The First Friend: Paul Laxalt of Nevada

OBITUARY: Sen. Paul Laxalt Dies at 96

On February 24, 1986, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines was fresh off a doubtful election victory marked by violence and fraud and had a country in protest over him. He was barricaded in the capitol and called Senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada, asking “Senator what should I do?” and he responded, “I think you should cut, and cut cleanly. I think the time has come” (Ahern). Marcos resigned not long after. You see, Paul Laxalt (1922-2018) wasn’t just some senator: he was President Ronald Reagan’s best friend in Washington and thus could be said to speak for the president, and Marcos knew this.  Although Pat McCarran was the most influential Nevada senator of the 20th century, I would say that Laxalt was a close second.

Laxalt’s political career began in 1950 when he successfully ran for district attorney of Ormsby County, Nevada, serving until 1954. In 1962, he ran for Lieutenant Governor on the ticket with Lieutenant Governor Rex Bell for governor. However, Bell died of a heart attack while making a speech on the Fourth of July. Laxalt was urged to run in Bell’s place, but he chose to remain the nominee for lieutenant governor. Although the substitute nominee, Oran K. Gragson, was trounced on Election Day, Laxalt won his race by over 9,000 votes against former Congressman Berkeley Bunker. Through his television ads, he became known and liked throughout Nevada. In 1964, Laxalt attempted a run for the Senate, challenging first-term incumbent Howard Cannon. Although his campaign urged against him appearing with Barry Goldwater in Las Vegas, Laxalt considered him a friend and “political Godfather” and wouldn’t refrain from meeting him, saying that he would rather lose than decline. On Election Day, he believed that he would lose, and although he did, it was only by 48 votes in a controversial election result. Laxalt remained lieutenant governor and ran for governor in 1966 on the platform that Nevada should instead of resisting the FBI on the influence of the mob in casinos that they should cooperate. He also sought to distance his campaign from members of the John Birch Society. 1966 was a good year for the Republicans and Laxalt defeated Sawyer by nearly 6,000 votes. During his time as governor, he pushed corporate ownership of casinos and allowed Howard Hughes to buy multiple casinos without having to attend hearings, starting the corporate takeover of gambling in Nevada. He also befriended California Governor Ronald Reagan, also elected in 1966, and the two collaborated in conserving the Lake Tahoe region. Under Laxalt, Nevada got its first community colleges and its first medical school. Although he was popular and could have easily won reelection, he declined another term and left office in 1971.

In 1974, Laxalt was convinced to get back into politics and run for the Senate again. This time, he faced as his opponent future Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Yet again, this Senate race occurred in a difficult year for the GOP, and Reid was ahead in the polls, but he made a late mistake in the campaign by criticizing the finances of the Laxalt family. Paul Laxalt was able to bring out his sister Sue, a nun who had taken a vow of poverty, to the campaign. This mistake and Laxalt’s capitalizing on it cost Reid the election, and he prevailed by 642 votes. Laxalt proved an active senator from the start and was playing leading roles in pushing conservative causes. In 1975, he started a committee boosting Ronald Reagan for president against incumbent Gerald Ford. Laxalt reflected on that time, “I was almost by myself, it was a lonely scene” (Peterson). Indeed, few prominent people backed Reagan in that early stage. He would be joined by two more senators in support during the campaign, Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Richard Schweiker (R-Penn.), the former who was crucial in keeping Reagan’s campaign alive through his North Carolina primary win. Although Reagan failed in 1976, Laxalt was once again at the forefront of promoting him for president in 1979, which would ultimately start Reagan’s successful campaign for president. In 1978, he took the lead on opposing the ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty. His leadership was praised by both sides of the question in the debate and ultimately the treaty prevailed on April 18th 68-32.

Upon the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, Laxalt became the “First Friend”, and served as an unofficial liaison between the Senate and the White House. They were close to the extent that Laxalt could be said to speak for the Reagan Administration. He backed key initiatives and proposals of the Reagan Administration, such as his economic program of cutting taxes in 1981 as well as partially rolling them back in 1982. This support included some of the administration’s more controversial stances, such as opposing sanctions on South Africa in 1986. In 1983, President Reagan wanted him to be chair of the Republican National Committee, but this was legally impossible, so an arrangement was set that Laxalt would be “general chair”, while Frank Fahrenkopf, also a Nevadan, would be “national chair”. He would be in this position until 1987.  

In 1985, Laxalt announced that he wouldn’t run for reelection for personal reasons despite the efforts of many Republicans to persuade him otherwise. His lifetime MC-Index score was a 93%. Harry Reid won the 1986 election against former Democratic Congressman Jim Santini by over five points. Laxalt stayed in Washington to continue to assist President Reagan in an unofficial capacity. In April 1987, he announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president. However, although Laxalt was a personal friend of Reagan, questions dogged him about his connections in Nevada to mob figures despite his moving the state in the direction of corporate-owned rather than mob-owned casinos. Enthusiasm for his bid was not particularly strong and by late August he dropped out, finding himself unable to attract sufficient donations to compete in a crowded primary as well as against higher-profile candidates like Vice President George H.W. Bush, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, and even Representative Jack Kemp of New York, the latter whom had spearheaded the Reagan tax cuts.

Laxalt subsequently practiced law and formed a consulting firm, The Paul Laxalt Group. His grandson, Adam Laxalt, served as Nevada’s attorney general from 2015 to 2019 and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018. Laxalt died on August 6, 2018, four days after his 96th birthday.

References

Ahern, T. (1986, February 25). “Cut And Cut Cleanly,” Laxalt Advises Marcos In Dramatic Call. The Associated Press.

Retrieved from

https://apnews.com/article/25ef78113ad707b046226114a25c037d

Peterson, B. (1979, March 8). Reagan-for-President Committee Is Formed, But He Hasn’t Announced Candidacy – Yet. The Washington Post.

Retrieved from

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1979/03/08/reagan-for-president-committee-is-formed-but-he-hasnt-announced-candidacy-yet/80d0d3ce-4e80-405a-9a2e-77e7f678caab/

Ralston, J. (2018, August 12). Paul Laxalt: The man, the myth, the legend. The Nevada Independent.

Retrieved from

https://thenevadaindependent.com/article/paul-laxalt-the-man-the-myth-the-legend

Tretreault, S. (2018, August 6). Paul Laxalt, former Nevada governor, senator, dies at 96. Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Retrieved from

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