Excerpt: "Nevada’s Paul Laxalt – A Memoir"
This is the fourth and final excerpt
The Reagan years
What turned out to be a unique personal and political friendship with Ronald Reagan started perfunctorily in 1964, during Barry Goldwater’s ill-fated campaign for the presidency.
In 1966, we were elected governors of our respective states. Ron defeated Pat Brown, the father of future Gov. Jerry Brown, and I defeated Grant Sawyer who, like Pat Brown, was seeking a third term.
This election marked the official start of our political association and personal friendship. We had frequent common problems as chief executives of neighboring states, and as we dealt with them, we became good friends.
Nevada and California have a relationship unlike that of virtually all bordering states. On the surface, two more dissimilar states would be hard to find.
California, of course, is first among the separate but equal states of the union – packed with people, loaded with natural resources, fat with things to do, places to go, people to see. It’s the “land of milk and honey.”
Nevada, on the other hand, is a land-locked state rich only in the barrenness of its high desert, poor in most natural resources and sparsely populated.
To many Californians, that which Nevada holds dear – the sagebrush wilderness of its interior – is nothing more than wasteland. To many Nevadans, the hustle, bustle and fervor of California is repugnant, representing a foreign way of life.
But Nevada has legalized gambling which, for more than six decades, has kept Nevada well-populated on a temporary basis with visiting Californians. It has drawn heavily on an influx of tourists from across the state line. Millions of Californians have left billions of dollars in Nevada casinos over the years.
During our Governorships, Ron and I would kid one another about this unique “love-hate” relationship between Nevada and California. Ron would jokingly threaten to close the borders and thus “bankrupt Nevada in 24 hours.”
The 1968 Republican Convention
While Ron and I were closely involved on a bi-state basis in the late 1960s, our only involvement on a broader political scale came at the 1968 Republican convention in Miami. Something that happened at that convention told me a lot about the character of Ron Reagan.
Richard Nixon was the overwhelming favorite for the nomination that year. He had it virtually locked up as a result of his hard work and the accumulation of many political IOUs. It was a textbook case of a political comeback after Nixon’s painful defeats in 1960 and 1962.
He worked tirelessly on behalf of Republican candidates everywhere, which resulted in a lot of grateful individuals who felt they “owed” Nixon.
While he enjoyed strong support overall, Nixon had very few “true believers” – the types who would jump off a cliff for his candidacy.
At any rate, Ron had asked me to nominate him as a “favorite son” candidate at the convention. Initially, it was intended to be only a means by which to avoid a nasty California primary between Nixon and Rockefeller, although, looking back, I’m sure some of Ron’s supporters saw it as a chance to secure a significant bloc of delegates in case the candidacy became “real.”
Anyway, I assumed that Ron had no intention of challenging Nixon for the nomination. As a result, I consented to nominate him, as a courtesy only, because he knew I was committed to Nixon. Everything was fine until we got to Miami.
There, Ron switched gears and decided that he was actually going to run for president. The favorite son idea went out the window. He was going for it all, which left me in an uncomfortable position with some of my fellow Republicans.
Some Nixon supporters feared that his support was evaporating, pointing out also that the delegate commitments were only for the first ballot.
One can imagine the psychological impact of a Governor, even one from a small state, coming to the convention and appearing to switch from Nixon to Reagan. It could have started a momentum shift.
John Mitchell (the future Attorney General and then a Nixon political adviser) and I had some strong words. Senator Strom Thurmond was all over Bob Mardian, who was in charge of the western states for Nixon. Bob assured Strom that I was going to stay put, but it was starting to circulate like wildfire that I was going to nominate Reagan.
At that time, however, I thought that Nixon was the best man for the presidency, and I had made a commitment to him and a different commitment to Reagan. To stop all the speculation, I went to Ron’s hotel suite and asked to be relieved of my nominating duties.
“Ron,” I told him, “I made my commitment to you based on a certain set of circumstances, purely on a favorite son basis. If you tell me you’re a serious candidate, I’m just going to have to be relieved of that commitment.” Lyn Nofziger, one of Ron’s key people then and throughout his political career, wasn’t happy with that news.
“Oh no you don’t, Governor,” he erupted. “A commitment’s, a commitment.”
Ron, to his credit, said, “No way. A commitment’s a commitment only under a set of circumstances. If Paul feels he has to be relieved, we’re just going to have to let him go. And with no hard feelings.”
Lyn choked down his exasperation, but the boss had spoken.
Ron showed nothing but style, in what for him must have been an awkward situation. It caused me to appreciate him all the more.
The Reagan effort at that convention was, in all honesty, quite amateurish, and the favorite son effort went nowhere.
Ron served another term as governor after he was re-elected in 1970, while I chose not to run again after serving a single term. During the next few years, I was almost completely occupied with running our family hotel, while Ron was busy running California, so I saw him infrequently.
I really don’t think Ron had that many close personal friends in those days, probably because he had left one career as an actor and started another as a politician. He had left one set of friends and a lifestyle behind and wasn’t yet completely immersed in the other.
I suppose I was as close to him as anybody in political life, but I don’t think anybody was what could be considered intimate with him outside of a handful of his buddies in California. At the various governors’ conferences, I had been pretty much his link to the other politicians, most of whom he was uncomfortable being around.
Looking Toward 1976
I knew that Ron harbored some presidential aspirations, but I wasn’t involved at that stage and really didn’t give it any thought until I went to Washington in late 1974 as Nevada’s newly-elected U.S. Senator. That’s when I first realized that Ronald Reagan offered something that this country needed desperately.
I had always felt that the political talent that drove this country was in Washington. Looking at national politics from my Nevada perspective, perhaps with a little bit of gullibility and awe, I had wrongly assumed that Washington had a virtual monopoly on people with presidential qualifications.
When I came to Washington, however, and was exposed to the so-called “heavyweights” of politics, I quickly changed my mind. The longer I was in Washington, the more attractive Ron Reagan became, not only in terms of how he handled difficult situations, and his magnificent personal qualities, but by virtue of almost everything that I felt was important to the presidency.
Although I liked and respected President Ford, I thought the country, particularly after Watergate, needed new blood and a fresh perspective.
Already in early 1975, people such as Lyn Nofziger, Mike Deaver and John Sears were laying the foundation for a Reagan presidential campaign. Because they were “plotting” against a sitting Republican president, a lot of this work was of the “cloak-and-dagger” variety.
In May 1975, I received a call in my Senate office from Mike Deaver, asking me to meet Ron for dinner at the Madison Hotel in downtown Washington to discuss “informally” the political situation. Looking back, I’m sure they weren’t seeking a political commitment from me, any more than I was prepared to give one.
But they felt I was the closest person to Reagan in Washington, and they felt my presence would be helpful. They probably knew that I would level with them about the prospects for a Reagan presidential campaign without pulling any punches.
The meeting, with Ron, Deaver, Nofziger, Sears and myself, took place in a suite at the Madison, just a few blocks north of the White House. We sat around after dinner and shot the bull, talking mostly about a potential campaign.
After Ron asked me to sum up my feelings, I said, “It’s been my brief experience around town, and in particular in dealing with the President and his people, that Ford isn’t going to be all that strong.” That assessment was quickly endorsed by the others.
“I think you should give some serious consideration to getting into this thing,” I went on, “irrespective of the obvious problems of running against an incumbent President, and the possibility that it might cause some divisiveness.”
Ron expressed some interest, but it seemed to me that he was somewhat reluctant, unlike John, Mike and Lyn, who were 100 percent in support of a run. We left it with Ron agreeing to give the matter further consideration.
Not too long thereafter, John Sears and Jim Lake, Reagan’s young and talented press adviser, came to my Senate office and laid on me the possibility of forming a committee to promote a Reagan candidacy, with my serving as chairman. I was both flattered and surprised, but I gave them a quick turndown. It was just too early.
Hugh Scott, the Senator from Pennsylvania and the Republican leader in the Senate, had attempted to circulate a letter on behalf of President Ford that was, in effect, a commitment to Ford. It was a bad idea that many of us resented, and it was shot down rather quickly. Again, it was too early to get committed to anyone.
After our meeting, Sears and the others decided to go forward with the Reagan committee. I agreed to provide them with names of potential supporters. They kicked around the names of some possible chairmen with me, but they repeatedly came back to me as the best choice.
I explained to them that it was premature, and that I didn’t’ think that I was prepared to handle a national campaign. We left it there, with Sears and Lake saying they would report my decision to Ron and would keep looking for a chairman.
During the Senate’s Fourth of July recess in 1975, Ron called me at the Ormsby House in Carson City.
“I don’t know if I’m going to do this thing,” he said, “but if I form a committee, I just absolutely have to have you as my chairman.”
“Ron,” I said, “I don’t think I can do it. I’m not qualified, for one thing. I have no experience in a national campaign.”
“That’s not the important thing, Paul. From a personal standpoint, I need someone in there I can trust. Someone I can talk to in complete confidence. Someone who is loyal. You’re the man for the job.”
“Ron, I’m just getting started. I’ve got a lot of projects, and I haven’t any experience….”
“I know all that,” he interrupted, “and I still want you to do it.”
Turning pragmatic, I said, “I don’t want to walk off a political plank on this thing. You have a sitting Republican President, and I’m a rookie Senator from the same party. There are some damn tough people in this administration. If we form a committee and this doesn’t result in a candidacy, you can imagine where that leaves me.”
Ron said, “I appreciate where you’re coming from.”
“I don’t want any assurances,” I went on. “I know the committee would have to go out and explore something. But I’ve got to know where the hell I am, Ron, to some extent. I just have a couple of questions.”
“Go ahead,” he replied.
“You’ve got a fire burning in your gut to do this, don’t you?” I asked.
“Yes, I have to tell you I have,” he said quietly.
“Well, tell me, on a scale of one to ten, if the committee should come back with a positive result, where would you place yourself in terms of a candidacy?”
He hesitated, and then said, “Oh, right about eight.”
“That’s good enough for me,” I said. “I guess I’m your man!”
“Paul, all I can say is thanks. I hope you never regret this.”
I hung up the phone after that conversation wondering whether I’d done the right thing. I was convinced that Ronald Reagan should be our next President, and the more I thought of that, the stronger I became in my belief that it was only proper that I “come out of the closet” politically.
The 1976 Campaign
The 1976 campaign officially started in Washington, D.C., on November 20, 1975, when Governor Reagan announced his candidacy for President of the United States at the National Press Club.
The place was jammed with supporters and the national press, all feeling that history was being made. Although an exploratory committee had existed for several weeks, many felt down to the last moment that Ron would finally pull out.
I was backstage before the announcement and witnessed Ron and Nancy in a long embrace before he stepped on stage.
The announcement and subsequent press conference went well. The reaction was generally positive, although several of my staff and political supporters thought I’d “gone over the edge” in chairing a campaign against a sitting Republican President as a very junior Senator. It “broke all the rules,” and they simply couldn’t understand. Fortunately, they eventually did.
My colleagues in the Senate treated me gently (perhaps as one would treat a colleague who is heading for the political gas chamber). I remember Senator James Eastland, after learning of my decision to go with Reagan, jokingly saying in his southern drawl, “You’re a radical!”
But then the polls started coming in, with many of them showing Ron substantially ahead of Ford. Suddenly, my desk on the floor began to be surrounded by Senators from both sides of the aisle trying to assess what the hell was going on. I loved every minute of it!
The “magic number” was 1,130, the number of delegates needed to win the nomination. Each camp had between 900 and 1,000 committed delegates going into the convention in Kansas City. The pool of 150-200 uncommitted delegates would determine the nomination. Everyone was treating the “uncommitted” like royalty.
We soon realized that competing for the delegates against the White House wasn’t a fair fight. Ron would call them – even visit with them personally – and did reasonably well. But then Jerry Ford would invite them to a meeting in the Oval Office. It was like a guy with a Volkswagen vying for the attention of a girl against a competitor who has a Rolls Royce.
Something drastic had to be done. Once the news media decided the Ford campaign had reached the magic number of 1130, it would be all over. John Sears, ever the tactician, came up with a possible solution.
Although it was unprecedented, Sears proposed that Ron select his Vice Presidential candidate before the convention. This might “freeze” the uncommitted delegates, who were mainly from the northeast. A freeze would prevent our being counted out prior to the convention. Once we made it to Kansas City, anything was possible, or so we reasoned.
Ron signed off on the idea immediately. The big question was: Who would be Ron’s running mate?
Since the delegates we were wooing were from the northeast, we decided to look there for prospects. Sears and I pored over lists – Senators, Congressmen, businessmen.
Finally, John came to my office one day in the excited state, which was rare for him, and told me that he had a recommendation to make: Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania.
The Convention in Kansas City
By the time we arrived in Kansas City, we knew the Schweiker strategy had worked. Ron Reagan came to the convention with his candidacy very much alive. The Ford momentum had been stopped. The national media were excited about the prospect of a dramatic – perhaps historic – convention.
Our polls had consistently indicated that any vice presidential selection would lose votes for President Ford. It followed that if he could be compelled to announce his running mate, regardless of who it was, it would lose him votes. In a race in which every vote counted, we reasoned that if we could carry this off, it might work.
We knew it wouldn’t be easy. It had not happened before in either party. Presidential nominees had always selected their running mates after they had been nominated, not before.
We turned our parliamentary procedure experts loose to research the matter. They reported that rule 16C of the party rules set forth the procedure for nominating vice presidential candidates.
It provided for nomination after the presidential nomination. To change the procedures, a majority vote of the delegates was needed.
Within our camp there was deep division. Many felt this would be a radical departure from traditional procedure and might cost us votes. Others of us contended, as we had in the Schweiker case, that we had no alternative. We had to try to change the rule.
Ron agreed, and that was that.
When we announced what we were going to do, the excitement rose by several decibels. Since the media thrived on the unexpected, they loved it. There was no backlash from our own delegates; they sensed we were hanging on by a thread, and 16C might just work!
As we worked the various delegations, it became clear that the Mississippi delegation was key, and that they were in doubt about what to do.
Coming into the convention, we had counted Mississippi as being ours. After all, Clark Reed, the delegation chairman, was a long-time Reagan friend and supporter and seemed to be in control. Unfortunately, our intelligence was flat-out wrong.
The Ford White House had courted the Mississippi delegation energetically and that work was paying off. Even Clark Reed was wavering and the delegation was split.
We told them that the nomination of the next President was in their hands. We pointed out that if they supported Reagan, necessary votes from the northeast were pledged to us, and the nominee would be Reagan.
So, the victory on 16C came down to 59 Mississippi delegates. We heard that they might vote as a bloc to insulate individual delegates.
Finally, they ended up caucusing outside the convention hall. No one knew for certain what the delegation would do.
We held our breath.
Finally, the bad new came.
We lost the fight to change Rule 16C by a vote of 31-28.
Although we had 24 hours before the actual nomination vote the next night, we knew we had been dealt a very damaging blow.
While the sophisticates quickly counted us out, we could not surrender in fairness to our loyal delegates. Besides, anything can happen in politics. The only vote that counted would occur the next night.
And so, exhausted physically and drained emotionally, it was off to bed for a few winks.
We knew we had to put a positive spin on the situation to our delegates and the media, but the reality was that, in all probability, we had been counted out by three measly caucus votes!
The next morning, we met with the Reagans to assess the situation. We decided to rework Mississippi and other “uncommitted” delegates, but our prospects weren’t all that bright.
Just then, Dick Schweiker came into the meeting. He told the Reagans that he felt very badly about what had happened. He said that he felt that he was the problem with the Mississippi delegation, many of whom thought he was “too liberal.” He wanted to call an immediate press conference to announce his withdrawal from the ticket in the hopes that this would change votes in the Mississippi delegation.
Ron, without a moment’s hesitation, said, “Dick, we came into this together, and we’re going out together!”
Since then, I’ve wondered how many politicians would have reacted the same way. It would have been easy for Ron to say that “circumstances have changed” and perhaps Schweiker should step aside, but he didn’t.
As Ron told the press later that morning, he regarded his commitment to Dick to be a matter of principle, and it was.
Later that day, prior to the vote, we worked and reworked the uncommitted delegates right up until the time of the nominations.
Ron had asked me to place his name in nomination, and I was proud to accept. As it turned out, I was so busy working the delegates that I didn’t have time to prepare my speech, much less rehearse it. At the very last moment, I scratched out a few notes on the back of a three-by-five card and proceeded to the podium.
On the way, I ran into Sam Donaldson of ABC News, who asked for a copy of the text of my speech. “Didn’t have time, Sam,” I replied, showing him the card. “Oh, my God,” was his only reaction.
Funny thing, I was so busy, so consumed with the task of securing delegates, that I hadn’t really reflected on what I was going to say. Under the circumstances, speaking to 25,000 people in Kemper Arena and millions more on television was an intimidating prospect.
But the reception the delegates gave me was immediately reassuring. Each sentence I uttered was met with thunderous applause and cheering. I knew that what was happening was all about Ron, and had very little to do with me, but it was still the most exciting evening of my life.
After I placed Ron’s name in nomination, the hall literally came apart. Waves and waves of applause coincided with a demonstration that seemed to last forever.
Finally, the balloting was conducted, but we lost – as expected.
After the balloting, there was a sticky meeting with President Ford to deal with. There was already a lot of press speculation about Ron’s being on the ticket as Vice President.
As I feared, Ron asked me how I felt about the subject.
“Ron,” I said, “this is a tough one. Politically, there’s no question that you’d be a great asset to the ticket, and it could make the difference. But on a personal basis, I think you’d detest the job and so would Nancy.”
Ron then said, “Only the lead dog gets a change of scene. Please get word to President Ford that I’m not available.” The word was dutifully passed along to the Ford camp.
The 1980 Campaign
In March 1979, the Reagan exploratory committee was formed, and the campaign was officially kicked off in New York in November of that year.
The convention was to be held in Detroit at the Joe Louis Arena. Most of the pre-convention time was spent in forming advisory groups to unify the various factions that formed during the campaign.
This “outreach” proved successful, so that by the time of the convention, we were essentially a united party.
Choosing a Vice President
Picking a Vice Presidential running mate proved to be a chore, particularly for me.
Before the convention, Ron asked me to permit him to include me as a candidate for Vice President. I implored him not to do it. First, I preferred to stay in the Senate. Secondly, it didn’t make political sense to have the ticket composed of candidates from adjoining states and having the same political philosophies. (Clinton and Gore did just that twelve years later.)
Ron said he understood, but that he and Nancy would appreciate it if I would stay in.
Looking back, I think they were hoping that lightning would strike, thus permitting me to be on the ticket, despite the obstacles.
So I reluctantly filled out the required forms and sent them in, satisfied that it was a waste of time.
At Detroit, the media pressure started building. They were regarding me more and more as a serious candidate. A Los Angeles Times article suggested that Ron was going to pick me, adding fuel to the fire.
I phoned Ron at his hotel and asked him to permit me to withdraw my name from consideration The situation was becoming embarrassing. Also, so long as I was on the list, I was unable to participate in the deliberations. Again, he said that he would prefer for me to stay in.
As the convention started, another bizarre development took place. The media started reporting that aides to Ron and Gerald Ford were working on the feasibility of a Reagan-Ford ticket. Serious negotiations took place, and Reagan and Ford discussed it, but finally the idea fell of its own weight. How to assign office space in the White House, much less the division of policy responsibilities, was simply too much to overcome.
As to the Vice Presidency, I had no idea what Ron would do. George Bush was a logical selection, but the primaries had left deep wounds.
On “decision night,” I went to the convention hall totally in the dark. Before long, I had an urgent call from Ron, which I took in a trailer outside the arena.
“Paul,” Ron said, “I’ve decided to go to George Bush. I know that many of the delegates will be unhappy, so George and I are coming to the arena together. Will you please join us?”
In a few minutes, George and Barbara Bush and Ron and Nancy Reagan arrived. Nancy rushed to me and took my hand. “I’m so sorry, Paul. I wished it had been you.”
“Nancy, it’s probably for the best,” I responded.
When we all climbed the platform at the convention hall together, some of my youngsters watching on television throughout the country thought their Dad had been selected.
Ron handled the situation beautifully. Before he was through, the vast majority of the delegates felt that the Reagan-Bush ticket was a natural.
After all these years, I still feel that George Bush was the right choice. He proved to be a loyal and helpful Vice President. Of course, he succeeded to the presidency, where he served with distinction. It’s a shame that he and his people didn’t recognize in time that a severe recession was hurting millions of Americans in the early 1990s.
Reagan is Elected
The month of October 1980 was one of my most frustrating. Here I was chairing the Reagan campaign, while campaigning for my own senatorial reelection in Nevada. Talk about competing priorities!
Ron’s campaign went well, although the polls were tight up to the final days. The Presidential debate in Cleveland between Ron and President Carter seemed to satisfy millions of Americans that Ron was a responsible, decent man who, contrary to his critics’ suggestions, wouldn’t blow up the world.
President Carter couldn’t overcome the recession problems, which were caused mainly by the oil cartel in the Middle East. In addition, he had bungled the Iranian hostage crisis. And underlying it all was the gnawing concern that several western Senators felt after meeting him early in his term: he wasn’t up to the job.
Bright and early on election day, Bill Casey, who had taken over the campaign after John Sears was fired back in February, called me in Reno. We had been in regular contact the month leading up to the election.
“Paul,” he said, “you might not believe this, but looking at the exit polls back here, I think we’ve got a landslide in the making.”
Bill asked me if I wanted to call Ron, to which I instantly said, “Hell no! He’s so superstitious he wouldn’t listen anyway.”
That morning, I went to a campaign meeting to thank my workers. After expressing my gratitude, I boldly told them, “I don’t usually predict how a race will come out, but this time I’m going to make an exception. Before the day is out, Ron Reagan will win in a landslide!”
That evening, we watched the election returns at the home of Bob Berry, a good friend and former law partner, in Reno. Not only did Reagan win the presidency, Republicans had taken control of the United States Senate for the first time in 26 years.
After Carter’s concession speech (which occurred at 4:30 p.m. Pacific Time), phone calls poured in to Bob’s house. Ron called to thank me and congratulate me on my reelection to the U.S. Senate. I asked him, “Ron, do I have to call you Mr. President now?” “Only in the presence of others,” he said.
He then asked me to fly to Los Angeles the following morning for a press conference.
I also heard that night from the Republican leader in the Senate, Howard Baker. He called to ask if I would nominate him for the position of Majority Leader. There had been some speculation that I might be a candidate for Senate leader. But the truth was that I had no desire to be Majority Leader. I told Howard that I would be pleased to nominate him.
The next day I met with Ron and Nancy in their hotel suite. Everything seemed the same, except for one ingredient: Ron already had “the presidential aura” about him, something he would never lose.