. Laxalt defended Hoover, who was then an iconic figure (and to some he still is; to others, he was evil incarnate). Laxalt had no reason to believe that what would later be known about Hoover’s activities would come out. But if you want to think about the craziness that is Nevada politics, a liberal Democrat was attacking a federal agency for overreaching, and a conservative Republican was defending it.
Once elected, Laxalt presided over an expansion of Nevada government. He pushed for the Corporate Gaming Act, which ultimately would lead to the need for additional investigators and investigations. More crucially, in terms of how our government functions, he often is called the father of the state’s community colleges and medical school. Both began during his tenure, and with his ardent support.
He also loved Lake Tahoe, and saw that it was in environmental danger. His predecessor, Grant Sawyer, had been working with California’s governor, Pat Brown on this; both Sawyer and Brown lost their bids for third terms in 1966. Laxalt began working with his California counterpart, who had defeated Brown, on saving it. He and Reagan agreed on the need for a government agency—an irony that Laxalt himself found delicious, given their views of government. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency resulted.
It certainly should not be considered a partisan statement to say that the Republican Party today has issues with the question of climate change and opposes a large number of environmental regulations. Laxalt certainly didn’t want much government regulation. But it’s an irony of his life that his greatest accomplishments as governor—and he was justly proud of them—did expand government.
Chairing Reagan’s campaigns, and then being the First Friend, Laxalt changed perceptions of Nevada. He didn’t look like one of the old Senate bulls, and he didn’t look like a gangster or a lounge lizard. He also brought Nevadans into key jobs where they demonstrated the same attributes—state Supreme Court Justice Cameron Batjer to the Parole Commission, Clark County Commissioner Bob Broadbent to the Bureau of Reclamation, Fahrenkopf to the national GOP. Before that, as governor, Laxalt’s support for the Corporate Gaming Act and for easing Howard Hughes’s way into Nevada was designed to remove the stigma of organized crime. He wasn’t entirely successful at the time, but corporate gaming certainly has changed the landscape.
Yet he also had problems with the old perceptions. Laxalt once said that for a Nevada politician to turn down a donation from Moe Dalitz was like a Michigan politician denying General Motors. Dalitz had a mob past and many believed he had a mob present. He ended up suing the McClatchy newspaper chain for libel over a story alleging skimming at the hotel his family owned. Both CBS News 60 Minutes and ABC News worked on stories alleging that he tacked too closely to organized crime, then chose not to run them over doubts about their main source, former FBI Agent in Charge for Nevada Joe Yablonsky. As a senator, Lazalt reportedly tried to force Yablonsky’s removal from Nevada and, despite his ties to Reagan, could not do so.
The whole story about Laxalt, Yablonsky, and the mob is a lot more complicated than this paragraph, which is truly a Reader’s Digest condensed version. And the ironies in that story abound—from Laxalt’s efforts to get rid of the mob to how he once benefited from the FBI and ended up feeling differently about it, or at least one of its agents.
Another irony involves his national political rise. Laxalt left the governorship after one term. In 1974, he made a political comeback, winning the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Alan Bible’s retirement. In that year of Richard Nixon’s resignation, it was the only seat Republicans gained. Bible then resigned early so that another Democrat, Governor Mike O’Callaghan, could appoint Laxalt to the Senate before the next session began and gain a few weeks of seniority, which benefited Laxalt and for which he was grateful. Almost immediately upon entering the Senate, he wound up chairing Reagan’s campaign against the sitting Republican president, Gerald Ford. Laxalt felt uncomfortable about it and tried to make clear that the issue to him wasn’t that Ford wasn’t good, but that Reagan would be better. And Laxalt always pointed out that Ford treated him absolutely fairly and respectfully at all times, despite this political difference.
As a senator, Laxalt was close to his fellow conservative Republicans like Goldwater and Jesse Helms. He also became a good friend and tennis partner of a senator from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy. Just as Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill could sit down at the end of the day, have drinks, and tell stories, Laxalt believed in comity, in friendship. He didn’t have to agree with Kennedy to enjoy being around him, and vice versa—that certainly was true of Kennedy as well. And remember Laxalt’s friendship with Reid.
Thus the irony. A few years ago, Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Republican, played a round of golf with President Barack Obama, a Democrat. They thought that would be a good thing and just might ease some tensions. It appears to have been a pleasant experience, and Obama called Boehner about doing it again. Boehner replied that he couldn’t because his caucus had given him no end of grief about even playing golf with Obama.
Laxalt didn’t create this political atmosphere. We all can argue over who and what did, but looking for one moment or person is a ridiculous exercise. We also tend to forget that Laxalt played rough, too. No politician, no matter how nice a person, goes as high and far as Laxalt did without occasionally chopping up someone. It may be nice to think otherwise, but it would be ridiculous to deny it. Laxalt was tough. He had to be, from his boyhood on.
That’s the final irony, and the enigma. Laxalt often seemed to float above it all, and in a good way. Although he certainly had his unpleasant relationships, as we all do, people liked him, regardless of their political affiliation. One of the ways he developed such high levels of friendship and trust from others was that he didn’t spill secrets, about those to whom he was close, or about himself. They called him Tall Paul, and he truly stood tall.