My friend and fellow columnist Jim Hartman wrote a well-deserved tribute to the late Nevada governor and senator Paul Laxalt last weekend, and I’ll add some personal comments today because Laxalt was Mr. Carson City when I arrived here in January 1962, before he went onto achieve national prominence as President Reagan’s influential “first friend” 20 years later.
A charming, photogenic and conservative young Republican, Laxalt began his political career as Carson City/Ormsby County district attorney, and was elected lieutenant governor in 1962. He was a thorn in the side of the governor I worked for, Democrat Grant Sawyer, before defeating Sawyer, who was seeking a third term, in 1966. After serving one term as governor, Laxalt was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974, serving until 1987, when he retired. He lived in Northern Virginia until his death earlier this month at age 96, but never returned to his Carson City home.
Even though we were on opposite sides of the political aisle in the 1960s, Laxalt and I were friends. Back then it was possible to get along with your political opponents. I played basketball with him at the old Civic Auditorium and shot pool with other journalists at his house on Easy Street (now Canyon Park Court).
Gambling control was a contentious political issue during the 1966 gubernatorial campaign between Sawyer and Laxalt. I was the press spokesman for state gaming control agencies in 1963 when we revoked Frank Sinatra’s gambling license for hosting Chicago “Godfather” Sam Giancana at the singer’s North Lake Tahoe Cal-Neva Lodge. Laxalt questioned that high-profile license revocation and escalated his criticism of Sawyer’s gaming control policies after the governor called legendary FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover “a Nazi.”
At the outset Laxalt objected to Sawyer’s “hang tough” gaming control policies and seemed to think the state’s role in our burgeoning legal gaming industry was to make casinos look good rather than to enforce our strict gaming control laws and regulations. I defend Sawyer’s “hang tough” policies to this very day. After Laxalt took office in January 1967, I was critical of his “soft” gaming control policies while working for the NBC/TV affiliate in Reno for a few months before signing on with the now defunct U.S. Information Agency (USIA) in Washington, D.C.
I saw Laxalt a few times in Washington and recalled an incident where I was in the audience as he discussed legalized gambling at the Kennedy Center. Someone asked him a difficult question and he jokingly invited me to supply the answer. Of course I declined, and we both laughed. I’ll miss him and his delightful sense of humor.
Everyone knows the Laxalt family’s inspiring immigrant success story. Paul’s parents, Dominique and Therese, came to Nevada from the Basque Country between France and Spain. Therese, an accomplished cook, operated the original Ormsby House “pension” for Basque immigrant sheepherders — and later, politicians — while Dominique herded sheep in the hills above Carson City. I experienced an unforgettable moment in January 1967, shooting TV footage as Dominique proudly watched his son take the oath of office as governor — a real Sweet Promised Land moment.
I received a personal note from Paul five years ago when I wrote about the famous Golden Rooster case, which Laxalt won while defending Sparks Nugget owner Dick Graves against federal gold hoarding charges. “People were amazed that the case actually went to trial,” Paul wrote. “Well, it did, and we won. Hope all’s well in your world, Guy.”
As I was saying, Paul Laxalt was a nice guy politician who will be sorely missed by his friends on both sides of the political aisle.
Guy W. Farmer knew and liked Paul Laxalt for 50-plus years.