The first thing you notice when you walk into Richard Bryan’s 15th-floor Downtown office at the Lionel Sawyer & Collins law firm is its spaciousness. The second thing? The striking, near-panoramic view of the Valley. The third? The countless mementos lining the room—photos of his grandchildren, pictures of him with former presidents and other dignitaries, various commendations, even a U.S. Senate gavel. It’s the type of environment you’d expect for one of the most prominent Nevadans in history. About the only thing you won’t find: an air of pompousness. Yes, Bryan was twice elected as both Nevada governor (1983-89) and a U.S. senator (1989-2001), but throughout a near-hourlong conversation, the 75-year-old Democrat is as cordial and down-home as your grandfather.
With a contentious election season in the rear-view mirror—and an inauguration in D.C. and a legislative session in Carson City around the corner—we thought it an ideal time to catch up with the statesman and take his pulse on the current goings-on in his old world.
What was the one thing about the recent election season that irked you?
The thing that really depresses me is the amount of money that’s being spent today in politics. This is not a good thing for the country. For the presidency or a U.S. Senate seat to in effect go to the highest bidder is wrong. Money has always played a role in politics, but today it plays an outsize role. Also, the increasing dysfunctional nature of Congress is [troublesome]—there is a group of [elected officials] who actually believe that compromise is a terrible thing. Gee, the history of the country is one of compromise.
We used to be highly critical of these Third World countries and call them dysfunctional. Today, with some legitimacy, they can say that about us! That’s scary.
Did you ever think you’d see Nevada considered a swing state, with presidential candidates frequently campaigning here?
Never thought that. And let me just say for those who argue against the Electoral College, if we didn’t have it … there is not a snowball’s chance in political hell that you would see a President Obama and the challenger [Mitt] Romney in the state a half-dozen times the month or so before the election. Because the total number of votes in Nevada, from a national perspective, [are minimal]. But if you’re talking about our current six electoral votes, that can make a difference. In fact, if my math is right, I believe Al Gore would’ve been elected president if Nevada’s four electoral votes at the time had gone his way. So the Electoral College works to the advantage of a small state, even though one can argue that it is a relic.
What is the most critical issue that needs to be addressed during the state legislative session?
Clearly, every Legislature—and this is certainly no exception—the critical issue is always funding, the budget. My view is that we need more funding for education, K-12 as well as the university [system]. That is not to say that those who argue for reforms don’t make a point. To me, it’s not an either/or. We do need some educational reforms, and we do need additional money. Those who say, “Well, we just can’t throw money at the problem,” that’s rhetoric. That’s not an analysis.
If you could offer Gov. Brian Sandoval one piece of advice, what would it be?
Frankly, I don’t think the governor needs my advice. I think he’s done very well. He has been what I would call a moderate. He’s certainly been conservative with his fiscal policies … but he’s been highly criticized within the more conservative ranks of the Republican Party. His decision to expand Medicaid—he’s [one of three] Republican governors in the country to have done that. In my view, he has governed as a centrist, which historically is where most Nevada governors have been.
What do you miss most about public-service life?
I enjoyed Washington, D.C. I enjoyed the excitement of the city. I enjoyed being around people who were always talking about policy and political issues. In Washington, D.C., it would not be surprising if at a checkout stand at a supermarket, some checker might say, “Did you see what the hell they did in the Senate today?” Now remember, unless you’re a Ted Kennedy-type or Sen. [Harry] Reid, who’s the majority leader, most people in D.C. would not recognize House members. But people [in D.C.] are immersed in it.
Better job: governor or U.S. senator?
I’d always wanted to be governor. I’ve often said that the Senate was frosting on the cake, because you did get to meet international leaders around the world and the most eminent authorities on the policy issues. But I liked being governor. Even when I was in the Senate, I was fixated on getting Nevada newspaper clips each day.
Being in the state [government], I never missed the public events in these small towns. In Tonopah, Jim Butler Days—never missed that. In Carson City, it’s the Carson Valley Days—never missed that. The traditional Labor Day weekend that began in Elko with the rodeo parade then moved to Winnemucca, then ultimately to Fallon on Labor Day—never missed that. That’s retail politics, which I enjoyed.
Any New Year’s resolutions?
A couple. One is to try to eat a little healthier. I’m doing better than I was 20 years ago—some of that is because the folks who made the Hostess cupcakes and Twinkies shut down. Because nobody loved a Hostess cupcake like me! When I was governor, there used to be the governor’s cupcakes—don’t touch them! I still eat more junk food than I should, but I’m better.
Also, to have more patience. I’m not a patient guy. I’m a patient guy as I approached issues and that sort of thing when I was in public life. But if my computer screen goes out on me, God, I become vesuvian—what do I do? And I’m not always as patient with my wife, who is a saint. We are not Catholic, but if there’s any woman in Nevada who should be beatified, it is my wife. And I think everyone who knows her and knows me would say, “We absolutely agree!”
You decided not to run for re-election after two terms in the U.S. Senate, even though you likely would’ve won easily. Any regrets considering the stature you’d likely have in D.C. right now?
No regrets. I had spent 35 years in public life. I enjoyed it. But increasingly, there was the polarization, the confrontation between Democrats and Republicans, and the additional burden of fundraising—which was never my forte; I always disliked it. I did it, but probably didn’t do it very effectively or efficiently. And that part of it was less appealing to me. And although I enjoyed—and still enjoy [knocks on wood]—good health, I had turned 63 that year, and I kind of felt like I was drifting apart from some of my friends who had been supportive of my political career but who were not political types themselves.
Also, the fact that my father had died at 52, I thought, “Wow. I don’t want to wait too long.” The other thing that entered my mind was that, although I thought I was a decent dad and I was there for the Little League games and dance recitals, I missed a lot because I was out almost every night.
Do you remember what attracted you to public office?
My father was active in local politics—he was a very active Democrat … who ran for office locally on a number of occasions and was very active civically. So clearly my father’s influence was what got me involved. And I was addicted early. I ran for class president in the eighth grade, I ran for sophomore and senior class president, and then student-body president at the University of Nevada. So no one who knew me at that time would’ve been surprised that I had an interest in a political career. And I was serious about it. A lot of people run for class office like, “Sure, why not?” But with me, this was kind of like making the football team—and I wasn’t just going out to have somebody beat up on me in every practice; I wanted to be on the first team!
Given the current contentious nature of politics—not to mention the prevalence of social media—would a 30-year-old Richard Bryan run for office today?
I hope the answer would be yes. But it’s much more difficult. … The nature of politics, it’s much more mean-spirited. Now I’m not suggesting that running for public life in the 1960s—which was the first time I ran—was a walk in the park. But it was much easier in the sense that it required less money [and] the town was much smaller.
I still believe that people who go into public life—even those with whom I strongly disagree—are motivated to do the right thing. A few are not suited for public office and frankly ought not be involved. But the vast majority—Democrats, Republicans, moderates, conservatives—I think run for all the right reasons. Some have more talent than others, some have more energy and more drive and spend more time at it. And I commend them, because it is much, much more difficult today.
Back in the day, you and Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt had disparate political views yet you both managed to work together harmoniously. Do you think that would be the case in today’s political climate?
I regret to say it’s far less likely. Gov. Brian Sandoval is a case in point where he’s not confrontational. He does reach out to both sides. I’m a Democrat, he’s a Republican; I supported [Rory] Reid when he ran against Sandoval. But Brian Sandoval is just a classy guy, and you can call him and talk to him and express some concerns. So I really applaud him for that.
When I went to the state Legislature in 1969, the people whom I was closest with were Republicans from Washoe County, many of whom were young. … The speaker of the Assembly when I was in my second term [with the Legislature] was Lawrence Jacobsen, later a state senator. We had very different political philosophies, but I enjoyed and respected him. I was very flattered when his wife called after he passed away and said, “Would you come and speak at the funeral?” I’m from Las Vegas, he’s from Minden—that’s a world apart geographically and politically. But those kinds of relationships existed, and a lot of that continued throughout my tenure in various public offices.
Were you shocked by the result in the presidential election?
I certainly was not shocked. I happen to think Mitt Romney is a very decent person, a quality guy, a competent guy. The one thing I find so disturbing is increasingly in the Republican Party, the far right dictates much of what happens. When all of the Republican candidates for president are asked early in the campaign cycle, “Would you take a political compromise that resulted in $10 of spending reduction for every additional dollar raised in new revenue?” all of them said no. Ronald Reagan would’ve taken that in a heartbeat. Ronald Reagan raised taxes on a number of occasions. Ronald Reagan was able to, in effect, work effectively with Democrats like Tip O’Neill, who was the Speaker [of the House].
Romney, in order to get the nomination, had to repudiate almost every political position he had previously taken as governor of Massachusetts. So who Mitt Romney was—was he the Massachusetts governor, the guy who ran for president four years ago? Or was he the new Mitt?—that, to me, was troubling.
How about the ease with which President Obama won—were you surprised?
Yes I was. Everybody I had talked to told me, “This is not going to be as close as people think.” But I had a different view. I thought Romney did a very good job at the first debate—without question he got himself into the ballgame again. And I thought Romney conducted himself quite well in the last weeks of the campaign. A lot of his statements were very thoughtful and measured, which, as a Democrat who supported Obama, concerned me. And I thought some of Obama’s statements were not well considered—his statement at one of the political rallies that, “This is our time to get even, to get revenge.” And I liked Romney’s rejoinder to that: “This is the time to do what’s right for the country”—score one for Romney. So I was surprised by the margin. But I’ll tell you what was impressive—and it was impressive in his first campaign for the presidency—was Obama’s ground game. It was the most impressive ground game in the history of presidential politics.
What advice would you give to a freshman legislator heading to Carson City?
The very first thing that I would tell them, and it’s a classic freshman mistake, is don’t get committed on a piece of legislation too soon. By that I mean, you’re hearing something during the campaign, and you’re saying, “Gosh that seems reasonable; yes, you’ll have my support.” Then all of a sudden you’re up there [in Carson City], and now you’re hearing the other side. To make a commitment early on is a big mistake, because then if you legitimately change your mind—and that’s possible; changing your mind in my view is not a cardinal sin—but all of a sudden you don’t want to damage your credibility. You know, “I gave my word; I’ve made a commitment,” and you can’t back off those commitments all the time, or people will say, “Look, this is not a person you can rely upon.”
How has Sen. Reid done as majority leader, and why do you think he’s become such a polarizing figure?
Reid has been extraordinarily effective. Among his political assets, he’s very smart, he’s disciplined and he is the political equivalent of a grand master in chess—he’s always thinking [about his next move], not tactically, but strategically. He is a consummate inside player. He knows how to put together a deal, a political compromise. And he’s very, very tough.
This job that he has, it takes a particular type of person and temperament, and Reid possesses those qualities. He’s been effective. Sometimes some of his statements could be more diplomatically phrased, let’s put it that way. And that tends to make him a lightning rod for criticism by his political opponents in the Republican Party.
Could you have done that job? Would you have wanted it?
I would have never wanted that job—never. Nor do I think I could’ve done it. Reid’s temperament is ideal for that. I loved the committee hearings, I loved the policy, I loved to work on some legislative issues that were important to me; I was always looking for some kind of consensus that we could work on.
What’s one memorable perk from your days in the U.S. Senate?
I went to the desert during Operation Desert Storm—I was there, riding across these sand dunes like a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia, although I’m in a Humvee, not on a camel. I had been in the Army, but never in a combat zone, and we’d land at the supply depot and it looked like a giant Sam’s Club outside, as far as the eye can see—stacked with every conceivable thing, from ammunition to toilet paper. And to go out there and to talk with [Gen. Norman] Schwarzkopf—he was a master presenter. And, God, he’d lay out the battle plan—you don’t get to do that as a private citizen! Those are things that are meaningful to me, and I look back on those experiences and enjoyed them and probably still would enjoy them.
How concerned should Nevadans still be about Yucca Mountain becoming a reality?
We are in a better position today than we have been since we began the fight in 1983 when I was a newly elected governor. Parenthetically, I left the governor’s office—which had been my goal since I was a student at Las Vegas High School—in mid-term because of my concern about Yucca Mountain. And Sen. Reid deserves a large measure of the credit because he in effect has put a chokehold on the appropriation for the Department of Energy’s Yucca Mountain project—he’s cut off that funding. As a result, the Department of Energy is in a position where they cannot move forward. So nothing is happening out there, and we are very close to victory. But we need to be concerned because there’s litigation, and certainly the vast majority of Republicans would clearly favor Yucca Mountain. If Obama had lost, if Reid had not been re-elected in 2010, it would be full speed ahead.
To use the oft-quoted metaphor, it’s not over till the fat lady sings, and the fat lady has not yet sung. She’s offstage, waiting in the wings, but she has not yet taken center stage. And so there’s still risk for Nevada.