Nevada’s Amnesia

In 1973, Russell Baker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times, said, “What the country needs now at the end of the Vietnam War is not amnesty but amnesia.” He called that column, “The Great Forgetting.”  Bill Raggio’s memorial service may have demonstrated Nevada’s version of it.

This isn’t a criticism of Raggio. He did a lot during his 38 years in the Legislature, most of it interesting and some of it controversial. Much of it protected his district in Northern Nevada, to the displeasure and sometimes the detriment of Southern Nevada, but that’s who he was elected to serve and serve them he did.  The oddity is that some Northern Nevadans believed he was too favorable toward Southern Nevada, especially because he served on the board of directors of a Las Vegas gaming corporation.

He also helped his state, and his final act as a political leader was one of his greatest: endorsing Harry Reid over Sharron Angle, probably knowing that it might cost him leadership of his caucus. Interestingly, he did so after Angle defeated Sue Lowden, who, with her husband Paul, ran the above-mentioned gaming company.  For endorsing Reid, many right-wingers have excoriated him.

Gov. Brian Sandoval, who has long spoken of Raggio with admiration, continued to do so, lauding him as a mentor. But Raggio’s friend Skip Avansino, a longtime attorney, former gaming commissioner and onetime gaming executive, said, “Bill did not believe in political dogmatists.” Sandoval seems to have forgotten that. At the 2011 session, the first without Raggio since 1971, Republicans refused to compromise and Sandoval did nothing to change that until a Nevada Supreme Court decision destroyed the budget plan and he had to make a deal. Does Sandoval remember that he didn’t live up to Raggio’s teachings, or was it simply that Raggio wasn’t there to huff and puff, as he often did, until the time came to make a deal?

Former Sen. Richard Bryan recalled Raggio playing a practical joke by hanging a Bryan campaign sign on the Great Wall of China. Nevadans have forgotten that Democrats and Republicans can—and should—get along and even have fun together. Sometimes they can’t. But as a state official who had long dealt with Raggio told me, he never “confused fierce partisan warfare with fierce partisan negotiation.” He didn’t give up what he wanted without getting something he wanted in return, and, in the end, he still could get along with many who disagreed with him passionately—and vice versa.

But we also forget that while Raggio could compromise—one of his less- remembered reaches across the aisle was to work with longtime state Senate Democratic leader Jim Gibson to save the University of Nevada Medical School from the knives of the far right three decades ago—he was indeed fiercely partisan.  Former state Senate Democratic leader Dina Titus and former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley paid their respects at his memorial service, and both could talk about how tough Raggio could be with them (and against them). How many have forgotten that when he came to the Legislature in 1973, Raggio wasn’t considered all that moderate, begging a question: Did he change, or did his party?

Raggio’s children and grandchildren participated in the service, and talked about a loving father who wrote touching letters to his children. All of us have forgotten that politicians have families and personal lives. They are human beings, and when we cut them, they bleed, and their families bleed. Politics always has been personal, but, thanks in part to the anonymity of website comment sections, it has grown even more personal. If Raggio’s death reminds us of that, that could be a greater gift than any other.