Fighting On, From the Desk of a Legend

Dina Titus sits at Senator Howard Cannon’s old desk. Here’s why that’s meaningful.

The mahogany-and-leather desk is historic in its own right, custom-made for the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., when it opened in 1909. Senator Howard Cannon of Nevada used to sit behind it. Now it’s in the Las Vegas office of Representative Dina Titus, and that says a lot about Titus and Nevada’s history.

In spring 1982, Titus spent a semester in Washington, D.C. on a faculty internship for Cannon, a Democrat then finishing his fourth term. That fall, Cannon lost his re-election bid. In those days, a senator could take his desk with him. Cannon did. When he died in 2002, his daughter, Nancy Downey, inherited the desk. Earlier this year, she told Titus she could use it­. It was an offer Titus couldn’t refuse.

“It’s an honor to have it and that Nancy would trust me with it,” Titus says. “I think that working for Senator Cannon led me to be interested in running for office, so it’s a wonderful thing to sit behind his desk today and have his picture on the wall to remind me to do the right thing.”

Titus is one of many who went to Washington to work for members of Congress and came away with their lives changed. Senator Pat McCarran was most famous in Nevada history for helping residents get through law school, after which they would come home and enter public service. Cannon continued the tradition of pointing young Nevadans in that direction—he even hosted Titus’ first fundraiser when she ran for state Senate in 1988—and now Titus and other members of the Nevada delegation have taken the baton.

Cannon represents what has become a lost art in Washington: He worked well with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. He could be conservative on some issues (he was about as big a supporter of defense projects as you could hope to find) and moderate to liberal on many others. He was a shrewd customer, and he understood how to cut an effective legislative deal. His accomplishments ranged from funding numerous federal projects here to getting Nevada a rebate on slot-machine taxes that could be spent on education.

Titus has fond memories of her time with Cannon, which helped shape her career not only as a politician but also as a scholar who would go on to a three-decade career teaching political science at UNLV. “He had me doing research for his legislation, and the issue of atomic veterans and testing came up. He asked me to look into it for him—and it turned into a book.” (The book, Bombs in the Backyard: Atomic Testing and American Politics, was published in 1986, with a second edition in 2001.) Titus’ research inspired her early on to fight the proposed nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain, and now she’s fighting the plan again.

The fact that she is still having to fight this fight against a foe Nevada thought it had already beaten reminds me of one of my favorite Cannon stories. I asked him what would have happened if Louisiana’s Senator Bennett Johnston had introduced the bill to route waste there while he was still a senator.

“He wouldn’t have, because I was a committee chairman with seniority,” Cannon said. “He knew I would have made Louisiana disappear.”

That’s partly how Congress worked—and sometimes still works. We can all learn a lot from Cannon. Titus did, and her desk is a quiet reminder of that.


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