From Sam L. to John L., a lesson on 'roughing it' in Carson City

It might have been that last shot of tequila at the Tap House, but I'd swear the elderly gentleman who sat next to me was Mark Twain.

Tired of rolling over in his grave over the lack of progress at the Legislature, he'd come back to commiserate over the state of political affairs in Nevada, where he got his writing start as a reporter for Virginia City's Territorial Enterprise.

He remembered me from our past conversations and said, "Then there was John Smith. He was a good, honest, kind-hearted soul, born and reared in the lower ranks of life, and miraculously ignorant."

Glad to see you, too. May I buy you a drink?

"Never refuse to do a kindness unless the act would work great injury to yourself, and never refuse to take a drink -- under any circumstances," he said. "Of the demonstrably wise there are but two: those who commit suicide, and those who keep their reasoning faculties atrophied with drink."

I'll take that as a yes. And at this point, atrophied best describes the reasoning of the Legislature. If I didn't know better, I'd think we had a patent on political idiots. Why is that?

"Few men of first-class ability can afford to let their affairs go to ruin while they fool away their time in Legislatures. ... But your chattering, one-horse village lawyer likes it, and your solemn ass from the cow countries, who don't know the Constitution from the Lord's Prayer, enjoys it, and these you always find in the Assembly; the one gabble, gabble, gabbling threadbare platitudes and `give-me-liberty-or give-me-death' buncombe from morning to night, and the other asleep, with his slab-soled brogans set up like a couple of grave-stones on the top of his desk.

"In my experience, only third-rate intelligence is sent to Legislatures to make laws, because the first-rate article will not leave important private interests go unwatched to go and serve the public for a beggarly $4 or $5 a day, and a miserably trivial distinction, while it is possible that a talented matron, unencumbered with children, might go with no great detriment to the affairs of her household.

"I think I can say, and say with pride, that we have some legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world. ... It's so hard to find men of a so high type of morals that they'll stay bought.

"I am quite sure now that often, very often, in matters concerning religion and politics a man's reasoning powers are not above the monkey's."

This year, the monkeys took over the zoo. As ever, the problem is taxes and spending.

They've had a terrible time arriving at a new tax everyone can stomach.

"In early Nevada, there was but little realty to tax, and it did seem as if nobody was ever going to think of the simple salvation of inflicting a money penalty on murder."

If the taxpayers had their way, the murders might be confined to the members of the Senate and Assembly. That's not to say they're all dishonest.

"An honest man in politics shines more there than he would elsewhere," he said.

That's true, but it's so frustrating that I'm thinking of not writing about politics anymore, maybe going on the road.

"I got tired of staying in one place too long," he said. "There was no longer satisfying variety in going down to Carson to report the proceedings of the legislature once a year, and horse races and pumpkin shows once in three months (they had got to raising pumpkins and potatoes in Washoe Valley, and of course one of the first achievements of the legislature was to institute a $10,000 agricultural fair to show off $40 worth of those pumpkins in -- however, the territorial legislature was usually spoken of as the `asylum.')"

The pumpkins are still scrawny for Nevadans, but the price of the fair has gone sky-high.

"The new political gospel: public office is private graft," he said.

Amen to that. And nothing tops this session. It's a curse on Nevada.

"Some people are malicious enough to think that if the devil were set at liberty and told to confine himself to Nevada Territory, he would ... get homesick and go back to hell again."

As long as the Legislature's in session, the devil would feel right at home in Carson City.

John L. Smith's column appears Fridays in the Nevada Appeal. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.

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"Some people are malicious enough to think that if the devil were set at liberty and told to confine himself to Nevada Territory, he would ... get homesick and go back to hell again."


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