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Senator Paul Laxalt was raised on politics. Born in Reno in 1922, his family later moved to Carson City. Laxalt’s father herded sheep in the Basque tradition, and his mother ran a popular restaurant, the French Hotel, near the U.S. Mint (now the Nevada State Museum, six blocks from the state Capitol). It was at the restaurant that the youngster was captivated by conversations between Senator Patrick McCarran and his political cronies.
Laxalt, a republican, served as Carson City’s district attorney and later was elected Nevada lieutenant governor. He became governor in 1967, around the time he made friends with California’s freshman Governor Ronald Reagan, and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974. Laxalt fulfilled two terms (1975-87). Currently, he is president of Washington, D.C.-based The Paul Laxalt Group, a government consulting firm.
The Santa Clara University graduate comes from a family of eight and has raised six daughters and a son. Although he now lives in Virginia with his wife, Carol, he remains rooted in his home state. He visits Nevada every August to spend time with family and friends in Carson City and relax on family property at Marlette Lake in North Lake Tahoe.
Q What was it like to grow up in Carson City?
A As I recall we had a couple thousand people at best. It was an exercise in simplicity in every way. Only one street in Carson City was paved, and that was the main street. That was good because we not only didn’t have much traffic, but Sundays were reserved for bike racing, which we would have from the front of the Capitol to our little [French] Hotel on Carson Street.
We went to school in a building where we had all 12 grades, and our home was in walking distance of school and church. We had little need to even get into a car, much less use one.
Q What kind of a town was it?
A It was a political town. My mother ran a Basque restaurant, and the political types would all come there because she was a marvelous cook. She was a graduate of Cordon Bleu, and you can’t do any better than that.
Q What drew you to politics?
A Probably osmosis. I used to hang around the hotel all the time. Everyone was there—the governor would even be there.
Senator McCarran was a regular guest. I’d sit there in between courses and listen to profound discussions about free trade and all these things that I thought sounded interesting.
Q How has your upbringing affected your political views?
A My parents were fiercely independent, and I was taught that there is no nobler profession than getting into public service, and I treat it as such. I saw in Carson City the good, and the harm, that public officials can do.
Q You were considered Ronald Reagan’s “First Friend” and collaborated with him on bi-state projects like the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. What was he like to work with?
A He couldn’t have been better. He was a kind, decent man. He never professed to know more than he should, and he was very considerate of everybody else’s opinion.
He was more than a Hollywood-type figure. He learned to do his homework. When we got into the Tahoe issue, we both came to the conclusion that we needed “metro” government up there, which was difficult for two conservatives to swallow. Otherwise, one morning Tahoe might just turn grey, and we didn’t want that to happen on our watch.
Q Once you made it to the statehouse, you must have thought, “I’ve really made it now.”
A Well, I did in a sense, but still I had only a statewide plane of reference at the time. But moving from where we lived to the mansion was only about, oh, 100 feet. We were still in the same neighborhood. To think that one day I’d be occupying the mansion as governor was just beyond my means. I just couldn’t relate to that at all.
Q During your tenure as governor, Howard Hughes invested heavily in Las Vegas casinos and corporate ownership, which changed the gaming industry. How do you think the gaming landscape changed under you?
A Let me tell you about Howard Hughes. The press really worked him over. I didn’t know who Howard Hughes was except as a romantic figure in Hollywood who did a lot of crazy, but imaginative, things. Shortly after I was elected, if you can believe it, I learned that Howard Hughes had decided to live in—of all places—Las Vegas. I had no idea then that one man could be involved in so many political events as Howard Hughes was in Nevada. In my experience we developed a good relationship, although I never met him.
One time I told him that a personal meeting might be required, since the press was really raising hell about Hughes being holed up in the Desert Inn while holding a gaming license. He told me at the time, “I hope that day doesn’t come, governor, because I look like a damn cadaver,” which was sort of sad.
But he contributed greatly to the community college system and the medical school in Nevada. He helped salvage many of the hotels, which at that time were in bankruptcy—if you can believe that—on the Las Vegas Strip. He was a savior of Las Vegas at a time when it was very close to going into bankruptcy.
Q Is that where it was headed then, to corporate and wealthy bailouts, because the smalltime casino owners were unable to keep things afloat?
A Yeah, because there was heavy federal pressure for change in financing. The early Strip hotels were run by people the feds considered “bad guys.” So when we were able to pass corporate licensing, for the first time corporations throughout the country were able to come to Las Vegas, and of course they invested heavily. That was a turning point in Nevada philosophy toward gambling.
Q Do you still have the house at Marlette Lake?
A Well, we still have the property at Marlette Lake, but our main cabin was completely devastated a couple of years ago in that big storm. We haven’t decided on what to do as a substitute yet.
Q What are your favorite places and memories of Nevada?
A Well, my early memories are of Carson City. I think the principal attribute at that time was that we had the finest untreated water in the world. If you drank Carson City water you were spoiled forever.
Otherwise it was a matter of knowing that [Nevada] had a very proud tradition of live and let live. I’ve applied that in a lot of my own political decisions. If it doesn’t need fixing, leave it the hell alone!
Q What is our state’s biggest treasure?
A I think Lake Tahoe will always be the state’s biggest treasure—probably in the whole country. I can’t think of a nicer place. That’s why we need to watch and protect it.
Q What are things like in Virginia?
A Virginia is a wonderful state in every way. The weather is much like it is in Washington. We’ve had the most benign winter you can believe. I’m looking outside now at semi-cloudy skies and about 50 degrees, and it couldn’t be more delightful. But nothing here compares to Northern Nevada’s weather.