When Bobby Baker died at age 89, a lot of people probably didn’t know who he was or remember his name. But once he was one of America’s most powerful men … and he had some connections to Nevada.
Baker came to Washington at age 14 as a Senate page. He stayed there, and joined the Senate staff. In the mid-1950s, he became secretary to the Senate majority for the leader, Lyndon Johnson. He also worked for himself, and did quite nicely.
Baker was a vital cog in the Senate machine. Any Senate leader has to be able to know how to count votes. The leader also has to be able to win over the reluctant or the waffling. Baker could count the votes, and he knew whose buttons to push.
Eventually, his lifestyle got him into trouble. He invested in everything from ranches to gambling. He became a millionaire. Just before John Kennedy’s assassination, it came out that Baker co-owned a bar, the Quorum Club, near Capitol Hill, as well as a condo complex. Both places provided a variety of services that members of Congress didn’t want their constituents or their wives to know about. When an angry investor sued Baker, the Senate investigated and Baker resigned his position. Soon, LBJ became president. A few years later, Baker went to prison on charges of tax evasion, fraud, and theft, serving 16 months. He hoped for a pardon, and he rebuilt his life, but he never had the same influence again.
His Nevada connections were personal, political, and at times profitable. In 1949, he married Dorothy Comstock, who worked for the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. Its chair was Pat McCarran. Back then, since the state had no law school, Nevadans who wanted to become lawyers would attend school in the DC area and work on congressional patronage. McCarran put at least 50 people through school that way. Baker got to know them through his wife.
Through his Senate job, he got to know Nevada’s elected officials, including Jack Conlon, the top aide to Senator Howard Cannon. Baker and Conlon spent many happy hours together at the bar of the Quorum Club. Cannon knew Baker anyway from the Senate and showed up at the opening of a motel that Baker owned in Maryland. An investor in one of Baker’s enterprises was Ed Levinson, a Las Vegas casino operator accused of mob ties. When Baker faced a Senate investigation, it fell to the Rules Committee. Cannon was a member. The Rules Committee couldn’t and didn’t do much about it, but it didn’t help Cannon. When he ran for reelection in 1964, his opponent, Lieutenant Governor Paul Laxalt, made the Baker scandal an issue. Cannon barely won in an overwhelmingly Democratic year, suggesting that the attacks hurt him.
That year, Ralph Denton ran for the House and lost in the primary. He had been a McCarran Boy and got to know Baker. They remained friends. Denton once said, “Bobby never did anything he wasn’t taught by his parents—namely, the Senate, where he grew up.” He and Baker wound up in a shouting match at the 1960 Democratic convention when Denton supported Kennedy and Baker supported Johnson. Yet, somehow, Ralph Denton and Bobby Baker remained friends despite disagreeing about something in politics. Wow. Imagine that.
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