Why Do We Glorify the Past?

Illustration by Krystal Ramirez

Illustration by Krystal Ramirez

The recent death of Kirk Kerkorian prompted ample commentary about his impact on Las Vegas—which included building hotels and heading corporations that changed how gaming and tourism operate in this state. Just weeks later, the death of Kerkorian’s good friend, former Sheriff Ralph Lamb, inspired nostalgia for the good-old days of Las Vegas, when residents always felt safe and everybody knew each other.

Yes, it was a perfect time to be alive … unless you were female, non-white and not juiced in with the mob. Just like politics used to be perfect before everything became so partisan.

In fact, we may be at a political nadir unseen since the Civil War. But just as the good-old days always have been less good than we’re inclined to remember, for every silly or troubling utterance in Nevada’s political realm, history provides a precedent:

⇐ Assemblywoman Michele Fiore has been keeping state inspectors away from her home health care businesses, which has received $6 million from Medicaid—the very program Fiore wants to eliminate. This seems less ridiculous than her desire to acquire a car horn that sounds like the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazard, which she mentioned recently while defending the Confederate battle flag.

Well, meet James Slattery, a Storey and Washoe county legislator, who warned in the 1960s that the Civil Rights Act would cause us to “lose all our rights.” Slattery demanded the firing of a UNR professor for disagreeing with his opinion that the U.S. should leave the United Nations, and he called that professor and 30 others at UNR communists. And he was in office when each county had a state senator, giving each individual legislator more power. What Slattery’s car horn sounded like is unknown.

⇐ Judged on what he did and how he did it, Michael Roberson was incredibly effective this past spring as state Senate majority leader, passing a lot of Republican-supported legislation. But since one of his accomplishments was helping win approval of a tax hike that would improve education and, theoretically, attract new business, Roberson faces primary opposition in his race for the 3rd Congressional District. Among the challengers is Andy Matthews, formerly of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, which might be called the Fiore of think tanks.

In 1966, Governor Grant Sawyer sought a third term. He wound up with two main primary opponents, one of whom attacked him as too liberal while the other claimed he was too conservative. Then in 2010, after Governor Jim Gibbons had put the state budget through a meat grinder and still had to raise about $50 million in fees, one of his GOP primary challengers accused him of taking a “liberal approach.” Yes, that was Brian Sandoval, who eventually learned to know better.

⇐ Doctor/General/Husband/Father/Good Neighbor Joe Heck is currently running U.S. Senate campaign ads that don’t mention that he belongs to a House Republican caucus that has helped reduce congressional approval ratings to below that of lice.

In 1994, running for his second term, Senator Richard Bryan faced the national Republican wave that gave the GOP control of both houses for the first time in 40 years. He campaigned on a platform of promising to straighten out the government. There’s little doubt that Bryan meant what he said. But he also had held state or federal office continuously since 1969, and criticized his opponent for what he was: a lobbyist. At the same time, Bryan didn’t—nor could he—hide the fact that he was a U.S. senator.

But maybe the good-old days were better. To wit: Jon Ralston, the longtime Nevada political pundit, recently interviewed Steve Wynn (who, coincidentally, eulogized Lamb and had dealings with Kerkorian). Wynn compared the Obama administration’s behavior to that of a Republican president who signed legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency. That president: Richard Nixon.

Ah, Watergate. At least they did make White House scandals better back in the day …

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.