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O’Callaghan an admirable Nevadan

Guy W. Farmer

(Today’s column is adapted from one I wrote for the Appeal three years ago).

From the first time I met him in Carson City 41 years ago, the late Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, who died on March 5, was one of my favorite Nevadans. When I left the state to join the U.S. Foreign Service in 1967, the former schoolteacher was an aspiring young politician from Southern Nevada; and when I returned to Carson in late 1995, he was the influential executive editor of the Las Vegas Sun.

One of the most popular and successful politicians in Nevada history, O’Callaghan served two terms as governor in the 1970s. Even though we used to say that Nevadans wouldn’t elect Jesus to a third term, Gov. Mike probably could have broken that rule if he had chosen to run again. Re-reading a guest column he wrote for a Reno daily in 2001, I understood why he was still such a beloved public figure 25 years after he left the Governor’s Office at the top of his game.

O’Callaghan’s column on the U.S. Army’s investigation of an alleged massacre of civilians by American soldiers during the Korean War tells us a lot about this outstanding Nevadan. As Mike wrote, “The Army’s report on No Gun Ri is thorough and fair and was written by men and women seeking the truth.” He knew the truth because he was one of eight outside observers named by the Defense Department to investigate the troubling allegations. A genuine war hero who lost a leg in Korea, O’Callaghan was a wise and well-qualified choice for this delicate assignment.

One of O’Callaghan’s fellow observers, retired Marine Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor, wrote in the Washington Post that he found it difficult to believe that American soldiers would commit war crimes by killing unarmed refugees. “With no guidance apart from the charge to follow the truth wherever it might lead, we set to work, each in his own way,” Trainor added. It was a made-to-order assignment for Mike O’Callaghan, a man of honor and integrity.

Although their 13-month investigation concluded that the American troops were “ill-trained, poorly led, under-strength, short on noncommissioned officers, inadequately armed and neither physically nor psychologically fit for battle,” the outside observers determined that the GIs committed “an act of desperation by frightened, green troops who acted out of self-preservation.” As someone once said, war is hell and civilians sometimes pay a terrible price.

“Yes, sadly, some civilians were killed, but the exact number losing their lives to U.S. ground and air attacks cannot be determined,” O’Callaghan wrote. “There is no evidence that it ever reached the high numbers given by some people, but the loss of even one innocent life is tragic.” Ex-President Clinton apparently agreed with the report because instead of issuing a formal apology, he merely expressed regret for the loss of innocent lives in Korea.

“The time and effort put into this project was rewarding,” O’Callaghan commented. “Working with these Americans was my biggest reward while at the same time providing a public service.” More politicians should emulate his selfless attitude at a time when honor and dignity are in short supply. Imagine someone performing public service just because it’s the right thing to do instead of ripping off the system. Not only did Gov. Mike participate in the Korean War investigation, he traveled the world over the years as an elections observer for the (Jimmy) Carter Center in Atlanta, a mostly thankless – but very necessary – task.

Another talented Democratic governor, the late Grant Sawyer, lavished praise on O’Callaghan in his 1993 autobiography, “Hang Tough!” published by the University of Nevada Oral History Program. “Mike’s eight years as governor were about as impressive as any in the history of Nevada,” Sawyer told his interviewers. “He is still very popular and very powerful, and anybody who runs for major public office these days who doesn’t go by to see Mike O’Callaghan doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.”

Sawyer also opined that Mike had adopted “a totally non-partisan stance” as editor of the Sun. “He doesn’t run that paper as a Democratic organ any more than the Greenspuns ran it as a Republican paper” (Sun founder Hank Greenspun was a political maverick).

But Sawyer wasn’t always so enthusiastic about the ambitious and outspoken young politician from Henderson. Basically, the former governor brought Mike to Carson City in 1963 as chief of Health and Welfare to get the younger man out of his hair since O’Callaghan was looking more and more like a political rival. At that time I was the Associated Press capital correspondent, and our morning coffee klatches with Mike at the Lucky Spur or the Pine Cone were highly informative. And it was always fun to cover the “secret” meetings that Mike attended. But when I coached his son, Mike Jr., in Little League baseball, Big Mike never said a word.

“Mike was a fine governor who was able to instill total loyalty in the people who worked for him,” Sawyer noted. One reason for that loyalty was that Gov. Mike defended his troops as long as they were doing their jobs. I recall an incident in Winnemucca when the feisty Irishman was in a bar where some loudmouth was lambasting the State Highway Department. As the story goes, according to my usually reliable sources, when he had heard enough abuse, Gov. Mike knocked the critic off his bar stool, striking a blow (as it were) for good government.

I wish there were more people like Mike O’Callaghan in public life. What you saw is always what you got as he fiercely defended his core beliefs and his friends with courage and honesty. We’ll miss you, Mike. God rest your soul.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist, worked for the AP and the State Gaming Control Board in Carson City during the 1960s.