Fate of McCarran statue remains to be seen
May 10, 2018
Ludie and I recently returned from Northern Virginia, where we visited her niece and family, and nearby Washington, D.C., where we toured museums and the U.S. Capitol building, where I covered Congress as a young newspaperman many years ago.
Before the 9/11 attacks, Capitol visitors could enter the building with no hindrances whatsoever. Today, alas, they are required to be on strictly-monitored guided tours following intensive X-ray screenings conducted by heavily armed federal officers, many of whom are accompanied by guard dogs.
When our group entered the Capitol's Statuary Hall, the location of two statues of notable citizens from each of the 50 states, we paused at the statues of Nevada's representatives, Democratic U.S. Sen. Patrick A. McCarran (1876-1954) and Sarah Winnemucca (1846-1891), the Northern Nevada Paiute educator and author whose name means "shellflower" in her Native American language.
When we stopped at McCarran's statue, I asked our tour guide if he had heard of reported attempts to remove the statue because of McCarran's reputation as a racist and anti-Semite. The guide became ill at ease and said, "I'm not going to discuss that." On returning home a week later, I learned that those reports are in fact true.
During the most recent session of the Nevada Legislature, which was held in 2017, State Sen. Tick Segerblom introduced Senate Bill 174 which would have removed McCarran's statue. Among other legislators supporting the bill was State Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, who said at the time, "Nevada is a diverse and welcoming state, and Senator McCarran's legacy is a throwback to a bygone era that we do not need to relive." Also favoring the bill were Nevada's three members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Dina Titus, Ruben Kihuen and Jacky Rosen. (Rosen is considered to be the top Democratic candidate to run against incumbent GOP U.S. Sen. Dean Heller in the 2018 general election.) The three congresspersons said in a joint letter to Gov. Brian Sandoval that although McCarran had fought for workers' rights and helped shape the nation's aviation industry, he left a legacy of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
When the bill to remove McCarran's statue reached the State Senate last year, however, it failed to pass because, many political observers believe, it also included a provision that Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport be renamed Harry Reid International Airport to honor the former Nevada U.S. senator who had served as Senate Majority Leader.
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Whether similar legislation to remove McCarran's statue, with or without the Reid provision, will be introduced at the 2019 legislative session remains to be seen.
McCarran, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1932 until his death in 1954, was born on a ranch east of Reno, received BA and MA degrees from UNR, became an attorney, practiced law in Tonopah, served as Nye County prosecutor and district attorney, and was elected to the Legislature and the Nevada Supreme Court, where he became its chief justice, before his election to the Senate, where he supported the establishment of the U.S. Air Force as a separate service following World War II and often clashed with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a fellow Democrat but a liberal, who disagreed with McCarran's far-right views, hatred of minorities and his support of legislation that restricted the immigration of southern Europeans.
McCarran and his wife, Martha, whose residence was a suite at Reno's Riverside Hotel, were the parents of a son and four daughters, two of whom became nuns in the Roman Catholic Dominican Order.
The senator's last day of life was spent on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 1954, in Fallon and Hawthorne. In Fallon, while en route to Hawthorne, he stopped for a haircut at a barbershop on Maine Street. Discovering a long line of men ahead of him, he paid the first fellow in line to relinquish his spot so he could get his hair cut and still arrive in Hawthorne on time.
Upon his arrival in Hawthorne, he joined a downtown parade in his honor. Following the parade, he was the guest speaker at a Democratic Party rally at the Civic Auditorium, where he urged his listeners to support local and state Democrats in the upcoming elections. When his talk ended, he left the stage about 8 p.m. to mingle with old friends and community leaders.
Suddenly, he collapsed to the floor. His breathing came in gasps, and a local doctor and the fire department's rescue squad were summoned. But at approximately 9 p.m. he died while receiving the Last Rites from Father William Condon of Hawthorne's Catholic Church. McCarran was 78 when he died, and his death was attributed to a coronary occlusion or heart attack.
Today, 64 years after his death on the floor of Hawthorne's Civic Auditorium, McCarran retains the reputation as controversial figure in Nevada and national politics, and the disposition of his statue in the U.S. Capitol building may well affect the final rendering of his reputation.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.