Paul Laxalt
Paul Dominique Laxalt of Nevada was a former Republican District Attorney, Lieutenant Governor, Governor and U.S. Senator. 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."

Early life, education, and early career

Laxalt was born on August 2, 1922 in Reno, Nevada
Reno, Nevada
Reno is the county seat of Washoe County, Nevada, United States. The city has a population of about 220,500 and is the most populous Nevada city outside of the Las Vegas metropolitan area...

, the son of a Basque
Basque people
The Basques as an ethnic group, primarily inhabit an area traditionally known as the Basque Country , a region that is located around the western end of the Pyrenees on the coast of the Bay of Biscay and straddles parts of north-central Spain and south-western France.The Basques are known in the...

 shepherd, Dominique, and a Basque mother, Therese, who had both immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s. Dominique became wealthy in the sheep industry, but he lost everything during the Great Depression. At that point, 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.

Therese and Dominique had six children: Paul, Robert (born in 1923), Suzanne (1925), John (1926), Marie (1928) and Peter (1931). "Stories of Sheep People: Herders & Carvers", University of Nevada, Reno Libraries Paul played on a 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
Battle of Leyte
The Battle of Leyte in the Pacific campaign of World War II was the invasion and conquest of the island of Leyte in the Philippines by American and Filipino guerrilla forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, who fought against the Imperial Japanese Army in the Philippines led by...

in the Philippines. After the war, he graduated from the University of Denver
University of Denver
The University of Denver is currently ranked 82nd among all public and private "National Universities" by U.S. News & World Report in the 2012 rankings....

 (1949) law school.

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.

Political career

Paul Laxalt's first attempt for public office was in 1950 when he ran for District Attorney
District attorney
In many jurisdictions in the United States, a District Attorney is an elected or appointed government official who represents the government in the prosecution of criminal offenses. The district attorney is the highest officeholder in the jurisdiction's legal department and supervises a staff of...

 of Ormsby County, Nevada
Ormsby County, Nevada
Ormsby County was a county of Nevada from 1861 until 1969. It contained Carson City, the county seat and later state capital, founded two years earlier. It was named after Major William M...

, turning out the incumbent D.A. He served from 1950-1954. 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.

1964 U.S. Senate run

In 1964, he ran for the United States Senate against Democratic
Democratic Party (United States)
The Democratic Party is one of two major contemporary political parties in the United States, along with the Republican Party. The party's socially liberal and progressive platform is largely considered center-left in the U.S. political spectrum. The party has the lengthiest record of continuous...

 incumbent Howard Cannon
Howard Cannon
Howard Walter Cannon was an American politician. He served as a United States Senator from Nevada from 1959 until 1983 as a member of the Democratic Party.-Early life:...

 and lost a controversial election by 48 votes. Laxalt had wanted to remain lieutenant governor, but with the filing deadline approaching and no one in the GOP fold stepping forward, Laxalt entered the race in mid-1964. It was a difficult year to run as a Republican as GOP standard bearer Barry Goldwater was about to be trounced by President Lyndon Johnson. Not too 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 said that he could not do this to his friend Goldwater (he often referred to Goldwater as his "political Godfather"), and their meeting on the tarmac was splashed on the front pages of local newspapers. Still the race remained close. As he watched the 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 to drop the matter. 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 would not take place until November of 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 butt out of Nevada's affairs. Laxalt, to his political benefit, took the position that Nevada had to cooperate with "the Feds" in order to be in a position to credibly regulate gambling in the Silver State. (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-casino
In modern English, a casino is a facility which houses and accommodates certain types of gambling activities. Casinos are most commonly built near or combined with hotels, restaurants, retail shopping, cruise ships or other tourist attractions...

s by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes
Howard Robard Hughes, Jr. was an American business magnate, investor, aviator, engineer, film producer, director, and philanthropist. He was one of the wealthiest people in the world...

. 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 modern-day 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 created the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which was designed to protect scenic Lake Tahoe. He also promoted prison reform and expanded the park system in Nevada. 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 quite good, but he left anyway, saying that he'd had "a gut-full" of politics.


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 Democrat Lieutenant Governor, Harry Reid, currently the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate. It was a hard-fought contest from the outset. The Watergate scandal was a burden for all Republicans running in the country. However, 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 propects, 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. In order to give the Republican Laxalt a leg up in seniority, Senator Bible resigned three weeks early (on 17 December 1974) and on 18 December Nevada Governor O'Callaghan
Mike O'Callaghan
-External links:* * * *...

 appointed Laxalt to finish out that term. In the 1980 Senate race
United States Senate election in Nevada, 1980
The 1980 United States Senate election in Nevada was held on November 4, 1980. Incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Paul Laxalt won re-election to a second term.-Democratic:...

, Laxalt won re-election over former State Senator Mary Gojak with 58% of the vote.


Laxalt had become close friends with Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan
Ronald Wilson Reagan was the 40th President of the United States , the 33rd Governor of California and, prior to that, a radio, film and television actor....

 during his time as governor, when Reagan was also in his first term as governor of neighboring California
California is a state located on the West Coast of the United States. It is by far the most populous U.S. state, and the third-largest by land area...

. They worked on many issues of mutual interest to the two states, principally those dealing with the preservation of Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is a large freshwater lake in the Sierra Nevada of the United States. At a surface elevation of , it is located along the border between California and Nevada, west of Carson City. Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America. Its depth is , making it the USA's second-deepest...

. During Reagan's presidency, Senator Laxalt was sometimes referred to as "The First Friend". Laxalt was national chairman of three Reagan presidential campaigns and placed Reagan's name in nomination at the Republican National Convention
Republican National Convention
The Republican National Convention is the presidential nominating convention of the Republican Party of the United States. Convened by the Republican National Committee, the stated purpose of the convocation is to nominate an official candidate in an upcoming U.S...

s of 1976, 1980 and 1984. During the 1980 Republican National Convention
1980 Republican National Convention
The 1980 National Convention of the Republican Party of the United States convened at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan, from July 14 to July 17, 1980. The 32nd Republican National Convention nominated former Governor Ronald W. Reagan of California for President of the United States and former...

, 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. In early 1987 he was at the top of the short list to replace Donald Regan
Donald Regan
Donald Thomas Regan ,was the 66th United States Secretary of the Treasury, from 1981 to 1985, and Chief of Staff from 1985 to 1987 in the Ronald Reagan Administration, where he advocated "Reaganomics" and tax cuts to create jobs and stimulate production.-Early life:Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts,...

 as White House chief of staff
White House Chief of Staff
The White House Chief of Staff is the highest ranking member of the Executive Office of the President of the United States and a senior aide to the President.The current White House Chief of Staff is Bill Daley.-History:...

, but he declined because he intended to run for President in 1988. Instead he recommended former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Majority Howard Baker
Howard Baker
Howard Henry Baker, Jr. is a former Senate Majority Leader, Republican U.S. Senator from Tennessee, White House Chief of Staff, and a former United States Ambassador to Japan.Known in Washington, D.C...

, who took the job.

It was the 1976 Republican Presidential race that may have cemented the tight political friendship between 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, even though doing so severely jeopardized his relationship with the Ford White House. Laxalt campaigned all over the United States on behalf of Reagan, oftentimes 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. When Reagan defeated incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980, with Laxalt again serving as national chairman, the Nevada Senator's profile rose even higher.

In 1977, back in the U.S. Senate full time, 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. 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, at the last minute, 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 Sen. Jesse Helms and liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy.
At the behest of conservative leaders, Laxalt drafted the initial version of the Family Protection Act of 1981, which would have cut back on child and family programs that the New Right regarded as contributing to the disintegration of the American family. The legislation went nowhere. Laxalt's legislative activities were curtailed after 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. He became the "go-to guy" for Senators and House members wishing to curry favor with the Reagan White House. He was beseiged with requests, even some as trivial as Senators and Congressmen looking for White House invitations. 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 the Congress. Remarkably, Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker took the unprecedented step of making Laxalt an ex-officio member of the Senate leadership. Still, Laxalt remained active on issues he considered a priority. He successfully advanced a bill intended to protect victims of crime, and he and liberal Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont were able to pass a regulatory reform bill by a unanimous vote. One of his highest profile victories was defeating the MX Missile basing system initially proposed by President Jimmy Carter. The plan called for shuttling missles around on underground tracks to foil Soviet attempts to monitor the missiles. It would have taken up vast expanses of central Nevada. Laxalt and Utah Senator Jake Garn worked tirelessly to discredit the plan. President Reagan eventually scrapped the MX basing proposal. Critics complained that he did so to help his friend Laxalt, even at the expense of protecting the country's national security interests. Laxalt dismissed such complaints, arguing that the basing plan was fatally flawed from the outset.

In 1985, President Reagan sent Laxalt to the Philippines
The Philippines , officially known as the Republic of the Philippines , is a country in Southeast Asia in the western Pacific Ocean. To its north across the Luzon Strait lies Taiwan. West across the South China Sea sits Vietnam...

 to tell President Ferdinand Marcos
Ferdinand Marcos
Ferdinand Emmanuel Edralin Marcos, Sr. was a Filipino leader and an authoritarian President of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. He was a lawyer, member of the Philippine House of Representatives and a member of the Philippine Senate...

 about the U.S. government's increasing concerns about the state of the Philippine economy and the threat posed by a Communist
Communism is a social, political and economic ideology that aims at the establishment of a classless, moneyless, revolutionary and stateless socialist society structured upon common ownership of the means of production...

 insurgency. At the height of the 1986 Philippine political crisis, with the country teetering on the brink of a 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 on such a sensitive subject. 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.

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 associating with certain of these 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 with some of these men, including Sidney Korshak
Sidney Korshak
Sidney R. Korshak was a labor lawyer and "fixer" for businessmen in the upper echelons of power and the Chicago Outfit in the United States. His reputation as the Chicago mob's man in Los Angeles made him one of Hollywood's most fabled and influential fixers...

, Delbert Coleman, Moe Dalitz
Moe Dalitz
Morris Barney "Moe" Dalitz was a Jewish American bootlegger, racketeer, casino owner and philanthropist who was one of the major figures who helped shape Las Vegas, Nevada in the 20th century. He was often referred to as Mr...

, and Lester Binion. Dalitz and Binion had been campaign contributors to his political campaigns, while Coleman had supposedly helped arrange Laxalt's part ownership in a hotel/casino in his hometown of Carson City. More specifically, the article 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' statements about his associates 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, completely denied that any skimming had taken place.

Laxalt sought $250 million in damages, and the Bee countersued him for $6 million. In 1987 both lawsuits were settled. In a statement, the Sacramento 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. In March of 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 prospect of a trial had hindered fundraising for a possible presidential campaign. He also noted that the case had proven the Bee's allegations to be without basis.

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 Bush's successful Presidential campaign. Eight years later, he served in a similar capacity in Bob Dole's failed Presidential bid.

Post-political career

Laxalt was a partner in the law firm of Finley, Kumble, Wagner, Underberg, Manley, Myerson & Casey
Finley, Kumble, Wagner, Underberg, Manley, Myerson & Casey
Finley, Kumble, Wagner, Underberg, Manley, Myerson & Casey was a United States law firm founded in 1968. The firm, based in New York, had grown from eight lawyers at its inception to over 700 lawyers at the time of its bankruptcy and dissolution in 1987...

 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.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 and the operational clock tower is a distinctive feature.

One of Laxalt's intiatives 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.

Personal life

Laxalt's brother, Robert Laxalt
Robert Laxalt
Robert Laxalt was a Basque-American writer from Nevada.-Biography:Sweet Promised Land , Laxalt's first and possibly best-known book, was based on the history of his father, Dominique, and his return to the homeland after forty-seven years as an immigrant sheepherder in Nevada...

, 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.

Laxalt was married to Jackalyn Ross, the daughter of a prominent Federal judge
United States federal judge
In the United States, the title of federal judge usually means a judge appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the United States Senate in accordance with Article II of the United States Constitution....

 in Nevada. The couple had five daughters and one son. He has twelve grandchildren and two great-grand children. Laxalt is currently married to his second wife, Carol, who had one daughter from a previous marriage. After he retired from the U.S. 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 western 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 as his "slice of heaven on earth."

External links

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