OBITUARY: Sen. Paul Laxalt Dies at 96

Paul Laxalt, former Governor and U.S. Senator from Nevada with Ronald Reagan, then campaigning for the Presidency in May of 1980. U.S. Senate photographer.
Paul Laxalt, former Governor and U.S. Senator from Nevada with Ronald Reagan, then campaigning for the Presidency in May of 1980. U.S. Senate photographer.

Paul Dominique Laxalt, a former Nevada Governor, United States Senator, Lieutenant Governor and District Attorney, and one of former President Ronald Reagan’s closest friends in politics, died at a healthcare facility in Northern Virginia on Monday. He was 96. His loving wife Carol was by his side at the time of his passing. Also present were the home nurses who helped Carol provide such loving care to the Senator.

In the media, the words “son of a Basque sheepherder” often accompanied his name during much of the early stages of Laxalt’s political career. Later, after Reagan was elected as the nation’s 40th president, the national press began to refer to Laxalt as “The First Friend.”

Laxalt was born on August 2, 1922 at St. Mary’s Hospital in Reno — the son of Dominique and Therese Laxalt, both of whom had immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s from their homeland in the Pyrenees Mountains, which straddle France and Spain.

Therese and Dominique had six children, of whom Paul was the oldest. He was followed by Robert (1923-2001), Suzanne (1925-), John (1926-2011), Marie (1928-) and Peter (1931-2010). Paul played on the 1938 state basketball champion team at Carson High School. He later attended Santa Clara University in Northern California, but when World War II broke out Laxalt joined the U.S. Army and served as a medic, seeing action at the Battle of Leyte in the Philippines in October of 1944. After the war, he graduated from the University of Denver law school in 1949.

After law school and after serving as a district attorney, Laxalt enjoyed a successful career as a lawyer. Laxalt’s clients included George Whittell, who owned a large portion of the Lake Tahoe frontage on the Nevada side of the lake; Harvey and Llewellyn Gross, who built and ran Harvey’s Wagon Wheel on Lake Tahoe’s south shore; and Dick Graves, founder of the Sparks Nugget. While representing Graves, Laxalt prevailed in the much-publicized “Golden Rooster case” in which the federal government tried to confiscate a 15-pound solid gold rooster that Graves displayed near the entrance of his Golden Rooster restaurant.

Paul Laxalt’s first attempt for public office came in 1950 when he ran for district attorney of Ormsby County in which Nevada’s state capital – Carson City – was located.  Laxalt handily defeated the incumbent district attorney.  He served in the office from 1951-1955.  Laxalt’s first run for statewide office came in 1962 when he ran for Lieutenant Governor against former Congressman Berkeley L. Bunker.  He ended up defeating Bunker by a comfortable margin. Laxalt served one term as lieutenant governor—from 1963 to 1967.

In 1964, while serving as lieutenant governor, Laxalt ran for the U.S. Senate against Democrat incumbent Howard Cannon and lost a controversial election by 48 votes. It was a difficult year to run as a Republican as GOP standard bearer Barry Goldwater was about to be routed by President Lyndon Johnson. Still the senate race remained close. Just before Election Day, Laxalt received word that Senator Goldwater was planning to campaign in Las Vegas.  Some of Laxalt’s advisers suggested that he “duck” Goldwater who appeared to be heading for an overwhelming defeat.  Laxalt didn’t hesitate, saying, “Look, Barry Goldwater is my friend.  If I was to duck him now, I could never look him in the face again.  I’d rather lose.”  Laxalt greeted Goldwater at the Las Vegas airport.

As he watched the election returns come in from his home in Carson City, Laxalt was stunned when one of the television networks declared him the winner. The next morning he flew to Las Vegas where he was told that certain precincts reported late and that Senator Cannon had won. Outraged, the Laxalt team wanted to protest the results all the way to the U.S. Senate, but when the recount showed he had lost by less than 100 votes, Laxalt decided against taking further action.  The race was the subject of intense controversy for years.

Although he was apprehensive about running in another grueling statewide campaign, Laxalt decided to challenge two-term Governor Grant Sawyer. Although the election was more than a year away – November 1966 – Laxalt launched his campaign in the middle of 1965, an indication of how formidable he knew the challenge would be.

One of the most hotly-debated issues during the campaign was the question of the federal government’s involvement in Nevada gaming operations. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department had deep suspicions about organized crime’s involvement in the gambling industry. Sawyer took the position that the federal government should stay out of Nevada’s affairs.

Laxalt took the position that Nevada had to cooperate with “the Feds” in order to be in a position to regulate gambling in the Silver State in a credible manner.  (In fact, one of Laxalt’s first moves after his election was to fly to Washington, D.C. to meet with Hoover to express Nevada’s desire to establish a cooperative relationship.) Sawyer, also burdened by the fact he was a two-term incumbent, fell by an unexpectedly wide margin. Laxalt served one-term as governor, from January 1967 to January 1971.

Laxalt’s tenure as governor was noteworthy for coinciding with the purchase of several hotel-casinos by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Laxalt allowed Hughes to secure his gaming license without appearing before the state’s gaming regulatory authorities because he didn’t want to embarrass the reclusive Hughes and because he thought having an internationally acclaimed businessman involved in Nevada gaming would send a positive signal about the legitimacy of the industry. Laxalt also supported corporate ownership of gaming operations in Nevada, which helped pave the way for today’s major gaming enterprises.

With the financial support of Howard Hughes, Laxalt helped establish the state’s first community colleges and the first medical school. Along with Ronald Reagan, governor of neighboring California, Laxalt helped create the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which was designed to protect majestic Lake Tahoe. He also expanded the park system and promoted prison reform in Nevada. In 1968, as the civil rights movement was reaching its zenith, Governor Laxalt made history when he appointed Reverend William Wynn to the position of Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, an appointment which was considered a landmark for the State of Nevada because Wynn was the first African American in Nevada to serve in a governor’s cabinet.

Laxalt governed Nevada as a fiscal conservative, but he felt compelled to raise taxes at the outset of his administration because of a woeful budget situation. He bequeathed a budget surplus to his successor, Governor Mike O’Callaghan. Laxalt shocked the Nevada political community when he announced that he would not seek a second term. Most observers felt his re-election prospects were excellent, but he left anyway, saying that he had had “a gut-full of politics.”

After leaving the governor’s mansion, Laxalt and his family opened The Ormsby House, a hotel/casino in Carson City. In 1974, when U.S. Senator Alan Bible, a 20-year incumbent, announced his retirement, Republican political insiders pressed Laxalt to re-enter politics and seek the open seat. He eventually agreed and wound up running against the sitting Democrat Lieutenant Governor, Harry Reid.

It was a hard-fought contest from the outset. The Watergate scandal was a burden for Republican candidates throughout the country, and after President Gerald Ford pardoned former President Richard Nixon, Laxalt’s prospects, like Republican prospects everywhere, suddenly took a drastic turn for the worse. Still, he managed to eke out a victory – by less than 1000 votes. To give the Republican Laxalt a leg up in seniority, the Democrat Bible resigned three weeks early (on December17, 1974) and on December 18th Democrat Governor O’Callaghan appointed Laxalt to finish out Bible’s term.  In his re-election bid in 1980, while serving as co-chairman of Reagan’s presidential campaign, Laxalt won his race over former State Senator Mary Gojak with 58 percent of the vote.

Laxalt had become close friends with Ronald Reagan while the two served as governors of their respective states.  They worked on issues of mutual interest to Nevada and California, principally those dealing with the preservation of Lake Tahoe. Laxalt was national chairman of three Reagan presidential campaigns, and he placed Reagan’s name into nomination at the Republican National Conventions in 1976, 1980 and 1984. During the 1980 Republican National Convention, Laxalt’s name was floated as a potential Vice Presidential nominee for the Reagan ticket, but George H.W. Bush was chosen instead.

At the behest of President Reagan, Laxalt served in the then-unprecedented role of General Chairman of the Republican Party from 1983–1987. His tenure partially overlapped with that of his long-time friend, Nevadan Frank Fahrenkopf, who served as chairman of the Republican National Committee. Fahrenkopf became the longest-serving RNC chairman in history.

The 1976 Republican Presidential race may have cemented the tight political friendship between Senator Laxalt and then-Governor Reagan. Reagan had decided to challenge President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. Ford enjoyed widespread support among the GOP establishment, particularly in Washington, D.C. Reagan decided that having Laxalt serve as his national chairman would give his campaign credibility it was otherwise lacking. Although Laxalt was not well known on a national level, he was well liked and respected in the U.S. Congress, and he was similarly respected by many prominent members of the national media. Laxalt eventually acceded to Reagan’s request. Laxalt campaigned all over the United States on behalf of Reagan, often campaigning by his side.

With his back to the wall, Reagan won shocking victories in North Carolina and Texas, which propelled the race all the way to the national convention in Kansas City. Laxalt nominated Reagan at the convention. Eventually, the Reagan campaign lost a key procedural vote to Ford and the sitting President eked out a victory. Although he was on the losing side, Laxalt’s national profile increased dramatically as a result of his efforts on behalf of Reagan. After the election of Jimmy Carter, Laxalt and other Western Senators visited with the new President at the White House to discuss natural resource issues.

Laxalt was so stunned by Carter’s alleged lack of knowledge about the issues discussed that he returned to his office and promptly called Reagan. Laxalt said, “Keep your powder dry; I think I just met a one-term President.”  After Reagan defeated President Carter in 1980, with Laxalt again serving as national chairman, the Nevada Senator’s profile rose even higher.

In 1977, while serving his first term in the U.S. Senate, Laxalt led the fight against President Carter’s proposal to transfer the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government. Despite being in the minority in the Senate, Laxalt helped build a coalition opposed to the Panama Canal Treaties. On the day of the vote, Laxalt was confident that he would be able to secure the 34 votes needed to defeat the treaties. However, they fell one vote short.

Even in defeat, Laxalt had won plaudits from both sides of the aisle for the manner in which he led the opposition. Indeed, throughout his Senate tenure, Laxalt remained popular among ideologically-diverse colleagues, principally because he was viewed as a “straight shooter” and someone who never allowed political differences to turn personal. He was on friendly terms with colleagues from conservative Sen. Jesse Helms to the liberal icon Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Laxalt’s legislative activities were complicated by President Reagan’s election. As the president’s closest confidant on Capitol Hill, Laxalt was constantly advancing the President’s agenda in the U.S. Senate and even the House of Representatives. His role as a “link” between the two branches went both ways. The White House often used Laxalt to send messages to key members of Congress. Senators and Congressmen often asked Laxalt to convey messages to the White House.  In an unprecedented move, Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker named Laxalt an ex-officio member of the Senate leadership.

One of his highest profile victories came in the early 1980s when he helped to defeat the MX Missile basing system initially proposed by President Jimmy Carter. The plan called for shuttling missiles on underground tracks to foil Soviet attempts to monitor the missiles. The system would have taken up vast expanses of central Nevada and Utah. Laxalt and Utah Senator Jake Garn worked tirelessly to discredit the plan. President Reagan eventually scrapped the MX basing proposal.

In 1985, President Reagan sent Laxalt to the Philippines to tell President Ferdinand Marcos about the U.S. government’s increasing concerns about the state of the Philippine economy and the threat posed by a Communist insurgency. At the height of the 1986 Philippine crisis, with the country teetering on the brink of a bloody civil war, Marcos called Senator Laxalt to see if President Reagan wanted him to leave office. Laxalt said that he could not speak for President Reagan.

Marcos then asked, “Senator, what do you think I should do?” Laxalt famously replied, “You should cut and cut cleanly. The time has come.” Sixteen hours later, Marcos, after 21 years as President of the Philippines, left the country, never to return.

As a long-time public official in Nevada, where individuals with alleged ties to organized crime were prominent in the early Las Vegas gaming industry, Laxalt came under scrutiny from some in the news media – particularly during portions of the Reagan Presidency.  In 1983, during Laxalt’s second Senate term and on the eve of Reagan’s re-election bid, the Sacramento Bee published two articles claiming that certain federal agents had alleged that the casino had been skimmed of profits while owned by the Laxalt family. Laxalt sued the Bee for libel.  He denied that any skimming had taken place.

Laxalt sought $250 million in damages.  In 1987, the lawsuit was settled. In a statement, the Sacramento Bee acknowledged that pretrial discovery “had not shown that there was a skim” at the Ormsby House – the central allegation in the lengthy stories.

Under the settlement, the two sides agreed to allow the question of attorneys’ fees to be decided by a panel of former federal judges.  In March 1988, after an extensive review, the judges awarded Laxalt $647,452.52.  One of the panelists, former Carter Administration Attorney General Griffin Bell, said that he would have preferred awarding $2 million, but he felt the final amount was “fair.” The Washington Post described the judges’ decision as a “slap” at the Bee newspapers.

Laxalt retired from the Senate in 1987 and was replaced by the man he had defeated in 1974, Harry Reid, who would go on to become the Senate Majority Leader. Laxalt made a brief run for the Republican Presidential nomination during 1987. Political commentators at the time concluded that he had waited too long to enter the race.  He was eventually named a co-chairman of Bush’s successful presidential campaign. Eight years later, he served in a similar capacity in Bob Dole’s presidential bid.

Laxalt was a partner in a New York-based law firm and a successor law firm, Laxalt, Washington, Perito & Dubuc. He later formed a small government consulting firm known as The Paul Laxalt Group.

Paul Laxalt was honored in various ways both during and after his public service career. The Paul Laxalt Mineral Engineering Center, a building located on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno, was completed in 1983. The Paul Laxalt State Building in Carson City was formerly the U.S. Post Office (built in 1891) and the first Federal building erected in Nevada. It is located in the center of the Carson City’s Historic District.

Perhaps influenced by his strong-willed mother, Laxalt would often note the vital role that women played in whatever success he enjoyed in his political career.  He would sometimes joke: “When it comes to campaigning, men are talkers; women are doers!”

One of Laxalt’s initiatives that gave him great personal satisfaction was the Intern program he established during his two terms in the United States Senate. The program produced several individuals who went on to prominent careers in government and business, including Nevada’s current Governor, Brian Sandoval, and Ralph Whitworth, one-time Chairman of the Board of Hewlett-Packard.  Governor Sandoval issued a proclamation declaring August 2, 2012 – Paul Laxalt’s 90th birthday – as “Paul Laxalt Day” in Nevada.

Laxalt’s brother, Robert, was an award-winning writer.  His book Sweet Promised Land was internationally acclaimed and won several literary awards.  Laxalt had five siblings: Robert (Frenchy); Sue, a Roman Catholic nun; John, an attorney and political consultant; Marie, a school teacher; and Peter (Micky) an attorney. Paul was preceded in death by his parents Therese and Dominique, along with brothers Robert, John and Peter.

Laxalt was married to Jackalyn Ross, the daughter of a prominent federal judge.  The couple had five daughters (Gail, Sheila, Michelle, Kevin and Kathleen) and one son (John Paul). At the time of his death, Laxalt had numerous grandchildren and great-grand children. Laxalt married his second wife, Carol, on December 31, 1975.  Carol had one daughter (Denise) from a previous marriage who Laxalt later adopted. After he retired from the Senate, Paul and Carol Laxalt continued to reside in Northern Virginia.

Laxalt owned a cabin overlooking Front Royal, Virginia, near the Blue Ridge Mountains. He used the cabin as a “weekend getaway” during his second Senate term. He famously refused to install a phone in the cabin. On more than one occasion, the manager of the development would knock on the cabin door and breathlessly exclaim, “President Reagan just called for you!”

When he traveled to Nevada, Laxalt liked to make his way to the family property near Marlette Lake, which sits about 1000 feet above Lake Tahoe’s western shores. Laxalt’s father originally bought and used the property as a sheep camp and a location for his flocks to graze during the summer months. Paul Laxalt often described his beloved Marlette as “my slice of heaven on earth.”

Funeral and memorial service arrangements are pending.

Obituary submitted by The Ferraro Group.

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