Nevada Yesterdays is written by UNLV history professor, Michael Green, and is supported by Nevada Humanities.
When Paul Laxalt left the governor’s office as 1971 began, he wasn’t done with politics. After operating the Ormsby House, he decided to run for the Senate in 1974. Nevada’s senior senator, Alan Bible, was retiring. Laxalt won the general election that fall against the lieutenant governor, Democrat Harry Reid, by 624 votes. That was the year of Richard Nixon’s resignation, and it was the only Senate seat the Republican party gained. In turn, Bible retired early to let Laxalt be appointed and gain a few weeks of seniority.
Laxalt made a name in the Senate, but not for major legislation. He was a leader in the Republican fight against the treaty giving control of the Panama Canal to Panama. He almost immediately became national chairman for Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign. In 1976, Reagan lost to Gerald Ford, but when Ford lost, Reagan began looking toward 1980.
That year, in addition to handily winning reelection, Laxalt ran Reagan’s presidential campaign. His advice was great: speak from the heart and debate President Jimmy Carter.
Reagan’s election made Laxalt known as “the first friend.” He was asked about running for Senate majority leader and said Reagan already was going to call him first anyway. The leader, Howard Baker, gave Laxalt a special position in the Senate Republican leadership. Later, Laxalt suggested Baker as White House chief of staff after the Iran-Contra scandal.
As a senator, Laxalt had influence as Reagan’s closest friend and ally. That meant a lot of behind the scenes negotiating. He played an international role, helping push dictator Ferdinand Marcos to give up power in the Philippines. And he undoubtedly eased some political fights just by being himself: one of his Senate buddies was Ted Kennedy and, rest assured, they didn’t agree on the issues.
Laxalt also gave Nevada a new role in the nation’s capital. He brought Nevadans back east into key positions—Nevada Supreme Court Justice Cameron Batjer, Laxalt’s successor as Ormsby County district attorney, to chair the U.S. Parole Commission; Clark County Commissioner Bob Broadbent as head of the Bureau of Reclamation; and attorney Frank Fahrenkopf to run the national Republican party. Given Nevada’s reputation at the time for mob ties, Laxalt did a lot to make us look more respectable.
Laxalt decided not to seek reelection in 1986. He tried to save the seat for Republicans, but instead the winner was Reid—and after their earlier race, they became and remained good friends. Laxalt made a brief run for president in 1987 but realized he had entered too late and called it the worst four months of his life.
He had some other unpleasant moments. He wound up suing the McClatchy newspaper chain over a story claiming organized crime ties and skimming took place at the Ormsby House when his family owned it. They settled the suit, and McClatchy had to pay legal fees. Other outlets planned similar stories and decided not to run them. For his part, as Laxalt said, Nevada was different. He once said that turning down a contribution from Moe Dalitz of the Desert Inn would be like a Michigan politician turning down General Motors.
Laxalt understood the old Nevada and helped shape the new. As Reagan’s close ally, he was a founding father of the modern conservative Republican movement. Tall Paul stood tall, indeed.
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