Kefauver Day and Unintended Consequences

Nov. 15 is Kefauver Day, complete with a proclamation by Mayor Carolyn Goodman. And if you like ironies and politics, this day is for you.

It will be a full day. The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, better
known as The Mob Museum, will offer free admission to Nevada residents. The museum will host highlights of “Crimebuster:  Senator Estes Kefauver, Politics, Television and Organized Crime” at 10 a.m., complete with the filmmaker, Jon Rubin, and his wife, Diane, who is Kefauver’s daughter.

On Nov. 15, 1950, Sen. Estes Kefauver’s Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce came to Las Vegas—specifically, to its federal building at Third and Stewart, which now houses the museum. For three hours, the Tennessee Democrat and his colleagues questioned various politicians and casino owners—sometimes they were one and the same. When the committee completed its report, which became the best-selling Crime in America, it criticized Nevada’s approach to legal gambling and tolerance for organized crime figures.

At the time, many Las Vegans resented the attention. When a Kefauver ally introduced a bill to tax gambling revenues heavily, Sen. Pat McCarran pulled every string to block it and succeeded. Thus the ironies:

• What seemed like a dark day—the Kefauver hearings—actually worked out all right for Las Vegas. Kefauver held the hearings out of a genuine quest for reform, a legitimate commitment to morality and a deep desire to be president. Kefauver knew he couldn’t defeat the Democratic Party regulars, and their urban machines often were tied to mob interests in their towns—including Kansas City’s Pendergast machine, which had supported then-President Harry Truman, who hated the senator he referred to as “Cowfever.”

But the Democratic machines held on and blocked Kefauver, meaning Las Vegas was safe. They did have to go through some reforms, though. And the casino operators and employees whom they shut down had to go somewhere to work. Las Vegas benefited from the arrival of casino professionals, just as it had in the 1930s when California reformers shut down gambling operations.

• The proclamation comes from Carolyn Goodman, who succeeded her husband. Oscar Goodman had the idea for this museum, prompting those who didn’t bother to get to know the curators or look at the plans to proclaim that it would be a tribute to the mob. Anybody who has been there knows better; ideally, anybody who knows one of the historians on the project—me—wouldn’t accuse me of selling out history. But when the former Hizzoner was a defense attorney, he defended mobsters, attacked the FBI, and claimed that no mob existed. The museum is a reminder that he was wrong, but it also speaks to the importance of law enforcement and of defending everyone’s constitutional rights, regardless of their background or the charges against them.

• Those rights include those which McCarran, a defender and critic of gambling, violated in pursuing communists and people he accused of communist leanings. Ironically, Kefauver, too, went a bit far in some cases in attacking mobsters and people he suspected of associating with them. History is far kinder to Kefauver, mainly because he was usually right: the mob’s tentacles were far-reaching.

So, on Nov. 15, Nevada remembers a senator who a lot of people in the state hated at the time, at a museum that some criticized as a waste of government money (redevelopment funds that had to be used a certain way helped finance a lot of it) and/or as glorifying a questionable history (it doesn’t glorify it and it merits study). Maybe we’ve grown up a little, and maybe we need to work harder at understanding the past.