A Tale of Two Senators from Nevada

Two incidents define the difference between a statesman and a politician from Nevada.

The first is Paul Laxalt (1922-2018). His family has deep roots in Nevada. Laxalt was a World War II veteran and a lawyer, and served as a district attorney and lieutenant governor.

In 1964, Laxalt decided to run for the US Senate against Democratic incumbent Howard Cannon. Republican candidates, running concurrently with the 1964 federal election, were undermined by the unpopularity of Senator Barry Goldwater from Arizona, the Republican nominee for President against the incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson.

Not long before election day, Goldwater scheduled a visit to Las Vegas. Laxalt’s handlers told him he should avoid appearing with Goldwater, as they feared any association with Goldwater would spell trouble and lose the election for Laxalt.

Laxalt, who often described Goldwater as his “political Godfather,” told his aides, “Listen. Barry Goldwater is my friend. If I snubbed him now, I could never look him in the face again. I would rather lose.”

The Laxalt-Goldwater meeting took place as scheduled on the airport tarmac, with photos splashed on the front pages of local newspapers.

Goldwater ended up losing Nevada by 28,000 votes and was easily defeated by Vice President Johnson.

Still, the Laxalt-Cannon race remained far closer than expected. As he watched the returns come in from his home in Carson City, Laxalt was stunned when one of the television networks actually declared him the winner. The next morning, he flew to Las Vegas to celebrate his victory, but when he arrived he was told that certain precincts had reported late, and that Howard Cannon had won by 48 votes, among the narrowest margins ever posted in a popular election for the U.S. Senate. The race was the subject of intense controversy for years.

Paul Laxalt’s loyalty cost him the election.

Laxalt later went on to be governor of Nevada (1967-71), and then eventually made it to the Senate. In 1974, his opponent was Lt. Gov. Harry Reid. Despite the Watergate scandal, Laxalt barely defeated Reid. In his 12-year career in the Senate, Laxalt remained popular among his colleagues, principally because he was viewed as a “straight shooter” and someone who never allowed political differences to turn personal. He was good friends with both Sen. Jesse Helms from North Carolina and Sen. Ted Kennedy from Massachusetts.

During the 1980s, he was Reagan’s campaign manager and was chairman of the Republican Party. During the Reagan White House years, Laxalt was known as “The First Friend.”

Laxalt retired from the Senate in 1987, and was replaced by, you guessed it, Harry Reid.

When Paul Laxalt died, he was honored by leaders of both political parties as “a statesman, a gentleman and a class act.”

On the other hand…..

Harry Reid, Laxalt’s replacement, went on to become the Senate Majority Leader and the longest-serving senator from Nevada (1987-2017). Yet unlike Senator Laxalt, who brought people together, Senator Reid was notoriously divisive in his politics. When he retired in 2017, Republicans and Democrats were hardly speaking to each other, and voted strictly on party lines when it came to judges and other legislation.

Reid was born in Searchlight, Nevada. After graduating from high school, he went to Utah State University, and then received a law degree in 1964 at George Washington University. He became the city attorney of Henderson, was elected to the State Assembly, and then became lieutenant governor (1971-74).

After serving two years in the US House of Representatives, Reid was elected Senator, taking the place of Paul Laxalt.

He became the Senate Majority Leader from 2005 until 2015, and then Minority Leader until 2017, when he retired.

Reid was accused of a number of ethical violations, including taking political donations in exchange for favors in his home state.

But the most egregious act occurred in the summer of 2012, when Reid, in an interview with the Huffington Post, accused Republican nominee Mitt Romney of not paying any taxes for 10 years, based on an unidentified investor in Bain Capital.

Romney denied the accusation. He told CBS News, “Let me also say, categorically, I have paid taxes every year – and a lot of taxes. So Harry is simply wrong.” Romney later released returns showing that he paid $1.9 million in taxes in 2011.

Many investigative reporters, including the Washington Post, confirmed Romney’s denial. CBS reported that Romney had submitted 23 years of tax returns to the John McCain campaign in 2008, when he was being vetted for the vice presidential nomination. McCain said, “Nothing in these tax returns showed that he did not pay taxes.”

After the election, Reid met privately with Romney to reconcile, but he never publicly apologized for his duplicity. When he was asked about it in a 2015 interview, Reid’s response was, “I don’t regret that at all. Romney didn’t win, did he?” The following year, Reid called the attack “one of the best things I’ve ever done,” while reiterating his claim that Romney had not released his tax returns.

Last year Clark County commissioners decided to rename the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas in honor of a retired senator. Guess who it is?

Not the “statesman, gentleman, and class act,” Paul Laxalt. Go figure.

Mark Skousen is the producer of FreedomFest, “the world’s largest gathering of free minds.” He is a presidential fellow at Chapman University, and the editor of Forecasts & Strategies, an award-winning financial newsletter (www.markskousen.com).