Nevada Newsmakers

News - March 9, 2023 - by Ray Hagar

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Robert Laxalt, with his reporter's roots, never fully trusted politicians -- except for his brother Paul, whose lifetime saw him serve as Nevada's governor, lieutenant governor and U.S. Senator.

In Paul Laxalt's most decisive campaign of his career -- Nevada's 1974 U.S. Senate election -- Paul's politics and Robert's book, Sweet Promised Land, were entwined in a way that caused friction among friends and the extended family of Dominique's and Theresa Laxalt's children.

"So there are a lot of wonderful, wonderful things about the Laxalt family but there are also some problem areas," Monique Laxalt, Robert's daughter said in an interview.

In 1973, Nevada's entrenched U.S. Sen. Alan Bible shocked the state's political class by announcing he would not run for re-election.

Speculation was wild on who would replace him after the 1974 election. Republicans focused on Laxalt, who had left the governor's mansion in 1970 to build the Ormsby House Hotel & Casino in Carson City.

Eventually the Democrats landed on their candidate, too, Lt. Gov. Harry Reid, then just 33.

As is the tradition of Nevada's senatorial elections, the 1974 campaign was a tight race. Paul Laxalt needed a boost.

Laxalt's political team suggested the campaign re-issue Robert Laxalt's Sweet Promised Land in a special edition as a way to reintroduce his brother, Paul, to the people and paint him as a son of a sheepherder, an iconic Nevada "every-man" who rose up from a hardscrabble upbringing and made good.

The unfolding drama was defined by Warren Lerude, a former Reno Gazette-Journal editor and publisher in his book, Robert Laxalt, The Story of a Storyteller:

"Harry Reid was winning," Lerude wrote, recalling the opinion for a former great Nevada pollster, Wayne Pearson, who died in 2019. "And Harry Reid was in the news. He was the headlines. He was a public official. Paul (Laxalt) had stepped out of the governor's job to build a hotel. Four years later, not everybody knew who Paul Laxalt was.

"What they (Paul's campaign) said to Bob, basically, was reintroduce him (Paul) to the voting public through an epilogue to tell the people that he is the son of a sheepherder.”

Robert Laxalt was not warm to the idea but loved his brother, said Monique Laxalt, who wrote about her father's dilemma in her book, The Deep Blue Memory.

"What I wrote in the book, when his brothers asked him to use Sweet Promised Land for politics, I wrote that the look of confusion in my dad's eyes was as deep as anything," Monique said. "He knew the value of art as art and he also knew his love for his brother. And he was just caught right in the middle."

While the campaign wanted him to do it, others pushed back.

"Bill Douglass (member of the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame and founder of the Center for Basque Studies) argued with Bob and told Bob this book belongs to the Basque people," Lerude wrote.

"Bob was torn between the art and the blood," said Lerude, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism for editorial writing in 1977. "Is he going to help his brother or just protect the art?

"What are you going to do?" Lerude asked. "You protect your brother."

"And so he did that, which is admirable from a human standpoint but it doesn't satisfy the Bill Douglass' attitude that it is not a political book. So you have a natural disagreement on that."

The decision threw her father's writing out of kilter, Monique said.

"The typewriter lost its cadence," she recalled. "His internal sense of consistency as to who he was and what he was to do in life was thrown off. And he, at least for a certain span of time, lost the fluidity of the writing."

Laxalt beat Reid by 624 votes and remained in the U.S. Senate until 1987.

Political strategist Jerry Dondero told Lerude the use of Sweet Promised Land had put Laxalt over the top.

"You can attribute the election win to that book," Dondero said.

During Ronald Reagan's presidency that began in 1981, Paul Laxalt became a trusted Reagan adviser and one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington D.C.

He was often called Reagan's "First Friend," referring to a close relationship that developed in the 1960s, when Laxalt was Nevada's governor and Reagan was California's governor. Laxalt was also the chair of three of Reagan's presidential campaigns.

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