Paul Laxalt

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The Honorable
Paul Laxalt
Paul Laxalt 2000.jpg
General Chairperson of the Republican National Committee
In office
January 28, 1983 – January 23, 1987
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Position abolished
United States Senator
from Nevada
In office
December 18, 1974 – January 3, 1987
Preceded by Alan Bible
Succeeded by Harry Reid
22nd Governor of Nevada
In office
January 2, 1967 – January 4, 1971
Lieutenant Edward Fike
Preceded by Grant Sawyer
Succeeded by Mike O'Callaghan
23rd Lieutenant Governor of Nevada
In office
January 1, 1963 – January 2, 1967
Governor Grant Sawyer
Preceded by Maude Frazier
Succeeded by Edward Fike
Personal details
Born Paul Dominique Laxalt
(1922-08-02) August 2, 1922 (age 100)
Reno, Nevada, U.S.
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Jackalyn Ross (1946–1972)
Carol Laxalt (1976–present)
Relations Adam Laxalt (grandson)
Children 6
Alma mater Santa Clara University
University of Denver
Religion Roman Catholic
Military service
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service 1943–1946
Battles/wars World War II

Paul Dominique Laxalt (born August 2, 1922) is an American politician who was Governor of Nevada from 1967 to 1971 and a United States Senator from 1974 to 1987. In the media, the words "son of a Basque sheepherder" often accompanied his name. He was one of Ronald Reagan's closest friends in politics. In fact, after Reagan was elected President in 1980, the national press began to refer to Laxalt as "The First Friend." He is the older brother of Robert Laxalt, who was a noted and prolific writer. He is a member of the Republican Party.

Early life, education, and early career

Laxalt was born on August 2, 1922 in Reno, Nevada, the son of Basque parents, Therese (Alpetche)[1] and Dominique Laxalt, a shepherd, both of whom had immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s from their homeland in the Pyrenees, which straddle France and Spain. Dominique became wealthy in the sheep industry, but he lost everything in the early 1920s. Thereafter, he went back to sheepherding for the rest of his career. Therese, who had been trained at Paris' Cordon Bleu cooking school, eventually opened a restaurant called The French Hotel in the Nevada capital of Carson City.[citation needed]

Therese and Dominique had six children: Paul, Robert (born in 1923), Suzanne (1925), John (1926), Marie (1928) and Peter (1931). The Laxalt children were raised largely by their mother as Dominique spent long periods of time away from the household as he tended to his sheep in the deserts and mountains of Nevada. The children all helped Therese at The French Hotel. It was here that Paul first acquired an interest in politics as he listened in on the conversations of the politicians who patronized the restaurant (including the legendary U.S. Senator Patrick McCarran). Paul played on the 1938 state basketball champion team at Carson High School before graduating and attending Santa Clara University. When World War II broke out, Paul joined the U.S. Army and served as a medic, seeing action in the Battle of Leyte in the Philippines. After the war, he graduated from the University of Denver (1949) law school.[citation needed]

After graduating from law school and after serving as a district attorney, Laxalt enjoyed a successful career as a lawyer. His 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 helped win the famous "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.[citation needed]

Political career

Paul Laxalt's first attempt for public office was in 1950 when he ran for District Attorney of Ormsby County, Nevada, turning out the incumbent D.A. He served from 1950 to 1954. Laxalt's first run for statewide office came in 1962 when he ran for Lieutenant Governor against former Congressman Berkeley L. Bunker. Using innovative television ads and personal television appearances, Laxalt was able to introduce himself to the electorate, particularly in Southern Nevada where he was virtually unknown. In the middle of the campaign, at a Fourth of July rally in Las Vegas, Republican Gubernatorial candidate Rex Bell, a former Hollywood actor who had persuaded Laxalt to run with him on the GOP "ticket", dropped dead of a heart attack. A great amount of pressure was applied to Laxalt to run in Bell's place, but the young attorney demurred, and he remained in the lieutenant governor's race. He ended up defeating Bunker by a comfortable margin. Laxalt served one term as lieutenant governor—from 1963 to 1967.[citation needed]

1964 U.S. Senate run

In 1964, Laxalt, while serving as lieutenant governor, ran for the United States Senate against freshman Democratic incumbent Howard Cannon. Laxalt had wanted to remain lieutenant governor. However, he declared his candidacy in mid-1964 after no other serious Republican contenders expressed interest. He did not have to give up his lieutenant governor's post for this race, since he was not up for reelection until 1966.[citation needed]

Republican candidates, running concurrently with the 1964 federal election, were undermined by the unpopularity of Barry Goldwater, the Republican challenger for the US Presidency, and the leader of their political ticket. Not long before election day, Goldwater scheduled a visit to Las Vegas. Laxalt's advisors told him he should "duck" Goldwater as they feared any association with the Arizona Senator would spell trouble. Laxalt, who often described Goldwater as his "political Godfather", reportedly 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 on the tarmac was splashed on the front pages of local newspapers. (Goldwater lost Nevada by 28,000 votes.) 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 where he was told that certain precincts reported late and that Cannon had won by 48 votes. The race was the subject of intense controversy for years.[citation needed]


Governor Laxalt

Laxalt then decided to challenge two-term Governor Grant Sawyer. Although the election would not take place until November 1966, Laxalt launched his campaign in the middle of 1965. One of the most hotly debated issues during the campaign was the Federal government's involvement in Nevada gaming operations. The FBI and 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 credibly. (In fact, one of Laxalt's first moves after his election was to meet with J. Edgar Hoover to express Nevada's desire to establish a cooperative relationship.) During the gubernatorial campaign, Laxalt also led a movement to purge members of the John Birch Society from the state Republican Party. Sawyer was defeated by an unexpectedly wide margin (nearly 6,000 votes). Laxalt served one term as governor, from January 1967 to January 1971.[citation needed]

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 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 modern-day gambling. With the financial support of Hughes, Laxalt helped establish the state's first community colleges and Nevada's first medical school.[citation needed]

Along with Ronald Reagan, governor of neighboring California, Laxalt helped create the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, to protect scenic Lake Tahoe. He also expanded the park system and promoted prison reform in Nevada. On one occasion, Governor Laxalt, against the advice of his staff, went to the Nevada State Penitentiary during a prisoner uprising. He met personally with several prisoners who described to the governor the deplorable conditions they were living under. Laxalt sympathized with their concerns and ordered the prison staff to address the problems. When he was later asked by the media if he had qualms about entering the prison yard, Laxalt, a former trial lawyer, said, "No, not really. Many of them were my former clients!"[citation needed]

In 1970, Laxalt lobbied President Nixon to reduce the prison sentence of notorious Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa after Hoffa was convicted of attempting to bribe Nevada Senator Howard Cannon. While Governor, Laxalt worked with Teamster officials on gambling investments in Nevada.[2]

Laxalt governed Nevada as a fiscal conservative, but felt compelled to raise taxes at the outset of his administration because of the budget situation. Laxalt did not seek a second term. He bequeathed a budget surplus to his successor, Governor Mike O'Callaghan. He left office saying that he had "a gut-full" of politics.[3]

U.S. Senate

After leaving the governor's mansion, Laxalt and his family opened a hotel/casino in Carson City. In 1974, when 20-year incumbent U.S. Senator Alan Bible announced his retirement, Republican political insiders pressed Laxalt to re-enter politics and seek the open U.S. Senate seat. He eventually agreed and wound up running against the sitting Democratic Lieutenant Governor, Harry Reid. At that time the Watergate Scandal was a burden for all Republicans running for national office in 1974. Nonetheless, early in the campaign, Laxalt enjoyed a consistent but tight lead on Reid in most polls. However, after President Gerald Ford pardoned former President Richard Nixon, Laxalt's prospects, like Republican prospects everywhere, suddenly took a dramatic turn for the worse. Laxalt compared it to having "a hundred pound weight around my neck." Still, he managed a victory by fewer than 1000 votes. To give the Republican Laxalt a leg-up in seniority, Senator Bible resigned three weeks early and on December 18, 1974. Nevada Governor Mike O'Callaghan appointed Laxalt to finish out Bible's term. In the 1980 Senate race, Laxalt won re-election over former State Senator Mary Gojack with 59% of the vote.[citation needed]

Senate tenure

Senate picture

In his first term in the Senate, Laxalt was active in many legislative battles. In 1977, he 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. Opponents successfully built a grassroots campaign designed to put pressure on the Senate. 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, his Nevada colleague Howard Cannon decided to support the treaties. 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 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 conservative Senator Jesse Helms and liberal Senator Ted Kennedy. (At the request of Sen. Kennedy, Laxalt arranged to have President Reagan present Ethel Kennedy with the original copy of the medal honoring her late husband Robert F. Kennedy.)[citation needed]

During Laxalt's two terms in the U.S. Senate, he served on several influential committees, including the Labor and Public Welfare Committee, the Appropriations Committee and the Judiciary Committee. When Republicans took control of the Senate in 1981, Laxalt became chairman of the Judiciary Committee's Regulatory Reform Subcommittee, and the Appropriations Committee's State, Justice and Commerce Subcommittee. In 1986, while serving on the Judiciary Committee, Laxalt played a key behind-the-scenes role in securing the committee's approval of President Reagan's nomination of William Rehnquist for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Negotiating principally with Senators Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden, Laxalt was able to strike a deal that allowed the committee to vote on the nomination.[citation needed] Rehnquist was subsequently approved by the full Senate by an overwhelming margin.[citation needed]

Relationship with Ronald Reagan

Senator Laxalt and then-candidate Reagan during the 1980 campaign

Laxalt had become close friends with Ronald Reagan during his time as governor, when Reagan was also in his first term as governor of neighboring California. They worked on many issues of mutual interest to both states, particularly those dealing with the preservation of Lake Tahoe. During Reagan's presidency, Laxalt was sometimes referred to as "The First Friend".[4] Laxalt was national chairman of three Reagan presidential campaigns and placed Reagan's name in nomination at the Republican National Conventions of 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.[5] At the behest of President Reagan, Laxalt served in the then-unprecedented role of General Chairman of the Republican Party from 1983 to 1987. In fact, during Laxalt's second Senate term, due in large measure to his relationship with Reagan, several Nevadans came to Washington, D.C. to serve in prominent governmental and campaign positions. His long-time aide, Barbara Vucanovich, had been elected to serve in the House in 1982, becoming the first female elected to a federal position from Nevada. A long-time friend and prominent Nevada trial attorney, Frank Fahrenkopf, was elected to serve as Chairman of the Republican National Committee where he helped oversee Reagan's re-election and the election of George H.W. Bush four years later. Bob Broadbent of Boulder City became Assistant Secretary for Water and Science in the Department of the Interior; Bob Horton of Reno became Director of the Bureau of Mines; Cameron Batjer of Reno, a former Nevada Supreme Court Justice, served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission; Reese Taylor of Las Vegas served as Chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission; and Ed Allison of Reno, Sig Rogich of Las Vegas, and Ralph Whitworth of Winnemucca all served in key roles in Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign. In early 1987, Laxalt was at the top of the short list to replace Donald Regan as White House Chief of Staff, but he declined because he intended to run for President in 1988. Instead, he recommended former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Majority Howard Baker, who took the job.[6]

It was the 1976 Republican Presidential race that may have cemented the tight political friendship between Laxalt and former 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, even though doing so severely jeopardized his relationship with the Ford White House. Laxalt campaigned all over the United States on behalf of Reagan, often campaigning by his side.[citation needed]

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. When Reagan defeated incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980, with Laxalt again serving as national chairman, the Nevada Senator's profile rose even higher.[citation needed]

Sacramento Bee Libel Suit

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 for his relationships with certain individuals. In 1983, during Laxalt's second Senate term and on the eve of Reagan's re-election bid, the Sacramento Bee published two articles about Laxalt's business dealings while his family owned the Ormsby House, a hotel-casino in Carson City, in the early 1970s. The articles claimed 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, claiming that the articles' allegations were false, and that the implication that Laxalt associated with members of organized crime was defamatory. He also denied knowing about skimming activities and, in fact, denied that any skimming whatsoever had taken place.[citation needed]

Laxalt sought $250 million in damages. In 1987, the lawsuit was settled. In a statement, the Bee acknowledged that pretrial discovery "had not shown that there was a skim" at the Ormsby House. Laxalt declared that pretrial investigations had found no evidence of the wrongdoing at issue. The Bee maintained that it did not commit libel because it had not stated that Laxalt was involved in wrongdoing; it had merely reported that a third party held suspicions that wrongdoing had taken place at the Ormsby House. Under the settlement, the two sides agreed to allow the question of attorneys' fees to be decided by a panel of former federal judges.[citation needed]

In March 1988, after an extensive review, the judges awarded Laxalt $647,452.52 in fees and costs. 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 was quoted as saying that the case had proven the Bee's allegations to be without basis.[7]

1988 presidential election

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. The campaign lasted only four months after Laxalt determined that the effort had fallen short of its fundraising goals. Political commentators at the time concluded that he had waited too long to enter the race, which meant that not only did his competitors have a leg up in organization, but many of the top political strategists and fundraisers had already signed on with other camps. He was eventually named a co-chairman of George H.W. Bush's successful presidential campaign. Eight years later, he served in a similar capacity in Bob Dole's failed presidential bid.[citation needed]

After politics

Laxalt was a partner in the New York City-based law firm of Finley, Kumble, Wagner, Underberg, Manley, Myerson & Casey[8] and its successor law firm, Laxalt, Washington, Perito & Dubuc. He later formed a small government consulting firm known as The Paul Laxalt Group. After his retirement from the U.S. Senate, Laxalt was named by President George H.W. Bush to a prestigious deficit reduction panel that consisted of current and former members of Congress and other prominent Americans. The commission eventually deadlocked on how best to address federal budget deficits.[9][10] Paul Laxalt was honored in various ways both during and after his public service career. The Paul Laxalt Mineral Engineering Center, an $11 million building that was completed in 1983, has been described as a giant step forward for the University of Nevada-Reno and the School of Mines. The 60,000-square-foot building houses classrooms and laboratories for mining engineering, chemical and materials engineering, and geological sciences. 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.[citation needed]

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 was designed to bring college-age students to Washington, D.C., to work in Laxalt's Senate office for the equivalent of a college semester. The program produced several individuals who went on to prominent careers in government and business, including Nevada's current Governor, Brian Sandoval.[citation needed]

On August 2, 2012, Governor Sandoval issued a proclamation declaring that date, Laxalt's 90th birthday, as "Paul Laxalt Day" in the state of Nevada.[citation needed]

Personal life

Laxalt's brother, Robert Laxalt, was a noted and prolific writer. His book Sweet Promised Land, which told the story of his father returning to his Basque homeland after almost 50 years in the American West, was internationally acclaimed and won several literary awards.[11] Laxalt, the oldest child of Dominique and Therese Laxalt, had five siblings: Robert, Sue, John, Marie and Peter. As noted, Robert was an acclaimed journalist and author; Sue was a Roman Catholic nun; John, a lawyer and political consultant; Marie, a school teacher; and Peter (Mick), an attorney.[citation needed]

Laxalt was married in 1946 to Jackalyn Ross (1927–2004), the daughter of John Rolly Ross, who was a Federal judge in Nevada.[12] The couple had five daughters (Gail, Sheila, Michelle, Kevin and Kathleen) and one son (John Paul). They divorced in 1972. He has twelve grandchildren and four great-grand children.[13] Laxalt is currently married to his second wife, Carol, who had one daughter (Denise) from a previous marriage. After he retired from the Senate, Paul and Carol Laxalt continued to reside in Northern Virginia. When he was able to travel to Nevada, Laxalt liked to make his way to the family property near Marlette Lake, which sits about 1000 feet above Lake Tahoe's eastern shores. Laxalt's father bought the property originally as a sheep camp and a location for his flocks to graze during the summer months. Paul Laxalt described Marlette Lake as his "slice of heaven on earth." Laxalt also owns a cabin overlooking Front Royal, Virginia. He used the cabin as a "weekend getaway" during his second Senate term. He famously refused to install a phone in the cabin. On several occasions, the maintenance person in the community clubhouse would knock on the cabin door and say breathlessly, "President Reagan just called for you!"[citation needed]


  1. [1]
  2. Langdon, Dolly (18 April 1983). "Will Reagan Ride Again in '84? His Blood Brother Paul Laxalt Is Saddling Up the G.O.P." People. Retrieved 9 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Davies, Richard (1999). The Maverick Spirit. Reno and Las Vegas. Nevada: University of Nevada Press. pp. 167–193. ISBN 0-87417-327-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Roberts, Steven (March 21, 1982). "Reagan's First Friend". The New York Times. p. A.26. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "How the Bush Dynasty Almost Wasn't", Hoover Digest
  6. Lamar, Jacob V. Jr. (March 9, 1987), "Cover Stories", Time
  7. "American Notes Lawsuits". Time. June 15, 1987. Retrieved August 11, 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Finley, Kumble, Major Law Firm, Facing Revamping or Dissolution", The New York Times
  9. Goldstein, Tom (March 25, 1990). "Finley Kumble sat on a wall". The New York Times. Retrieved February 6, 2009.
  10. Eisler, Kim Isaac. (1990). Shark Tank: Greed, Politics, and the Collapse of Finley Kumble, One of America's Largest Law Firms. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0-312-03830-4
  11. "50th Anniversary of Robert Laxalt's Sweet Promised Land", North American Basque Organization
  12. Jackalyn Ross Laxalt, State of Nevada Official Website
  13. Weiner, Rachel, (February 20, 2013). "Former Senator Pete Domenici kept son secret for decades". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 20, 2013.

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Maude Frazier
Lieutenant Governor of Nevada
January 1, 1963 – January 2, 1967
Succeeded by
Edward Fike
Preceded by
Grant Sawyer
Governor of Nevada
January 2, 1967 – January 4, 1971
Succeeded by
Mike O'Callaghan
United States Senate
Preceded by
Alan Bible
United States Senator (Class 3) from Nevada
December 18, 1974 – January 3, 1987
Served alongside: Howard Cannon, Chic Hecht
Succeeded by
Harry Reid
Party political offices
New office General Chairperson of the Republican National Committee
January 28, 1983 – January 23, 1987
Served alongside: Frank Fahrenkopf
Position abolished