When Republicans recently marked Ronald Reagan’s centennial, two key figures were missing: Reagan and Paul Laxalt.
Since Reagan has been dead since 2004, his absence is understandable. But the Reagan missing from the centennial wasn’t the physical Reagan, but the real Reagan.
David Donald, one of the great Civil War historians, once referred to politicians “getting right with Lincoln,” trying to claim Honest Abe agreed with them, whatever their party or views. Today’s politicians often try to get right with Reagan. Those who disagreed with him cite his skills as a communicator and leader. They point to the anti-communist Reagan who referred to the “Evil Empire” while becoming friendly with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Those on the right often ignore Reagan’s expansion of government as California’s governor and as president, his failure to enact the Moral Majority’s agenda and his occasional illegal, and possibly impeachable, activities.
What both sides often miss, though, is that even those who considered Reagan somewhere between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon intellectually—wrongly, by the way; he could and often did write his own speeches and he read voraciously—liked him.
Yes, he could be nasty to opponents, but that’s politics. However even his most vocal foe in Washington, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, as liberal as you can get, regularly got together with him for drinks and stories. And Reagan didn’t automatically demonize those who disagreed with him, or say racist things even when his actions were insensitive. (He left the real bigotry to Nixon.) Nor did he suggest that if Jimmy Carter didn’t carry his birth certificate with him, he must be from Kenya—southern Kenya, that is.
That’s the Reagan both sides should have been citing, especially with the talk of civility in the wake of the horror in Tucson, Ariz.
Oddly, Nevada didn’t seem to notice its close connection to Reagan, yet it was evident just a month before when Harry Reid took the oath for his fifth Senate term. Traditionally, the senator’s colleague from his home state escorts him, but John Ensign wasn’t there (the possible punch lines are endless). Instead, Reid turned to his old friend, Paul Laxalt.
In 1974, Reid and Laxalt battled for the Senate seat vacated by the retiring Alan Bible. Reid lost by 611 votes and should have won; that year, the remnants of Watergate expanded Democratic majorities. But he ran an awful campaign and made an awful mistake, personally attacking the Laxalt family.
He learned from that, and he and Laxalt became friends. That wasn’t too hard. Whether or not they agreed with him, many Democrats who battled Laxalt politically thought he was a nice guy—including his Washington tennis partner, Ted Kennedy, believe it or not. Not everybody liked him; you don’t reach the governor’s mansion or Senate without chopping up some opponents along the way.
But Reid wouldn’t call himself Laxalt’s best friend. That may have been Reagan.
In 1966, Reagan and Laxalt were elected governor of their respective states, both beating moderately liberal, popular two-term Democrats. Pat Brown and Grant Sawyer were close friends, but Reagan and Laxalt became even closer and worked together on issues of joint importance to California and Nevada.
When Reagan ran for president in 1976, he asked Laxalt to be his national chairman. He did the same in 1980 and 1984. In 1980, Reagan reportedly wanted Laxalt as his vice president, but Laxalt knew it would be politically unwise. (Reagan chose George Bush, who had earlier called his approach “voodoo economics,” demonstrating—as Laxalt did with Reid—an ability to forgive that’s lacking in too many politicians.)
Laxalt was one of Reagan’s top advisers. During his two Senate terms, he did Nevada some good. Laxalt claimed not to have talked with Reagan about Missile X, a goofy defense system proposed for rural Southern Nevada and Utah, but Reagan may have had his friend’s opposition to it in mind when he rejected it. Laxalt placed Nevadans in high positions—County Commissioner Bob Broadbent in the Interior Department and Supreme Court Justice Cameron Batjer on the U.S. Parole Commission, for example. He showed that a Nevadan can be more than a gangster or a lounge lizard.
Not that Reagan and Laxalt were perfect, personally or politically, and they probably would say so themselves. But it’s hard to imagine most of their acolytes having a drink with an opponent. More’s the pity.