JFK in Las Vegas

Fifty years after an assassin brought the curtain down on Camelot, David G. Schwartz examines the colorful and politically risky relationship between John F. Kennedy and Sin City.
President John F. Kennedy, Governor Grant Sawyer, Senator Howard Cannon and Senator Alan Bible en route from McCarran Airport on S eptember 28, 1963.

President John F. Kennedy, Governor Grant Sawyer, Senator Howard Cannon and Senator Alan Bible en route from McCarran Airport on September 28, 1963.

It was a meeting for the ages: the midcentury King of Cool getting together with one of the nation’s fastest-rising political stars. The star of From Here to Eternity and the hero of PT 109. An idol of the pop charts and a Pulitzer Prize winner. And it could only have happened in Las Vegas, in that heady era when Frank Sinatra reigned from the stage of the Sands’ Copa Lounge and everyone, even presidential aspirants, wanted a front-row seat. On February 7, 1960, future President John F. Kennedy got one.

We all know about the Cuban Missile Crisis, the promise to land a man on the moon, even the tryst with Marilyn Monroe. But as we approach the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, Las Vegans should also reflect on his colorful and at times strained relationship with our city. It is a story of fast friendships and rough politics, of dangerous company and severed bonds; of a city at once flattered and offended by the nation’s first family.

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Kennedy first visited Las Vegas in early 1956, when he stayed at the home of Desert Inn co-owner Wilbur Clark, a man who prided himself on his political connections. A committed Democrat, Clark cultivated politicians and military leaders from the early 1950s until his death in 1965. Lyndon Johnson, for example, was the beneficiary of a complimentary Desert Inn Country Club membership; Harry S. Truman received a more substantial gift from Clark: a toaster. Needless to say, the doors of the Desert Inn were open to any dignitary who hailed Clark as a friend.

So it wasn’t unusual for Kennedy–then an ambitious junior senator from Massachusetts–to find himself Clark’s guest, or to even spend the night at his house. Clark was impressed by Kennedy, and over the next few months declared himself a die-hard Kennedy man. At the Democratic National Convention that August in Chicago, he lobbied delegates to nominate Kennedy as the party’s vice presidential candidate. The effort failed (luckily for Kennedy, since the Adlai Stevenson/Estes Kefauver ticket was walloped by Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, another Clark friend, in November), but boosted Kennedy’s name recognition nationally.

Being a good party man, that fall Kennedy embarked on a short tour to stump for the ticket; this led to his first public appearance in Las Vegas in September 1956. He was there both to rally support for the Democratic standard-bearer Stevenson (and Democrats running for Nevada office) and, more importantly, to enunciate his own foreign policy views.

Kennedy appeared at a rally at the Royal Nevada casino, where he spoke about the changes in international politics since the advent of mutually assured destruction. Because of the possibility of near-instant annihilation, the Soviet Union had “said farewell at arms.” Rather than out-and-out aggression, Kennedy saw “Soviet colonialism” as the world’s biggest threat.

Kennedy was a guest of Clark again; in a letter to Clark dated November 1, he thanked the Desert Inn frontman for his “generous hospitality” and for having shown him and speechwriter Ted Sorenson Clark’s house and the rest of the city.

Up to that point, it’s just a polite thank-you note, but then it gets interesting:

“Thanks again,” Kennedy wrote, “for all your help at Chicago, and I hope we have a chance to talk politics again in the near future.”

Clark would indeed keep up a correspondence with Kennedy, who sent him a copy of his book Profiles in Courage. As early as January 1957, Clark openly asked what he could do to boost Kennedy’s profile in Nevada, Arizona and Utah, reminding him that “four years slip by pretty fast.”

Now, Clark was never a man known for his smarts–his jolly, hail-fellow-well-met public persona suggested this was a man who was more at home on the golf course, or hosting parties, than contemplating matters of state. But there might have been more to him than met the eye. In 1950, when he testified before the Kefauver Committee on organized crime, he tied the committee in knots with his good-natured inability to recall many salient details about the operation of the Desert Inn, including the sources of its finances and his own official role within the organization. Clark’s forgetfulness had served him well, though, and it’s entirely possible that the seasoned operator had merely been playing a role.

Excerpts from President Kennedy’s Speech in Las Vegas

SEPTEMBER 28, 1963

“We live in a very dangerous time in the world, and our policies are quite simple, even though they are difficult to execute. Our object abroad is to protect the security of the United States, the vital interests of the United States, and to maintain the peace. Now, we do that by strengthening the United States. “

*****
 

“I am quite aware that if, through miscalculation or madness or design, the United States and the Soviet Union should finally clash, in what would be the last war of the human race, in a war in which in less than one day 300 million people would be killed these efforts which we make to live at peace in a strong and free world are well worthwhile.”

*****
 

“There is no state in the union where these two twin concepts of conservation, to conserve and to develop, can be more clearly seen than here in the State of Nevada, first by using the water which has been given to you by nature, using it wisely, making sure that no water goes to the ocean unused; and also through the tremendous developments of science which are being developed here in this state which will permit us to go beyond the moon in the 1970s as well as to unlock secrets of the atom which we can only guess at. So this state, led by your governor and your senators and the citizens of this state, is, no wonder, the fastest-growing state, because it symbolizes the old and the new in the best way possible.”

Which makes Clark’s January 1957 letter to Kennedy all that more striking. “I certainly want to do everything in my power to see that we have a Democratic President and Vice President in 1960,” he wrote. “I know, between you and Lyndon Johnson, we are certainly talking about the tops!”

In September 1960, that would have been entirely expected. But in 1957, Kennedy, by politics and geography, had little in common with Johnson, then the Senate majority leader. Kennedy’s eventual capture of the 1960 nomination was hardly a foregone conclusion, and his selection of his rival Johnson as his running mate was a jaw-dropper. Was Wilbur Clark smarter than the other political handicappers? Or was it a gambler’s lucky intuition?

In November 1957, Kennedy briefly returned to Las Vegas. After delivering an address to the Young Democrat Clubs of America’s convention in Reno, he flew down to Las Vegas on the plane of E.L. Cord, a state senator from Esmerelda County, and spent the weekend at the Desert Inn, where he took advantage, like many dignitaries, of Clark’s repeated offers of hospitality.

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When Kennedy returned to Las Vegas in February 1960, he was no longer just a senator, but was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. This time, a larger crowd heard him speak at the Las Vegas Convention Center. In anticipation of the April meeting of the state’s Democratic convention, Kennedy had come to town for a reception in the Las Vegas Convention Center’s Gold Room in an event sponsored by the Democratic Central Committee and the Women’s Democratic Club. It was part of a bigger Kennedy campaign swing that brought him through Indiana, West Virginia, North Dakota, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, California and New York. He wasn’t seeking to make policy points; he was out there to shake hands with potential convention delegates.

That night, February 7, Kennedy took in the sights of Las Vegas, including a stop at the Copa Lounge, where he caught the Rat Pack at its prime: Frank, Sammy, Dean, Joey Bishop, and his brother in law, Peter Lawford, performing onstage during the filming of Ocean’s 11.

Sinatra introduced Kennedy from the stage that night and threw himself wholeheartedly into JFK’s campaign, twisting the arms of his friends to lend their support as well. He became enough of a factor in the election that a rumor that Kennedy wanted to remove the “high-living” Sinatra from his campaign entourage became a news item in July.

But Kennedy was actually quite fond of Sinatra and high living. Sinatra introduced the senator to many women. As later came out in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, on the very night that Frank and friends performed for JFK in Las Vegas, Sinatra introduced Kennedy to Judith Campbell Exner, with whom he began an affair that continued after he became president. This might not have been grist for a Senate inquiry, but a month later Sinatra introduced Exner to notorious Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana, with whom she also had a lengthy affair. When first questioned about her involvement with the two men in 1975, she insisted that the two relationships were entirely coincidental. But in later years she claimed to have been a courier between the candidate/president and the mob boss, ferrying messages about the attempted assassination of Fidel Castro. Her later claims have been disputed, but that Sinatra was her introduction to both the future president and one of the nation’s most notorious mobsters gives a hint of the social circles Sinatra spanned.

In any event, with the support of Frank and the Rat Pack (which Sinatra rechristened “the Jack Pack” for the campaign), Kennedy won in November. While Nevada’s three electoral votes didn’t swing the election for Kennedy, the support he got from the city, including casino owners like Clark and stars like Sinatra, helped him tremendously.

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The Kennedy presidency did not start well for Nevada. At the Sinatra-produced Kennedy inaugural gala, hopes were, no doubt, high. A man who’d spent the night in Wilbur Clark’s house, who’d caught the Rat Pack onstage in the Copa Lounge–how could he be anything but good for Las Vegas?

The problem wasn’t the president. It was his brother, Bobby, whom Jack appointed Attorney General. The younger Kennedy had made a name for himself as an avowed crime-fighter with his 1960 book The Enemy Within, which highlighted the need for a national fight against organized crime.

Specifically, Bobby had locked horns with Jimmy Hoffa, president of the national Teamsters Union and the boss of the Central States Pension Fund, which had begun financing several Las Vegas projects, starting with an expansion to Sunrise Hospital, which was owned by a consortium led by Moe Dalitz, who controlled Clark’s Desert Inn. Teamster money hadn’t been involved in the construction of the Desert Inn, but it must have galled Bobby to know that his brother corresponded with–and even solicited money from–a man who, in effect, worked for a friend of Hoffa’s.

Bobby Kennedy had worked out a theory: Las Vegas was more than the place stressed-out vacationers went to see Frank, Dean and Sammy and to lose a few dollars at the craps tables; it was the “bank” of national organized crime. With his promise to “get organized crime” as a top priority, Bobby didn’t hesitate to set the Justice Department’s crosshairs on Las Vegas. In May 1961, he reached out to the attorney general of Nevada, Roger D. Foley, asking that 65 Justice agents be deputized as assistants of his department so that they could simultaneously raid the state’s largest casinos. It was either that, he told Foley, or he’d ask Congress to put an end to legal casino gambling throughout the nation.

Foley, whom President Kennedy appointed a federal judge the following year, sidestepped the issue by suggesting that the agents instead be made special agents of the Nevada Gaming Control Board. When Governor Grant Sawyer learned of the request, he was understandably chagrined. From early on, he’d supported his fellow Democrat’s drive for the nomination and the White House, and now the president’s brother was proposing to target the bulk of his state’s chief employers. If RFK went through with the raid as planned, Sawyer would be more radioactive than anything at the Nevada Test Site when he ran for re-election the next year.

So Sawyer, together with an assortment of state officials and gaming regulators, flew to Washington to cajole, beg and plead with the president and his brother: The raids must be stopped. At the end of three days of anguished meetings, Sawyer won Nevada a reprieve: Bobby’s agents wouldn’t be breaking down the doors to any casino cages. But amnesty came at a price. Sawyer promised the attorney general that Nevada authorities would cooperate in federal investigations into skimming at Nevada casinos.

The result: By the fall, a host of federal agencies including the FBI, IRS, INS, the Bureau of Narcotics and the Department of Labor set up shop in Las Vegas, ratcheting up their investigations into skimming. Eventually, the investigations covered anyone with a gaming license in the state; this would include, starting in 1963, FBI wiretapping of several casino operators. At the time, such wiretapping was illegal in Nevada, and would spark a nearly decadelong fight over the admissibility of such evidence. With the wiretaps thrown out, the federal government ultimately succeeded in getting a single conviction–actually a plea deal–for skimming, when in 1973 Flamingo owner Morris Lansburgh and five partners pled guilty to skimming casino funds on behalf of Meyer Lansky, who himself evaded trial.

But that was all in the future. The abortive raids didn’t seem to hurt President Kennedy’s popularity in Las Vegas (though how popular he was in casino boardrooms is another story). In October 1962, he planned a campaign stop in Las Vegas to support the Democrats running for office, Governor Sawyer and Senator Alan Bible. (Democratic Representative Walter Baring had made himself persona non grata with his strident criticisms of the Kennedy administration.) The visit was an olive branch to Sawyer, who would go on to win handily against Las Vegas Mayor Oran Gragson, and a way to publicly smooth over talk that the Kennedy administration was anti-Las Vegas.

The people of Las Vegas were enthralled with the possibility of welcoming a president to their city. With seven high school bands, a 50-voice choir and free admission to everyone, turnout was expected to break records at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

But Kennedy, on the morning of the planned appearance, instead flew back to Washington, D.C., the victim of what his press office disclosed as a “slight upper respiratory infection.”

In reality, it was the Cold War, not a cold, which cut the trip short. The Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding, and Kennedy spent the next week in frenzied conferences with his National Security Council as they went toe to toe with the Soviets.

***
The president somewhat made up for his October no-show two months later, when he briefly visited the Indian Springs Air Force Base to tour the Mercury test facilities and see a prototype nuclear reactor intended for use in the space program.

It’s a historical irony that Kennedy’s next destination bookended his 1960 Las Vegas visit. He was heading to Palm Springs for a weekend of relaxation, and had originally intended to stay at the home of Frank Sinatra, who spared no expense in enlarging and enhancing his domicile to accommodate the president, even installing a helipad. The attorney general, however, refused to let his brother stay at a home where Sinatra’s other friends, including Sam Giancana, might happen to stop by, and Kennedy instead stayed with Bing Crosby, a noted Republican. A furious Sinatra kicked Peter Lawford, who delivered the news, out of the Rat Pack. By the end of the decade, the Chairman of the Board was stumping for Kennedy’s former rival Richard Nixon.

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Las Vegas finally got its much-anticipated visit from President Kennedy in September 1963. The previous year’s cancellation, if anything, raised anticipation. In the days before the planned September 28 speech on land conservation at the Convention Center, Las Vegas stores sold out of miniature American flags, and the Secret Service made its presence felt at McCarran Field and the Convention Center.

Accompanied by Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, the president claimed that this was a nonpolitical trip intended to highlight the national importance of grand public-works projects such as Hoover Dam. But few were oblivious to the political importance of the stop–certainly not Governor Sawyer and Senators Alan Bible and Howard Cannon, who met Kennedy on the tarmac.

After a brief parade to the Convention Center rotunda, Kennedy entered to the strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Hail to the Chief,” played by the Rancho and Las Vegas high school bands.

Many other local dignitaries were there to meet the president, including then-County Commissioner Lou LaPorta, who, 50 years later, is still somewhat awestruck that he shook hands with one of the 20th century’s greatest icons. “I was elated to see the president,” he says. “And a little surprised at how keen he was on the issues facing our area.”

Kennedy spoke about the nation’s rising population (it had just reached 190 million inhabitants), the atmospheric nuclear test ban treaty which the Senate had just confirmed, and the importance of “being strong and trying to live in peace.” [See sidebar for excerpts from the speech.]

After the 10-minute speech, Kennedy headed back to McCarran Field, leaving once again for some rest in Palm Springs, where he again stayed with Bing Crosby.

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Not everyone, though, was happy to see Kennedy come to town. Republican Lieutenant Governor Paul Laxalt, speaking at a fundraising dinner at the Stardust the night before Kennedy’s speech, blamed Governor Sawyer and Attorney General Kennedy for the flood of federal agents in Nevada. The citizens and business of Nevada, he insisted, had their right to live “without Bobby Kennedy’s phone tapping.” Laxalt saw the spiraling investigations into the casino industry as Kennedy’s gambit to make himself a hero at the expense of the Silver State, and wouldn’t stand for it.

Those partisan divides disappeared, if only temporarily, on November 22, 1963, when an assassin’s bullet felled Kennedy in Dallas. The outpouring of grief in Las Vegas was, as in other places, immediate. But some wanted a stronger reminder of Kennedy’s tie to the city. Councilman Phil Mirabelli proposed renaming Paradise Road, along which Kennedy had ridden from the Convention Center to McCarran Field, as John F. Kennedy Boulevard. Within days, a petition to that effect had collected more than 3,000 signatures.

But Paradise remained simply Paradise, and Kennedy’s politically fraught relationship with Las Vegas receded into the juicier footnotes of an American tragedy.

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topics: JFK, Remembering JFK

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